These are crucial times for key stage 3 design and technology. Fail to capture a pupil's imagination in Years 7-9 and he or she could be lost to the subject for good. To raise standards and ensure that pupils engage with the subject, the KS3 national strategy has turned its spotlight on DT. The thrust is clear: greater emphasis on design; the need to put design in social and consumer context; ideas and teamwork to the fore.
A vivid example of the mindset that needs changing comes from Richard Green, deputy chief executive of the Design and Technology Association (DATA). "I know of schools saying, almost as a punishment, 'If you aren't doing your practical work, you'll have to do design work instead,'" he says. For him, the joy of DT is "the results of decision-making made tangible".
This is the first time DATA has been approached by the DfES to work on improving the situation. Richard Green says: "With DT becoming a statutory entitlement at KS4 this year, if we don't get this right, if we can't enthuse and engage pupils, we'll lose them."
Ian Williams, in charge of design and technology at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says the scheme will ensure that teachers can provide a more rounded approach. "Ofsted has long told us that the making element is much stronger than design. But many staff aren't confident around the use of new technology," he says.
As well as the paucity of design skills, the DfES's KS3 national strategy briefing document for DT lists other problems. It says achievement is good in fewer than 60 per cent of schools, and that units repeat design skills but fail to develop them. There's too much emphasis on a linear, analytical design model, and links are not made between different strands of design and technology.
That's not something that can be turned round overnight, but the process is under way. The new approach took six months to develop, and has been piloted by 80 schools in 10 LEAs in England. Keith Meyrick, head of DT at Haybridge School in Hagley, Worcerstershire, is positive about the changes.
He says: "We were able to sharpen up lessons at KS3, make them much more attractive and better to teach. It took the design process, broke it down into various aspects, and gave a clear objective. We did product analysis using a mobile phone, so kids got a far better understanding of how something has been made and designed, and its function in society. I think they loved it."
Pilot consultants were on hand to lead training, help the review process, support planning sessions, provide examples of designing activities and co-teach lessons. What did the pupils make of it? According to feedback collated by consultant Louise Davies, who was a member of the QCA DT team, ideas improved and designs were more creative. "They had thoughts about function and aesthetics, and became more discriminating," she says. "The quality of making and the final product were enhanced because they were well designed. There was a concern that developing ideas was very important."
The objectives described what pupils would learn, not the practical skills or activities they were engaged in. The framework made clear how work and pupils are expected to progress. Schools, she said, were reviewing how to make rotational courses better. With training modules adapted to a variety of starting points, teachers were, on the whole, pleased to have greater flexibility.
Many staff were aware of the boredom that comes with repeating the same process, but some struggled to find new replacement projects. And there was some disquiet that increasing the time required to teach design would be at the expense of making. "My concern is that the quality of made products will deteriorate," said one teacher.
DT advisers from LEAs around the country are now being trained. Earlier this month, advisers and heads of department in Bath were regaled by a blast of opera from a PowerPoint presentation on the first session of a three-day course. They were then asked to contemplate the future - what will DT look like in five years' time? Sharing ideas - another DfES priority - is central to the sessions. Groups of four or five participants pooled ideas and commented throughout. Among the sentiments on day one: "No student should fail if a design doesn't work - that's part of the design process"; and "Pupils need to be more informed as consumers."
In December, and again at Easter, LEAs will offer teachers an initial one-day training session. There's also the possibility of extra training through a modular programme that offers flexibility and aims at meeting a school's individual needs. The target is for 75 per cent of DT departments to be engaged by next September. Participants will get a folder containing the framework, the guidance and hard copies of modules 1-4, together with a DVD with all video footage and a CD-Rom including all modules, enabling them to personalise their use of the training. They will also get a pack containing 80 activities, most of them shorter than 30 minutes, for use with different year groups. These cover recognised design sub-skills: exploring; generating and developing ideas; planning; and evaluating.
Many teachers say they have long missed having an LEA subject consultant to lead or support training sessions, and few schools have had DT in-service training in recent years. "DT teachers need to go for training and to access money," says training consultant Jackie Price. "If you don't ask, you won't get." A comment from one teacher illustrates the uphill battle.
"We have to train in our time - that's why DT teachers are a rarity," she says.
By lunch on day one, most of the DT professionals seemed impressed with the new approach. Asked by Jackie Price to write a "Times" headline on a Post-it note about their thoughts, comments were overwhelmingly favourable.
"Toddler takes first step," read one. But there were a couple of dissenters. "Unconvincing"I "Government confuses education again."
Kim Airey, head of faculty at Highworth Warneford School, near Swindon, was with the majority. "We need to embrace modern society," she said. "But teachers need time to plan... to think it through logically."
Vince Marriott, DT adviser for Wiltshire, was also enthusiastic. "This is dealing with a problem that's been around a long time," he said. "Children have to become independent learners. I think more than 50 per cent of teachers will find it manna from heaven. Now exam boards have got to change - at the moment they measure skills, not the learning process. Skills are easy; learning is less tangible."
* Design and Technology Association: www.data.org.uk
DfESQCA scheme of work for DT: www.standards.dfes.gov.ukschemes Attainment target for DT:
Assessment in DT: www.ncaction.org.uk
ICT objectives: www.nc.uk.netICT-home.htm