In pursuit of the perfect box

Stephen Johnson

I got it! This summer I got an A for GCSE technology! Well done, you might say. But the fact is, I m not actually very good at it.

Since Year 7, we have been meeting "targets" in technology. We have researched, looked at ways of solving, met and fulfilled various needs such as where to put old magazines. (Does "in a box" really require a 20-page project?) This is all very well, but when the subject was made compulsory for GCSE, it was somewhat worrying. No one had actually taken it seriously. It wasn't something we had ever imagined we would take into the big wide world with a grade attached to.

Neverterless, we were given a choice of three different subjects - food technology (cookery), graphics (technical drawing), or art (cruelly deprived of a technologically advanced name.) Those doing cookery or graphics also had to do CDT (woodwork) for half the timetable.

If by now you are confused, spare a thought for all those state-school pupils who had two years of total confusion. Private schools were not forced into it, as if the Government thought they were doing a favour to us dull middle classes who needed practical skills and couldn't find anything better to do with our time. The problem was, we didn't learn any practical skills whatsoever. We spent our lessons aimlessly pursuing the task of making a box.

When it began, our teacher didn't seem to know what was going on, but then neither did anyone. "Make a box," he said, "and have it finished within two years." It seemed ridiculous at this stage that we had two whole years, so we relaxed. This, however, turned out to be a bad idea.

For the best part of three months we had a wonderful time cutting bits of wood and sticking them to other bits. In the "extension" subject, the graphics, we did more cutting and sticking, only with bits of paper instead. It wasn't until Christmas that we finally began to worry, noticing that our boxes looked as if they had been thrown together in about 10 minutes.

Our graphics teacher told us about the targets, needs and design specifications that had to be met and also showed us some examples of the kind of things we should be making - I think I would have found making a television set easier. He was quick to explain that when he had phoned the exam board to let them know there would be nothing of this standard coming from our school they had told him it didn't matter because these were examples of A-level technology work!

We also had the jargon to cope with - for example: "Review the design proposal during planning and making and show resourcefulness and adaptability in modifying the design in the light of constraints to make a high quality product." This, roughly translated, means make a few changes to your box after pretending that you've run out of what you need half way through. All our CDT teacher could say was: "Stick with me. You'll be all right."

Our graphics teacher didn't seem to understand the course much better. Over two years, three different marking schemes were issued, further confusing those like himself with the task of grading the projects. Some had started marking with the first scheme, others with the second. Others had marked with the first and then been told to mark it all over again with the second. The third scheme was the final straw. Eventually the exam board said any of the three schemes could be used, which caused even more annoyance.

Unfortunately, we had no idea what we were supposed to be doing in CDT because we hadn't been told. Eventually, when it came to exam time we were presented with a sheet which told us all about looking at storage in the community, types of storage methods we might like to try, ideas as to what we could store, what specifications our storage design should have and generally how to plan retrospectively the making of the box we had just finished, not forgetting to make some mistakes for extra marks (modification). On top of the dozen or so sheets that we suddenly had to scrawl for coursework, we had to cram for the never-before-sat mock exam, temporarily shunting the remaining mound of coursework to the back of our minds.

At the end of Year 10, I got a B for my CDT element and a B for my graphics, which somehow combined to give an overall A. I wasn't going to complain.

At the beginning of Year 11 the Government decided it hadn't been such a good idea after all - technology shouldn't have been made compulsory. A lot of people dropped it, left with four empty periods a week in which they could have been studying something they were good at. But, of course, technology had shown them how to fulfil needs and spend months working out that they were going to make a box, hadn't it? Or at least work it out retrospectively. It had met its mission to prepare them for life after state school.

Everyone suddenly realised that perhaps it was time to start doing something. Time to start writing retrospectively about the boxes they had taken the whole of Year 10 to produce, and lie about all the research and development they had done before beginning to make their now modified design. Any sensible person wouldn't need to modify their design, which is probably one of the areas where the sensible people lost marks.

In our final exam, we could answer about three questions. Apparently the home economics paper required the candidate to write detailed recipes and recall food additive E numbers. Our CDT-based paper was marginally worse, as we hadn't studied the topics on which we were being questioned.

No one was expecting good marks in technology, but I suspected that everyone would do a lot better than anticipated. What no one but me seemed to realise was that although our school had made a complete mess of the subject, all the other schools had made an even bigger mess. Having forced everyone into doing technology and then having suffered the embarrassment of scrapping the idea after one year, the exam board wasn't going to make even bigger idiots of themselves by publishing the inevitably dreadful results. So all I can conclude is that for the minuscule amount of the exam paper I filled in, the pathetic attempt at a CDT project I produced and my graphics project added to that, my grade was going to be upped - so I got an A!

If someone asked me to make a decent piece of furniture now, I wouldn't have a clue. So how's that for the technological advancement of the dull middle classes?

Stephen Johnson, 17, is now studying for A-levels at Bury College.

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