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RSA pupil awards aim to redefine how design is taught in schools

Angus Montgomery, editor of Design Week, was a judge for this year’s inaugural RSA Pupil Design Awards. Here he talks about the competition, its importance for asking questions about how design is taught to students and why you should get involved next year.

The RSA Pupil Design Awards, which launched this year, aim to provide a template for how design can successfully be taught in schools.

The practice of design is not just about making things but also about thinking in a creative and unexpected way and about constantly asking questions. Hence it is, unsurprisingly, a challenging subject to teach. One designer complained to me recently about how his 14-year-old son was taught at school how to make an ashtray, rather than being taught to ask whether or not the ashtray was necessary.

The RSA Pupil Design Awards aim to provide a new model for design teaching – to inspire pupils to think differently about design and to use their skills and passions to tackle real-world problems.

The scheme has been piloted in the RSA’s three academies and is aimed at 14- to 19- year-olds. Pupils can respond to a series of briefs based around issues such as transport and aging and are supported by mentors from the RSA’s sister programme the RSA Student Design Awards, which is aimed at university students.

At every stage, the pupils are encouraged to question their assumptions, to gather research and to interrogate their ideas.

Following a shortlisting process, a selected group of the students came to London to present their designs to me and my two fellow judges, RSA Student Design Awards director Sevra Davis and Clare Cunningham, director at 3D print service provider Faberdashery.

The design concepts themselves were impressive, ranging from a redesign of school bus seats to a proposal for a ‘community aisle’ in supermarkets. Just as impressive was the maturity and confidence of the pupils.

As Sevra Davis says, “It was clear that all of them had discovered a passion for design and confidence in themselves throughout the process.”

The awards scheme features the Progress Award, which is given to the pupil who has shown the most development and improvement throughout the process.

This year’s Progress Award was won by Ilyas Mohammed, a Year 10 student at Holyhead School (pictured above). Ilyas, along with his partner, developed an ingenious method of reusing grey water through a modified sink plunger, but confided to me during the judging that when the Pupil Design Awards began, he couldn’t be bothered to take part.

Now, in the words of his teacher, "His enthusiasm is infectious and his motivation is undeniable…I genuinely believe he has thoroughly enjoyed participating and being given an opportunity and chance to shine."

The RSA’s Hilary Chittenden, who organised the Pupil Design Awards, says, "I think what made this project particularly successful was not just giving the students the opportunity and freedom to focus on a real subject and solution that they felt passionate about, but also giving other more experienced designers the power to create (or at least influence) a new generation of socially minded designers."

Following its pilot stage, the RSA is looking to roll out the Pupil Design Awards to 50 schools across the country next year. If you would like to get involved, support the programme or find out more, contact


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