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Tall Order for short courses?

With four GCSE short courses entering the curriculum next year, Clare Jenkins finds teachers unconvinced by SCAA's promises. From September 1996, four GCSE (Short Course) qualifications will be available, in design and technology, modern languages, information technology and RE.

Teachers are worried about them; the Design and Technology Association has "severe reservations"; the National Design and Technology Education Foundation, who helped draw them up, would none the less prefer schools not to run them; and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is trying to calm everyone's fears.

Each short course will fill 5 per cent of curriculum time and cover half the content of a full GCSE. Confused? As Steve Cushing of NDTEF says: "If you're not confused, you're not up to date."

A brief history: initially, technology (then known as CDT) was optional in schools. Under the national curriculum, it became compulsory. Sir Ron Dearing's review brought in flexibility, giving the subject a key position but at a more limited level than the core subjects. So students following current full GCSE courses are doing a 5 per cent construction core (one that uses resistant materials) and a 5 per cent extension, for example electronics, textiles or food technology. In the new courses they will be able, via either a full 10 per cent or short 5 per cent course, to dispense with the core and choose instead an overall designing and making specialisation such as food technology, textiles or control technology, through which the whole course will be filtered. By 1995, every key stage 4 pupil will be doing the equivalent of a short course in design and technology.

According to Anne Waldon, design and technology subject officer at SCAA, what schools will now see is "a settling down period in DT". She believes the new system will clarify things for students and teachers alike. "The curriculum will be easier to organise and manage," she says, "and the new courses will be simpler and more straightforward to teach. Also, because of the new grade descriptions, teachers will find the assessment system (where the two 'halves' will be marked separately, then mathematically integrated for an amalgamated grade) makes more sense and is much less bureaucratic than in previous combined courses, where subjects such as business studies and design and technology have had different assessment objectives."

She believes the new system will also overcome the timetabling problem of students not always getting the combination they want. Now, there will be more opportunities to specialise. "We're not only training technologists, but giving everyone an understanding of how technology works." The new system offers a broader, student-based definition of technology based on users, quality and production: "And whether you do that with wood or plastics or textiles doesn't matter so much. It's an appropriate view of technology, where the pragmatic and the philosophical come together."

However, Andy Breckon, chief executive of the Design and Technology Association, questions the quality of the learning experience in a short course, especially for design and technology. Can you, he asks, do viable, progressive designing and making activities (ones that extend rather than repeat the work done at key stage 3, and that cover the subject in depth) in a mere 5 per cent time allocation, as well as allowing pupils to take responsibility for their own learning?

"Gillian Shephard wants exam boards to design courses that are feasible within a year," he says. "But if you take the 5 per cent route over two years, the way the course has to be structured leads to difficulty in creating sufficient depth in the project work in one hour and ten minutes a week.

"If, however, you try to do it in the one year - the 10 per cent option - and if you do that in Year 10, you have to find something else to do in Year 11, while if you do it in Year 11, the students will have had a total break in their experience of design and technology. So the timetable arrangements for operating the course on a 5 per cent or one year basis are complex and challenging in terms of continuity and progression."

As a chief examiner for A and AS-levels, he feels a parallel can be drawn between short course GCSEs and AS levels "where you end up doing two thirds of the work in half the time. That's OK at A-level, where students have more time for self-study. But Year 10 and 11 pupils are fully timetabled."

Anne Waldon understands such anxiety, but argues that discussions with the exam boards have sought to produce an "appropriate" amount of content for the time available. "You really can get good designing and making experience which leads you to understand how and why things are made in 5 per cent of the time," she believes.

Andy Breckon is still not convinced. "If it's going to have comparable students designing and making, it has to have some maturity about it, not about doing things to half the depth or doing more complicated tasks on the full course and less on the short course. Design doesn't work like that, because designing a new paperclip can be more difficult than designing an electronic calculator."

Steve Cushing of NDTEF has been involved in the development of short courses from the beginning, and will be involved in supporting schools that choose to do them. But, though he recognises short courses as an interim answer to existing progress, he shares some of Andy Breckon's concerns. Particularly about the threat to compulsory technology for all, and to practical work.

"Decisions can give strange messages," he says. "A decision that it's possible to do something in 5 per cent of the time can lead to it being seen as desirable to do so." But he believes it is still better to have a short compulsory design and technology course than an optional full one. "Technology is the key to our future," he says. "But it's expensive, in terms of equipment and staff-pupil ratios, and in the use of materials. It's also difficult to timetable in an already overcrowded curriculum."

So his fear is that, after a hard-won fight to make technology compulsory, the short courses could lead to an erosion of the subject's importance in some schools.

For the moment, he is adopting a policy of "wait and see". Andy Breckon agrees: "We have severe reservations - though we're not condemning the courses out of hand." But Anne Waldon is optimistic: "We hope many students will opt to do a full GCSE, but short courses will offer the best way of keeping all students involved in technology to key stage 4."

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