Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, told a one-day conference held jointly by SCAA and the Design Council that design and technology provided "a key aspect of education which is going to become more prominent over the next few years".
The conference was held in London last week to consider the contribution of design and technology to the broader school curriculum and the needs of society and assess if any shift in emphasis was needed. It was attended by more than 150 senior advisers and teachers of the subject and commercial designers and engineers.
Dr Tate said design and technology should develop key skills for employability and citizenship, give young people a practical base and first-hand knowledge of technology and raise awareness and understanding of "a whole range of things, from nuclear power and biotechnology to the use of speed humps on roads".
He said design and technology had a distinctive contribution to make to education but he questioned the present status of the subject. "It may be that we do not always teach it in ways that bring out its full potential," he said.
"Do we make best use of it to promote pupils' aesthetic sense of the role of design in our everyday lives? Do we fully appreciate the way in which it can help us understand the built environment which surrounds us?" Failure to recognise the importance of technology could have dire consequences. Dr Tate, a historian by training, pointed to the example of the stirrup in the development of medieval warfare, rural economics, social attitudes and literature.
"In terms of England's history the failure to make effective use of the stirrup and of cavalry in the Battle of Hastings was, it has been suggested, one reason why England ceased to be an Anglo Saxon kingdom and became part of a wider Norman Empire."
New devices opened doors, he said, but failure to take advantage of inventions could be catastrophic. "What could be more central to a child's education than an understanding of these changes in design and technology and their implications? It is when I see design and technology in this light, alongside the skills for employability it promotes, that I begin to lose patience with those who wish to see a diminished place for the subject within a national curriculum 5-16."
There was a danger that pupils could be "so busy doing that they have had no time for seeing" and consequently fail to develop their practical aesthetic and ethical judgment.
The high level of support from business for design and technology relative to other subjects was an indication of "a widespread feeling among business people that the rest of the curriculum does not do enough to develop skills for employability".
But he added that at present, design and technology may be bearing too much of the burden for skills development which should be curriculum wide.
"We teach people history and mathematics but we are not intending to produce just historians and mathematicians. We need to havea curriculum that enables high-quality product designers to emerge, but at the end of the day that is not what most pupils will be. What we are doing is introducing people to the key elements of a discipline and a way of looking at the world that is at the heart of modern society.
"In some schools, where DT is not valued by teachers, it's no surprise that it's not valued by the pupils either. We need to be more explicit about the vision and the distinctive features of the subject."
A question and answer session with a panel of eminent educationists confirmed that training was a vital factor in the development of the subject.
Primary education consultant Julie Mantell blamed a lack of support for the patchy implementation of the subject among under 11s. "Primary school teachers have to deal with 10 subjects and design and technology is probably something that they have not experienced in their own school life or in their training. Many have had fewer than three or four days' training to teach this area of the curriculum."
Richard Kimbell, director of the technology education research unit at Goldsmiths' College, University of London, said that technology had come from nowhere to occupy a central place in the school curriculum. "Our best technology teachers are the best in the world," he said. "But we have to make sure that that kind of talent becomes much more commonplace."
He said that its great asset was the ability to teach decision-making. "It works in an environment in which the consequences of a decision become very apparent. And you can't hide them - things fall down or are too heavy. Design and technology makes an extremely good vehicle for teaching quality decision-making."
SCAA will be producing a report of the conference proceedings and a discussion paper on the key issues for publication in the New Year