Curriculum - Designed for living

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Sustainability now forms an integral part of the DT curriculum, and pupils must consider the environmental impact of their work from the outset. Meabh Ritchie reports on how the new value-driven agenda is being embedded

It's a familiar image that could adorn coffee chains across Western Europe: an attractive woman looking pensive, having a drink in a generic cafe. But the difference with the poster on which this image is shown is that it was designed by a Year 10 design and technology pupil, and is accompanied by three further photographs of tea farmers underneath, telling the story of the chain of events starting in Kenya that made her drink possible.

"The girl at the top is very middle class, enjoying her cup of tea," says Ricardo Arbelaez, DT teacher at the Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough, whose pupils were tasked with designing Fairtrade posters like this for a competition run by PrintIT!, an initiative to help young people to improve their knowledge and experience of the UK printing industry.

"She seems oblivious to the link between her experience of drinking tea and the fact that the people who brought the tea to her cup earn so little," he adds.

In September, sustainability became an integral part of the DT curriculum. Just like professional designers, pupils at key stage 3 and 4 levels need to understand the environmental, ethical and social dimensions of their design and how it impacts the world. Pupils have always had to be aware of how products contribute to lifestyle and consumer choice, but now this has to include ethical choices and the impact they make on the wider consumer market.

PrintIT!'s annual competition, now in its fifth year, provides younger pupils in Year 9 and 10 with the opportunity and incentive to create two products, one print-based. Pupils have to envisage the Fairtrade Foundation as their client, so sustainability has to be at the heart of the product design.

PrintIt! is now in its fifth year and 1,000 schools and more than 85,000 pupils have taken part in the competition so far. To enter this year's (200910) competition, pupils have to design and produce a poster and a shelf-wobbler (a marketing flyer that hangs from shop shelves) to display in supermarkets to try to attract costumers to Fairtrade products. There is a list of guidelines on using the black, blue and green Fairtrade logo that pupils need to adhere to, just as they would when working with any professional client's logo.

Consumers traditionally associate Fairtrade with coffee, chocolate and bananas, the charity's three top-selling products. However, there is more to Fairtrade values than that. "Fairtrade is not just about food - it is also to do with craft, product design and economics," says Mr Arbelaez.

Pupils at the Thomas Deacon Academy already have a school allotment, and this year they are looking to forge a link with the Co-operative Group to incorporate the chain of ethical growing, producing and selling into the running of the school.

Before training as a teacher, Mr Arbelaez worked in the creative industry on community inclusion projects for Tribal Education and Technology, a public services consultancy, and he is keen for his pupils to see the connection between their design work and the wider world.

"The best posters (for the PrintIt! competition) were by the pupils who took a political look at Fairtrade issues and looked at the lives of farmers in developing countries," he says. "They looked at the reality of life for these people and how hard they have to work for very little money. One pupil looked at mangoes, from how much they cost to grow, how much the farmers get paid (sometimes only 20p a day) and how much we pay for it in the shops. For a big mango, some people might pay up to #163;2.50 or even #163;3."

This topic might traditionally be covered as part of food technology or geography, but looking at the issue can inspire a better product design, whether that is to advertise for the cause or to develop a product solution.

Originally from Colombia, Mr Arbelaez also uses recycled jewellery from his home country to show his pupils examples of how other cultures with very different economic demands reuse and recycle. The jewellery is made of organic material such as seed from various tropical trees or from fruit such as coconut shells or guadua, a Latin American type of bamboo.

"DT already incorporates elements of maths, science, and textiles or materials," he says. "Fairtrade is one of the most cross-curricular activities as it brings teachers from different backgrounds and disciplines together, so they can work collaboratively with their pupils to discuss and formulate possible solutions for complex issues such as fairness, sustainability, social inclusion and the environment."

Thomas Deacon is a maths and science academy, and the majority of its pupils can look forward to a career in engineering, architecture, construction, graphic design, textiles or even fashion design. And sustainability is fast becoming a priority in all these fields of employment.

DT pupils must also think about reducing the energy involved in production. "Certainly, even within the engineering community, there is an awareness about the need to reduce carbon emmissions, and the best way to be sustainable is to incorporate that within the original design," says Julie Pollard, an education officer at Practical Action, a charity that promotes appropriate technology to challenge poverty.

Climate change is such a vast issue that it is difficult to relate to pupils' immediate lives, especially for young people who tend not to think about the long-term impact of climate change or about growing up in an environment that is rapidly deteriorating. But there are plenty of opportunities in DT for pupils to think about constructive solutions to these wider issues.

"We want the next generation to be as aware as possible about sustainable issues, and to incorporate their understanding into the design process," says Ms Pollard. "At GCSE level, pupils have to evaluate the material they are using, where it comes from and how much energy the product is going to use up. If it is a lamp, for example, how can they power that lamp using less energy?

"Being sustainable is about taking responsibility for reducing waste and energy usage and where possible using renewable energy sources as an alternative to fossil fuels. By being more sustainable we minimise polluting the environment and the resulting destruction caused by climate change," adds Ms Pollard.

Many schools have incorporated the three Rs - reduce, reuse and recycle - into classroom learning and the whole-school ethos, whether it is in the canteen or the classroom. DT departments should now be encouraging schools to further adhere to the six Rs of sustainability: rethink, refuse, reuse, reduce, repair, recycle. Pupils at Cockshut Hill Technology College in Birmingham even collect scraps of plastic and cut them up into squares to send out to primary schools, which can use them to make mosaics.

Looking at issues of sustainability and ethical production helps pupils to get a sense of the wider issues of design and technology in a practical way, says Jon Lambert, DT teacher at Aylesbury High School. "The younger generation is very much into this now, and it links in with our school ethos of being environmentally friendly. We really try to encourage that throughout the school," he says. "They are interested in the wider topic and the competition brings that together with the environmental aspect - which material is best to use, what is cost effective."

The future of the environment and sustainability are global issues that can be difficult to put into context for pupils. However, DT plays a major role in giving pupils the skills to think about the products they use in their lives - not to mention principles they can apply in the professional role of a designer, if they choose to follow that route


- For more information about the PrintIt! competition, go to

- The Global Dimension website has resources for teaching global issues in DT and other subjects.

- The Sustainability Handbook for DT teachers has plenty of material and ideas to enable pupils to produce sustainable designs and products.

- Focus on Fairtrade, a resource for KS2 and 3 is available from

- For more information and educational resources from Practical Action, go to http:practicalaction.orgeducation

- The Design and Technology Association provides information and advice for primary and secondary DT teachers.

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