Design and Technology - Link between creativity and practicality

8th April 2011 at 01:00
Industrialist and inventor Sir James Dyson

Chancellor George Osborne wants us to make things. This requires inventors, and to inspire them science and maths must be fused to a practical hands-on reality. One subject does this: design and technology. But it is under threat.

Education secretary Michael Gove has his "golden five": maths, science, English, a humanity and a language. Yes, academic rigour is important, but polymaths are not created from maths and English alone. Ingenious and creative problem-solvers don't blossom from a whiteboard or an exam paper; they need the freedom to experiment, make mistakes, invent (and reinvent).

Design and technology (DT) is a primary school favourite, and it is the most popular option at GCSE. Nearly 300,000 students study it every year. And it is prestigious; A-level product design is a valid entry qualification for engineering courses at Russell Group universities.

But the subject is being eroded. Numbers passing at GCSE have fallen by 30 per cent since it was made non-statutory from the age of 14. Conversely, in China, where "general technology" is compulsory, engineering graduates are more plentiful than in any other country. It is no accident that they file more patents than America.

George Osborne's budget will boost enterprise and exports. But if the Government is serious about reasserting Britain's position as a hi-tech nation, DT must be available to all. It signposts future careers such as engineering and science (where we are sadly lacking skills), and is an outlet for creativity.

Last year the Conservative party asked for my thoughts on how we can make the UK the leading hi-tech exporter in Europe. The resulting Ingenious Britain report emphasised the critical need to build a future generation of intelligent, practical, swift risk-takers. DT is a great starting point.

But, like engineering, it has an image problem: old workshops, old teachers, out-of-date projects - and, dare I say, a subject for the less academically able. This is perception, not fact. But it needs to change for our "makings things" budget to have longevity.

Yes, I agree with Ofsted: schools must modernise the teaching of DT for it to keep up with industry. But standards will not be raised by the Government marginalising DT, cuts in recruitment targets and quangos criticising from the sidelines. We must invest in teacher training. The outstanding, and world-leading, DT teaching I have seen must not be lost.

Inspiring teachers such as Steven Parkinson, our DT teacher of the year, are a case in point. By enthusing students he has achieved excellent results, and is now sharing his knowledge of the latest technologies with colleagues. We need more Stevens; we must train and continue to train them.

Teachers have the power to inspire and excite. But it is a fast-moving subject, so lesson plans and resources must keep pace. The subject must evolve. It should be forward looking, engaging, and have its foundations in the latest technology, continually involving the people who actually develop it.

Industry will provide the latest fodder for these creative minds. We are trying this through the James Dyson Foundation, providing Dyson machines and parts to be pulled apart and analysed in schools. We are disappointed when they come back in one piece. Learning by doing brings the subject alive, and we challenge children to improve our technology.

Modern DT should sit alongside science and maths - grounding abstract theory. It should have the academic rigour of engineering, attracting the brightest minds, and it should be logical, creative, and practical, inspiring young problem-solvers. "Brand" can be a hollow word if the product is not exciting, but in this case, I think a "re-brand" would help. DT becomes design, technology and engineering - DTE.

If, as a result of the curriculum review, DT is made non-compulsory, it is sure to be sidelined. A relatively expensive subject, headteachers will drop it and it will become a privilege enjoyed by the few, to the detriment of our national inventiveness.

I believe in DTE. It should be part of the national curriculum, and statutory at key stages 1 to 3. I have signed the Design and Technology Association's manifesto. Please join me.

Sir James Dyson is an industrial designer and inventor, and patron of the Design and Technology Association. Its manifesto is at

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