Britain's technology train needs to get back on track, says Paul Burton, but beware any 'back to basics' luggage of coat hooks and sponge puddings.
Rummaging through the plumbers' oddment bin in a bricolage at Concarneau, Brittany, I bumped into a fellow francophile who happened to be a head of technology. Having discussed the idiosyncratic nature of French plumbing systems and the music and lyrics of Melissa Etheridge, our conversation turned to his main disappointments of 1994. These included England not being in the World Cup, the frustration at not being able to use the Channel Tunnel and the outcome of the revised Design and Technology (DT) proposals.
Back at le shack, in the throws of repairing a tank septique, I thought over what he had said. The first two of his disappointments did not unduly bother me, nevertheless they do provide a context for reflecting about the way DT could develop now that schools have received the revised Orders. Having been involved with technology for more than two decades in various capacities, I would like to offer a perspective on some of the issues and challenges facing schools in the next five years in implementing the revised Orders.
The first issue that DT teaching needs to overcome is what I refer to as the "Graham Taylor syndrome". If you knock anything hard and often enough it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and takes on the mantle of defeat, like England's failure to reach the World Cup. Since the early 1970s, DT subjects had been trying to get into the curriculum premier league, alongside the big three core subjects. When that finally was achieved, what happened? The "Taylor brigade" came out in the form of the Smithers and Robinson reports, followed hotly by the OFSTEDHMI supporters club whose reports heavily criticised the teaching of technology; both parties offered very little constructive support.
What is needed in the next five years is a co-ordinated effort - something other than publications to celebrate and promote effective DT practice - to re-enthuse a teaching profession which is still suffering from the effects of "innovation fatigue".
The main issue facing schools in implementing DT is what I refer to as "le Chunnel Vision". Britain sustains a high level of technological innovation in the products and systems it designs and produces, but past and present governments have failed to capitalise on them.
The Channel Tunnel is now in operation, but unlike the French, we lack a sufficiently developed transport infrastructure to exploit its full potential. The mixture of public funding combined with private enterprise does not seem to be producing an effective solution. DT education over the past decade has also fallen under the policy spell of a mixed-economy approach which expounds as one of its main virtues increased "choice and diversity". Such policy dogma can be costly in terms of wasted opportunities and inappropriate use of resources. The past decade has seen millions of pounds of taxpayers' money poured into selected "high-profile" projects such as city technology colleges.
Despite heavy injections of money, the DFE still appears dissatisfied. The message is that schools have not got it right in terms of what technology education is about. Conferences where guest speakers expound upon the virtues and qualities of our European counterparts teaching "woodwork, car maintenance and metalwork" under the guise of "this is good technology education", should be pursued under the Trades Descriptions Act. Good DT education in Britain had already evolved beyond these "craft traditions" and many schools in the early 1970s and 1980s were at the cutting edge of science and technological innovation in education. It would be a retrograde step to pursue this nostalgic approach to a curriculum for the next five years. However, one can already hear the rallying cry of the "back to basics" brigade who interpret Focused Tasks in the revised Orders as the need for a return to real tent pegs, coat hooks, pokers and sponge puddings. Running alongside this, but perhaps not quite as drastic, is the Engineering Council's "Airfix model" approach through its TEP (Technology Enhancement Programme) of modules which supply kits to carry out such exciting and relevant gender stereotyped tasks as making a paper dispenser or miniature generator.
In this era of "choice and diversity" where market forces rule, however, we have on the horizon a plethora of acronym organisations such as DATA, NATHE, SCCST, NAIDT and the Nuffield DT in the throes of producing a vast range of materials based upon their interpretation of the revised Orders.
Also in hot pursuit, particularly at key stage 4, are the examination boards. With a financial turnover possibly bigger than Ladbrokes, they are seizing upon this market opportunity.
In order for the revised Orders to flourish over the next five years, we need to learn from the mistakes made over the past decade, such as the absence of a well defined and co-ordinated "infrastructure" that had a clear strategic overview and support for DT developments. The ingredients for this infrastructure must surely include substantial periods of time for teachers to evaluate, modify and apply curriculum support materials or alternatively produce their own to match the needs of their schools.
Recent accredited primary DT 20-day DFE courses produced jointly by the Essex Development and Advisory Service and Anglia University for 70 teachers have proved to be extremely effective in developing and disseminating good practice in Essex schools. In other LEAs where such joint courses have run, teachers express the potency of such initiatives. This type of training opportunity needs to be accessible in the next five years for all DT teachers both in the primary and secondary sector.
In conjunction, money must be available to improve teaching and learning environments, to invest in people who are trained to use and have access to up-to-date equipment. Attention needs to be given to those schools that have insufficient and inappropriate materials to teach technology.
Past training and curriculum innovations litter the path of technological education in Britain. Who can remember British schools technology buses, HMI Loughborough summer schools, regional and LEA INSET? Many of these highly innovatory training opportunities failed to come to fruition because constituent parts of the main "infrastructure" were missing. How can Channel Tunnel train drivers become proficient in driving a TGV if back at work they only have old diesel trains and poor tracks on which to practise?
Unfortunately some of our schools are in an even worse position with the equivalent of "steam driven" technology rooms in which to teach activities that pupils will find relevant and challenging and meet the needs of the 21st century.
The third issue is that like my francophile colleague I too felt the disappointment in 1994 at receiving a pre-Christmas present from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority in the shape of the revised Orders for DT. Everyone appreciated the need for Dearing's "slimming down" of the national curriculum, but the present Orders for DT border on the anorexic. SCAA has clearly adopted a "lean cuisine" approach, which for many schools offers little nourishment in terms of good sustaining content. What has been given is a basic package of technological generalities that will require still further professional interpretation and de-coding by teachers and other interested parties.
Nevertheless, one can only hope that the powers-that-be learn from their mistakes and that when I bump into my colleague in France in five years' time he will be a satisfied man.
Paul Burton is a curriculum consultant with the Essex Development and Advisory Service. His views do not necessarily reflect those of E