John Eggleston says the UK has much to learn from Botswana about advancing our technological base without turning our back on traditional metal and woodwork skills
British innovation characteristically thrives abroad and, despite being undervalued at home, British design and technology is no exception. It has transformed education in Australia, is being enthusiastically taken up in the United States and Canada and is seen as the way forward in much of southern Africa.
Botswana is leading the way in the region, with a well established and highly developed three-year design and technology programme in its senior secondary schools and a newly-introduced, mandatory three-year programme for junior secondary schools. There are also ambitious plans for extension into primary schools.
With impressive government support the subject enjoys a level of resourcing that, although below what arch-enthusiasts may desire, is the envy of many other countries.
The flow of experts is the reverse of the usual situation - most come not to advise but to be advised. Botswana insists it has its own special needs and therefore needs its own brand of design and technology. British visitors, in particular, find the consistent objectives and absence of curriculum policy U-turns impressive.
The country has a textbook rationale behind the subject's development. After a peaceful but protracted achievement of independence, Botswana is strong in indigenous craft skills using wood and metal, and has a mixed agrarian economy handicapped by climate and terrain and virtually no manufacturing industry. The subsequent exploitation of diamonds, soda ash and other minerals quickly created a great deal of wealth, much of it remaining in the hands of the government. An obvious use for this relative affluence was to cut dependence on manufactured goods from South Africa, and design and technology education was seen as a key element in the change.
So far it seems to be working - graduates of the senior secondary schools with design and technology in their CVs are being well received by the new manufacturing industries. Some 96 per cent of all candidates taking design and technology as part of the certificate of secondary training last year achieved a pass and 43 per cent of the cohort achieved credit levels.
The implementation of existing schemes and the ambitious planning of future developments owes a great deal to the time and energy of Botswana's former education officer for design and technology, Nick Ndaba. He developed the main outlines of the new curriculum in his year of research at Manchester University, a secondment that gave Botswana particularly good value.
Unlike our own more draconian attempt to introduce design and technology, there has been no overnight erasure of woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing. The country respects its tradition of skills and seeks to build on it.
A central theme is that good design should be supported by sound fabrication skills. Botswana argues that it needs crafts people as much as it needs engineers and doctors. Perhaps we should think similarly. The rise of design and technology is taking place alongside a major expansion of junior and senior secondary education. Thirty-one new secondary schools opened in 1996 - many others are being refurbished. All provide full facilities for design and technology.
Around 50 per cent of all senior secondary pupils take design and technology. And by the time the full three-year programme is introduced into the junior secondary schools (the first year has just been completed) all 12 to 14-year-olds will be involved, which, in turn, is likely to lead to a growing involvement of the 14-16 age range.
There are, of course, many problems with such a dramatic expansion. The most formidable is teacher supply. The country relies heavily on expatriates - they account for 35 per cent of design and technology teachers in the junior secondary schools. And the proportion rises to more than 50 per cent in senior secondaries.
Strenuous efforts are being made to train indigenous teachers at Molepolole College of Education. Its three-year course for junior secondary teachers has an intake of 55 a year. An ambitious course for senior secondary teachers is taking place at what was, until recently, Botswana Polytechnic (now part of the University of Botswana) but the output is small - so far only 26 students have completed the five-year programme. So expatriate teachers are still being recruited on a range of short-term contracts, often bringing a confusing range of cultural backgrounds from American industrial arts through to German vocational technology. Even so, the current school year began with a shortfall of 50 teachers.
Strategies to overcome the limited flow of teachers include plans for short, intensive courses taught by invited British institutions working with local staff. There is also an intensive programme of in-service work to enable existing teachers to deliver a full design and technology programme. Other initiatives include the preparation of course books - initially for junior secondary school pupils and their teachers - written by local writers working with the publisher Macmillan Botswana.
Botswana still has some familiar problems. Acceptability of the new subject by parents, teachers and pupils remains incomplete. But the solid, realistic groundwork, the political commitment and the ensuing resource level are creating a strong, forward movement. We have much to learn from this coherent and united approach. It is incremental rather than revisionist, keenly focused, not only on occupational, but also on social needs. The team that undertakes the year 2000 revision of design and technology in the UK would be well advised to make an early visit to Botswana.
John Eggleston acts as consultant, adviser and examiner in Botswana. He is also emeritus professor of education at Warwick University