Less academically able pupils can achieve results and even outshine their high-flying peers in DT. Schools ignore this at their peril, writes John Eggleston. Every design and technology teacher knows that the subject has always been able to offer a great deal to children of average and below average ability. Its practical, creative nature, its lesser reliance on complex verbal and written communication and its opportunities for satisfying results all make the topic a key curriculum offering for them.
Yet despite their undoubted achievements, few below average children are likely to achieve high measured scores in design and technology, fewer still are likely to reach high examination grades.
The pressure on teachers in mainstream schools to achieve high-level scores and superior examination grades in their subject make them less enthusiastic to attract lower achieving pupils. The "academicisation" of the subject with its strong emphasis on written and drawn design, involving research and planning, is a further deterrent.
Another problem is the stigma that attaches to any subject that sets out to offer real achievement to lower ability children. It runs the risk of being labelled academically undemanding and therefore avoided as a "soft option" by ambitious children and their parents. If design and technology "opts out" of its key role in the education of the less academically able children, it will not only be morally unacceptable, it will also have failed to ensure that many of them are still well equipped to do the jobs our society needs - to be skilled and respected craftspeople, maintenance workers, and service tradespeople - vital and necessary careers that schools ignore at their peril.
The recent Tomlinson report on special needs and further education makes the same point forcibly. By targeting such pupils in school, design and technology can bring them into the world of continuing education which is being developed at all levels - notably the general national vocational qualification system - from which many less academic children are being excluded by low teacher expectations.
Design and technology teachers urgently need to recall their commitment to these ordinary children; the rewards are considerable and worth listing. The subject recognises that, despite lower academic ability, many children can achieve results that stand comparison with, and may even outshine, their high-flying peers.
It offers them a chance to experience achievement at a level that they may seldom find elsewhere in school. It provides new three-dimensional experiences that enhance and help the two-dimensional ones that constitute much of their curriculum. It gives them a route into employment and mainstream life generally. The subject offers children negotiable achievement which can be recorded and recognised, while, for teachers, it delivers a new area of professional achievement with an often dramatic difference between "before" and "after".
What does design and technology have to do to ensure this? Clearly, it must continue to enable all children to obtain maximum accreditation through GCSE, national vocational qualification and leaving certification. But it must do more; it must: * leave no opportunity unused to display the quality and worth of all children's achievement through school displays, speech days, parents' evening and local shows, preferably with the children there to enjoy the recognition * enter all possible local, regional and national competitions - many of which offer incentives within the reach of children with a wide range of ability * listen to the voices of the less able children. Mel Lloyd-Smith and J D Davies's insightful book On the Margins is one of the few in which they are clearly heard * make the work of "ordinary" children known to employers so that they can lose some of their obsession with formal accreditation and take a wider view of what counts as achievement.
Part of the design and technology teachers' mission must be to demonstrate that formal accreditation is not the only criterion for employment and that relevant achievement, attitude and motivation are key characteristics of employability. This involves a realisation that young people with lower abilities are a central component of modern labour forces in construction, transport, communications, commerce, public services and almost all other areas of modern labour forces because their special capabilities can be appropriate even though their general abilities are limited.
Design and technology teachers and all who run our schools must realise that pupils of below average ability are entitled to a full role in modern society and that society needs them to occupy it. The subject provides a key route for them to successful lifestyles, further educational achievement and recognition.
The new edition of John Eggleston's book Teaching Design and Technology is published by the Open University Press, Pounds 12.99. M Lloyd-Smith and J D Davies's book On the Margins is published by Trentham Books, Pounds 13. 95 John Eggleston is professor of education at the University of Warwick