Picking up the bits and pieces

26th April 1996 at 01:00
Professor Alan Smithers laments underfunding in technology, which is forcing teachers to scavenge for materials. It is proving very difficult to establish technology as a school subject. Made a statutory requirement of the national curriculum in 1988, it has still not fully bedded down. There seem to have been two main problems deciding exactly what it is, and finding the money to pay for it.

The nature of school technology appears to have been, to some extent, resolved. The fierce battles which saw five curriculm re-writes in six years seem to have been quieted by Sir Ron Dearing's general review. But the present calm may be a lull rather than wholehearted acceptance.

The immediate outcome of Sir Ron's review was to leave us with three versions of technology running in parallel. Some schools stayed with the first Order based on generalised problem solving, some switched to the new Order emphasising designing and making, but about a quarter reverted, as they were entitled, to the optional pre-national-curriculum arrangements at key stage 4. It is only from September that the full impact of the new Order will be felt, with compulsory technology, a short course at least, for all 14 to 16-year-olds in state schools in England (although not in Wales).

Already the National Association of Head Teachers has written to the Secretary of State warning her that the new requirements cannot be met. Its main concern is money. In scaling up from craft, design and technology andor home economics for a few pupils to technology for all pupils, there are many implications for accommodation, equipment and running costs not to mention staffing and back up. But these do not appear to have been fully thought through.

On accomodation and equipment, the Government's approach has been through competitive bidding. There was first the Technology Schools Initiative. Local authorities were invited to select up to two bids from their secondary schools for capital development. Separate bids were allowed from grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools. In two rounds, in 19923 and 19934, 222 schools in England and a further 27 in Wales each received, on average, Pounds 225, 000 towards capital projects.

Then the emphasis shifted to trying to revive the stalled City Technology Colleges initiative by developing Technology Colleges from existing schools. Originally the scheme was limited to the grant maintained and voluntary aided, but in November 1994 it was extended to all state secondary schools. Up to Pounds 100,000 can be provided from public funds to match sponsorship from business as an initial capital grant, and further grants based on pupil numbers can be made for two more years if certain performance criteria are met.

Some schools quickly plugged themselves into selective funding. One 11-18 mixed comprehensive we know became, in rapid succession, grant maintained, a TSI school and then a technology college, on each occasion receiving a substantial financial boost. Not surprisingly those schools that bid successfully were delighted by the schemes. At the last count there were 316 technology schools in total. But that still leaves more than 90 per cent of state secondary schools out in the cold, frustrated that they have not been selected and chaffing at the unfairness of it all.

Other schools have benefited from local initiatives, but the great majority are having to cope as best they can with rooms designed for other purposes. Too often these are cramped, scattered about the school, and without adequate display or storage space. At the extreme they can be just wooden huts. Upgrading a few schools does point the way forward and shows what can be done, but it does not square with the stated aim of good technology for all.

Even in those schools where the technology accommodation and equipment have been improved, there is not always enough money to meet running costs. The Design and Technology Association in its 19945 survey estimated that a capitation allowance of about Pounds 9.30 per pupil would have been reasonable for secondary schools. But it found that, on average, technology departments were receiving only Pounds 5.03. Ofsted has reported a similar figure. In one TSI school we visited it was less than Pounds 2 per head. The head of technology drily commented that, "we're getting very little money, we're getting no technician and we say we are a technology school."

In a survey of a representative 10 per cent sample of secondary schools, including technology schools, which we have recently completed for the Engineering Council, we found that more than 90 per cent were receiving less than the amount deemed reasonable by DATA. In some cases it was less than Pounds 1 per pupil with the lowest being 40p.

Capitation seems to have suffered generally through the government's failure to fully fund the teachers' 1995 pay award, and technology suffers more than most if the headteacher does not like or understand it.

Inadequate money has left technology teachers struggling to find the necessary materials. They are having to beg, borrow and scrounge resources, even to the point of picking their way through industry skips or using reclaimed materials like old desk tops. It has also meant that technology in practice is being determined more by what can be afforded than what is intended, with a lot of cheap work using paper and card and bits and pieces.

Schools have also had to make savings by losing staff, both teachers and technicians. Nearly half the schools in our survey did not have access to the equivalent of a full-time technician and 10 per cent had no technical support at all.

No matter how good the curriculum and the jury is still out on that if teachers have to spend their time scavenging for materials, if they have to use ordinary classrooms instead of workshops, if they have too many pupils per group to work safely, if the necessary equipment is not there, if there is no technical back-up, then it is not going to result in good technology.

If the government is serious about technology for all it will have to find the finance. As one of the technology heads in our survey commented, "the lack of money defeats the purpose of the subject." That says it all.

Technology Extra, centre pull-out Alan Smithers is Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University. His latest report with Pamela Robinson for the Engineering Council, Technology in Schools, is due to be published soon TES2 april 26 1996 pictures: christopher jones

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