In her key stage 2 class at a city centre primary school, the class teacher is finishing a project on the effects of friction. Simple rubber-band-powered cardboard vehicles, made by the children, run over rough, smooth, polished and liquid surfaces. The children plot and discuss the results. The teacher, helped by a supportive head and an inspirational in-service course, is as enthusiastic as the children. Later, she plans to work on power units and control and is confident of success. Meanwhile, in the class next door another teacher has a similarly engaging project on insulation.
The teachers, like many thousands of others, have pioneered a wholly new field of knowledge which, a decade ago, was almost unknown in the primary school curriculum. They are developing a range of life skills that their children are likely to find crucial in the coming century. It all began when design and technology became a required subject in key stages 1 and 2. The initial anxieties of teachers and the frustrating dearth of resources and in-service training gave it a slow start. But it has now turned into one of the most exciting developmental areas in the whole of primary education.
Under the last government, with its commitment to enhancing basic skills in schools, there had been constant pressure to constrain and constrict design and technology. Projects have not been allowed to over-run; in some cases have not been seen through to completion. Shortage of timetable space has been exacerbated by the burgeoning demands for yet more time to be devoted to language and mathematics. Now, under our new and, it is to be hoped, more enlightened Government, the pressures on basic competences seem even greater. Concepts of zero tolerance and minimum achievement in an ever-narrowing range of attainments seem part of every ministerial speech on education and a major theme of Excellence in Schools.
Design and technology is not the only endangered subject. Inspired work in art, where children learn to develop their creative capabilities in colour, shape, texture and style, are equally vulnerable. History projects, in which children from diverse ethnic backgrounds study and learn from their family and community history, are similarly under threat. Yet these activities involve some of the greatest achievements of primary education, in which Britain has been seen to lead the world. Sadly, they are difficult to measure and in our obsession with quantified school achievements their advocacy has become even harder and their advocates cannot deliver league table credibility.
Yet design and technology, like other subjects, has a major contribution to make to basic attainments. Through work in this subject, many children are learning to use mathematics they may never have grasped in their maths lessons; even more importantly, they may come to recognise the value of mathematics in a way they never achieve in the basic calculations of time-tabled mathematics classes. And the ability of design and technology to help children develop verbal skills and conquer complex technical literature is well-known. Many barely literate children can make sense of a computer manual, often far more successfully than their literate tutors.
All this seems so self-evident to many primary teachers that they wonder why it is not self-evident to ministers - especially given the enthusiasm of Government to develop a creative and inventive workforce. But the alarm signals are sounding, and design and technology, the newest and arguably the most significant development in the primary curriculum in recent decades, seems at risk as the last in-first out principle threatens to be applied once again.
Let us hope that our ministers take a further look at what is really happening in the primary schools and ensure that the basic skills needed for the 21st century remain in the place we gave them only a decade ago.
John Eggleston is vice-chairman of the Design and Technology Association