Tall order

6th November 1998 at 00:00
Carolyn O'Grady rounds up responses to proposed changes to A-level design and technology

Could do better" is a typical response to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's proposals for overhauling design and technology at A- and AS-level.

The QCA's draft specifications aim to ensure consistent rigour and comparable standards across the awarding bodies, as well as to give higher education institutions and employers a clearer picture of what has been studied and assessed. The authority also wants to clarify the relationship between A and AS specifications.

The new specifications are for courses beginning in 2000. Responses, which had to be in by last week, will be analysed and the report finalised by December 11.

Many educationists say the specifications fail to do the subject justice. "They do not flag up the enormous contribution design and technology has to offer," says Anne Constable, head of art and DT at Beauchamp College in Oadby, Leicestershire. "DT reinforces qualities that enable children to learn. "

Jenny Jupe, deputy chief executive of the Design and Technology Association, says there is too little detail in the proposals. "Employers or people in higher education could look at the descriptions and still not know what a young person has studied," she says.

She points to where, under the heading "Making", the document suggests students should "use IT appropriately for communicating, modelling, controlling and manufacturing". But what, she asks, does "appropriately" mean? "Could it not say, for example, 'Use IT to demonstrate an understanding of industry standard CADCAM (computer-aided designcomputer-aided-manufacturing) packages'?" Many believe the specifications fail to strengthen the credibility of one of the newest subjects in the curriculum. "Design and technology is too often perceived as 'Blue Peter technology'," says Ali Farrell, an independent consultant on design technology. "This document is too weak to convey its identity properly."

One of the reasons for the lack of detail is the subject panel's desire to encourage examination boards to draw together the common elements of the subject. "Schools usually have too few students or lack the flexibility to run alternative courses side-by-side," says Louise Davies, principal subject officer of DT at the QCA. "This way large aspects of the course could be taught across the board."

To make the subject more manageable, the specifications also suggest introducing two broad focus areas - product design, and systems and control - rather than the range of areas now found at GCSE.

But Louise Davies agrees that an approach that is too communal would be "hard on students who want to go on to study a particular area in depth, because they wouldn't have sufficient specialist experience".

Ali Farrell says it is important to remember that the criteria have to speak to the engineering, food, textile and other industries, "and should provide an idea of how these areas are different but equivalent".

Others are less concerned about the lack of detail. Mark Hudson, who teaches D T at the Thomas Telford City Technology College, Telford, Shropshire, says the specifications "throw down a suitable challenge to the exam boards".

But he is worried about the lack of prominence given to team work. "Students should get points at A-level for their ability to work as team players. " A more general worry is the effect of the split into three AS modules and three A-level modules. "We may get many students who opt for AS then drop out, which would cause problems of continuity, progression and staffing," says Mr Hudson.

He would prefer students to be able to decide during the AS course if they wanted to continue to A-level, rather than having to decide at the start of the two-year period. He is also anxious that the subject does not become bogged down in assessment. "I hope they will allow fairly unobtrusive assessment on key skills, in particular, with teachers having considerable control."

Anne Constable says one of the best things her school does is a joint project across Year 12 which everyone in the department works on.

She would like to see these projects retained. But she says: "Schools with confidence usually teach beyond what the syllabus demands".

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