Watch out for dips ahead;Subject of the week;Technology

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Richard Kimbell welcomes changes in the design and technology curriculum but warns that things may yet go wrong.

Incredibly, it's exactly 11 years since Lady Parkes gave Kenneth Baker the interim report of the working group on design and technology in the national curriculum. Since that day we have been on a white-knuckle roller-coaster of a ride, alternately crashing forwards and lurching backwards amid much excited screaming and desperate clinging-on.

Given this tortuous backdrop, the revision of the Damp;T Order for 2000 is something of an anticlimax. The 1995 version has been subjected to an enormous amount of scrutiny by many people (the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, professional associations, schools, examination bodies, universities and others) and appears to have emerged more or less intact. There are of course changes, and two that are particularly welcome.

The first is that the Order is prefaced by the "distinctive contribution" statement that outlines the "why" of design and technology. It's all very well for the Order to contain lots of stuff about programmes of study and attainment targets, but it was a major failing of all earlier drafts that they avoided the question of why we should bother at all. A guiding sense of purpose is critical to the success of these national curriculum documents, since so much of the meaning of the words that they contain lies in the interpretation that teachers place upon them. It is helpful to have it asserted that design and technology is about enabling pupils to create a better world.

Damp;T is not just about making things. Pupils must recognise the need to design for the benefit of the user and that this might conflict with a wider social interest. It is good that the statement is unequivocal about the role of Damp;T in developing critical and discriminating consumers.

My second delight is that, finally, we have arrived at a single attainment target. After years of artificially trying to carve up a student's work into separate bits called "designing" and "making", the Order now acknowledges the artificiality of that divide.

Modelling, the fundamental activity in Damp;T, was always impossible to categorise as either one or the other since it is both. The single attainment target is not just a matter of abstruse intellectual integrity; more important for most teachers is the fact that assessment will be easier and hence more reliable.

Beyond these structural matters there are interesting changes to the substance of the Order, one of the most important being the references that point Damp;T towards new materials and technologies. One of the claims in the "distinctive contribution" statement is that Damp;T "prepares all young people to participate in a rapidly changing technological world". This ambition will be all the more justified when - as a matter of course - all students encounter computer aided design and manufacture technologies and new, "smart" materials.

There has been a long tradition of national curriculum initiatives being introduced with little or no Inset for teachers, so it is particularly heartening to see that this initiative at least is being properly supported.

Given these developments, I am both pleased and reassured that the Order for 2000 represents another step in the long march towards a curriculum that recognises and values the made world.

The purposeful design, development, manufacture and critical appreciation of objects has never been more central to our culture than it is today (witness the hype about millennium products). And Damp;T is well placed to capitalise on this mood. However, I am equally aware of the need constantly to argue and demonstrate the value of the subject to those who might be less than enthusiastic about it. For we live, in the words of the ancient Chinese curse, in interesting times.

The first obvious manifestation of the delicate politics that surrounds us is the relief that greeted the news that Damp;T would remain a compulsory part of the curriculum at all key stages. Were it not for the enormous amount of lobbying that has been going on - by education, business and industry - this might not have been achieved. And if Damp;T had become optional at key stage 4, one can imagine a number of knock-on scenarios, none of which would be desirable.

The tremendous growth of Damp;T at A and AS-level has been one of the most pleasing consequences of having it compulsory at key stage 4. It would be tragic if we were to put at risk the good work that is going on in schools and sixth-form colleges by removing the stepping stone that leads to it.

Another significant change is the renaming of art. By using the label "art and design" the QCA has (presumably deliberately) created prima-facie confusion. Is design in art and design the same thing as design in design and technology? On my reading of the Order, the answer would have to be "barely". There is no mention of users, or clients, or understanding the needs, interests or desires of those for whom one is designing. And these (if we are to believe the Design Council) are the core values of design.

In a recent Design Council publication, Geoff Hooker of British Steel says:

"Product design embraces users' needs and the tactile texture of day-to-day life. It is about listening to users, representing their interests and identifying those needs and wants which users may only be aware of subconsciously." Or, in the words of a 10-year-old: "With art, if you like, you can be really weird. But in design you have to think about what other people will like."

What does QCA think it has achieved by creating overlapping labels for these two national curriculum subjects?

Finally, we should not be lulled into a false sense of security about having survived this latest revision. David Blunkett has made clear that the national curriculum is being continually reviewed. At any time, the rules of the game may be changed.

Design and technology needs continually to demonstrate the strength of its contribution in schools through every measure of quality: student enthusiasm, GCSE A-C pass rates, parental support, employer enthusiasm, and A and AS-level recruitment. The best defence against those who seek to diminish the role of the subject is to make them realise how much they stand to lose.

Richard Kimbell is director of the technology education research unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London

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