The problem has sparked a flurry of activity from the TTA and the Design and Technology Association (DATA) to try to turn the situation around. The TTA has designated design and technology a "shortage subject area" which means that students qualify for a grant (maximum #163;2,500 per course). It is also liaising with university advice and careers services and with DATA is producing leaflets to attract belated interest from students at these institutions. Further publicity is being sought in the media and on the Internet.
DATA is trying to cultivate interest among its student membership with a design and technology hotline, which students can call to find out more about the subject and prospects within it.
Suspected causes of the shortfall range from the poor image the subject suffered from during the years of chopping and changing of the curriculum; the breadth of specialist knowledge needed to teach specialist areas of the subject; and competition from opportunit ies in industry.
Technology seems to be suffering from a wider problem - experienced as far afield as the United States and Australia - in recruiting graduates in subjects which command high prices in the industrial marketplace, particularly when the economy is picking up. If you can get a big salary designing car control systems or electronic games, why teach a gang of unruly 16-year-olds in a dangerous open workshop?
Andy Breckon, chief executive of DATA, points out that technology teachers have to be motivated principally by an enthusiasm for making young people learn. He says the bonus is that when you find a school where design and technology is well taught and great fun "they don't want to do anything else". It was that kind of enthusiasm which used to attract mature entrants into teaching from industry.
John Eggleston, professor of education at Warwick University, says technology teaching has "lost its magic", because these sort of personal qualities have become less valued as the subject has become more academic. He says: "Way back, lots of practical people who were fed up with industry and loved CDT, as it then was, went into teaching because you could spend days helping people to make things, staying late, dedicating yourself to the job. And lots of kids got hooked into making things and went into teaching. " These days, he feels, there are too many academic hurdles for experienced people in craft industries to cross over into teaching.
If this seems too romantic a view of a changing world, Professor Richard Kimbell of Goldsmith' s Technology Education Research Project points to some other harsh realities. There is a huge "breadth of competence" now required for teaching DT, which means that an engineering student, say, may know no more than 25 per cent of what is needed to teach key stage 3 DT, let alone some of the options at key stage 4. "An engineering student may typically not have touched materials, may not be able to draw. It's a theoretical subject at university level."
In response, Andy Breckon points to a DATA paper of 1995 which demands that design and technology students have defined competencies in only two of the four specialist areas (resistant materials, food technology, textiles technology, control systems) but with sufficient knowledge to teach both to key stage 3 and one of them through GCSE to A-level and GNVQ.Design and technology in its various forms - electronics, graphic products, food technology, resistant materials, textiles technology, control and systems, GCSE engineering and, to be introduced nationally this September, GNVQ part 1 manufacturing and part 1 engineering - is currently taught by 18,000 to 20,000 teachers in secondary schools in England and Wales. Although the curriculum subject is in its infancy, the way the courses develop students is admired worldwide.
According to Professor Eggleston, a conference in the United States in 1996 revealed that even the big-name universities there were having to admit "special case" students to their design and technology courses to keep the numbers up. Market forces, says Professor Kimbell, will dictate either that the TTA lower its standards or that it offer incentives to lure more students in to initial teacher training. One such scheme is currently being piloted, drawing highly qualified student teachers in from the popular primary sector over into secondary education. These eight "key stage 2key stage 3" technology courses are fully subscribed by students with design and technology A-level, suggesting that more general problems with secondary school teaching play their part in deterring potential design and technology teachers.
At Brunel University, the degree course in product design is highly popular and successful. The PGCE in the same subject is less so. Could this be because it is less worth the university's while running such a course, with TTA funding subject to strict cash limits? Or because teaching is less lucrative and high status than alternative employment? Or because, as Professor Kimbell says, in most PGCE courses, which are very brief, "the assumption is that you know your subject and just learn pedagogy. But in design and technology you have rightly to master a broad curriculum"?
While the answers are being thrashed out by the TTA, all children in England and Wales still have to learn technology for 45 hours a year at key stage 3 and for 5 per cent (short course) or 10 per cent of the time at key stage 4. It is, Andy Breckon says, a great job prospect. Career advancement is usually swift and offers the satisfaction of arousing enormous enthusiasm in students.