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Underfunded and undersold

The subject most concerned with change will meet the same fate as the dinosaurs if teachers don't fight back, says Steve Cushing. As a boy, I was brought up on the principle that to do any good, things had to hurt. This took the form of nasty-tasting medicine when I was ill, and a clip round the ear when I got my tables wrong. Indeed learning had to be ruthless, domineering and certainly not fun. This distortion of values extended to wearing clean underwear just in case I was run over.

Over the intervening 40 years, technological developments have changed our lives. Children's medicine is now pleasant enough for my own children to want to take it, school clothes can be fashionable, and, due to curriculum changes, school is a place where many more children enjoy learning.

In today's society it is not surprising that the greatest curriculum change has been in the teaching of technology. Craft, one of the former components of technology, used to be for the less able. Academic pupils did things much more "worthwhile". Developments in the subject since then have taken the intellectual high ground. Indeed, British technology had until recently become one area of the curriculum that could be fun and worthwhile for all, including children formerly excluded on account of their ability in other disciplines. Our European counterparts looked at the British curriculum with envy. After all, technology is about vital change, and the involvement in the world in which we all live.

How sad then, that, unlike our European counterparts who are adopting our model, we are in danger of losing compulsory technology by default, or worse, by design. This danger comes from a lack of adequate training and resources together with the poorly-informed perceptions of many parents and headteachers.

But there is an even greater danger - that schools will engender the very factors that have led to such distorted perceptions by taking the content of the curriculum back to the Fifties, to the optional craft curriculum for the less able, a time-filler for the non-academic.

When the French national curriculum for technology focuses on the higher order skills of enterprise, applied science, manufacturing and language development, this makes little sense. Yet many schools have already ignored compulsory technology and failed to enter children for courses. The excuse given by many is the lack of appropriate provision. But how do we forgive the deprivation? We live in a technological society motivated by change, our children need empowerment. The Dearing answer to this resource shortage is short courses. Though better than no provision, it is very dangerous to equip children with incomplete foundations.

On a recent school visit, I observed 30 children constructing teapot stands from drawings more reminiscent of 1956 than 1996. The similarities even extended to the wobbly structures of most of the stands and essential, almost obligatory, use of plastic wood filler, the only material used in the project that appeared to have undergone technological development over the intervening years.

But no amount of wood filler could hide the weaknesses in the structures. A wobbly structure cannot possibly welcome progress. Worse, a wobbly teapot stand is educationally destructive and can be dangerous.

If we, the teachers, don't believe in the subject, if we are not willing to change dated practices, work together to promote the subject and fight for our futures, our fate will weigh heavily on our shoulders.

Technology is based on a range of skills which need to be taught in a structured, constructive way. But the overall aim must be to develop a broad-based capability and competence. It is essential for children to build a firm framework of key technological skills, including those related to thought processes, if they are able to move beyond basic concepts and make a positive contribution to the contemporary world.

In our changing world this strong framework should equip children to apply and even disregard existing skills to bring about necessary change. In short, technology and change are synonymous.

Above all we must celebrate good practice at every opportunity. We need informed parents. We must promote our subject by holding open days, by welcoming publicity and by holding exhibitions of good work. We need to welcome change.

This summer, all schools should follow the legal requirement - 650,000 more children should start one of the new key stage 4 syllabuses. The new courses should replace the old. We need to promote visionary, interlocking building blocks, not outdated filler. Building blocks like entrepreneurial skills, thinking skills, knowledge about new technologies and team skills. We need to choose syllabuses for the 21st century.

We have come to another key juncture in the development and delivery of technology. If we fail to make technology work for all it will be relegated to its old optional status. History will repeat itself as lots of academic pupils opt out, preferring a second foreign language or humanities subject. The status of technology will return to a low-esteem manual position.

The pain will have been experienced without any gain. The curriculum area most concerned with change will meet the dinosaurs' fate. We confront another great British idea doomed to be exploited by one of our competitors. Back to the former distortion of values. It may well ensure that technology education is not fun, and if one uses the inverted logic principle it will do some good - or will it?

Steve Cushing is project co-ordi-nator for the National Design and Technology Education Foundation

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