The CadCam Initiative website (www.cadinschools.org) suggests that its success "can be judged by the number of teachers registered for ProDESKTOP software (over 6,000 in October 2003), along with the interest in ArtCAM and the popularity of SpeedStep. Over 75 per cent of secondary schools have now received free design software with subsidised training in its use for DT teachers".
Two years later I'm sure the figures are even higher, but that only means that teachers perceive the training to be a good career move. Many of them may well believe they are doing the best they can for their students, while many others are less sure but have to follow the party line anyway.
Unfortunately many teachers are, like me, unsure what CadCam in schools is supposed to achieve, without knowing how we can tell if it is succeeding.
Speaking to teachers, there seems to be a belief that Cad and Cam are important in school because "industry" uses them and this is fostered by the initiative's adoption of "industrial" Cad programs and "industrial" Cam machinery - but industry uses forklift trucks and articulated lorries too and we don't, yet, push students through RTITB training or HGV tests.
The National Curriculum DT pages (www.nc.uk.net) are strong on what should be taught, to whom and when, but not concerned with why, so we have a situation where CadCam - indeed the whole curriculum - is assumed to be a good thing and "success" is only judged by the ability of teachers and students to meet the criteria set by the QCA and the exam boards. Does CadCam in Schools Initiative make better citizens? Better employees? Has it improved UK industrial output. Who knows?
While I'm not sure what we have gained, I am sure that we have lost something during the 20 or so years that first "design" and then "technology" have dominated what we now call DT. Neither design nor technology is new of course - the pyramids were designed, even Neanderthals had technology - but what is new is the notion that young people with little understanding of technology should be encouraged to "design", and worse still, have their work given spurious credibility simply because it was "designed" on a computer and has been manufactured for them by a CNC machine. It reminds me of the mid-1980s,when the first students with home PCs were able to cut and paste "essays" from Encarta to the general approval of their bewildered teachers. Then, as now, students were gaining no understanding of the material they were working with.
One of the benefits of DT (and its many predecessors) was that an introduction to materials, foodstuffs and practical skills allowed many young people to discover useful talents which might lead to careers in manufacturing, one of the building trades or catering, or simply help them feed their families and avoid starring roles in DIY disaster shows. CadCam work simply doesn't give anyone a "feel" for working with materials the way that handwork and using hand-operated machinery does.
Interestingly, this lack of hands-on experience is already affecting DT teachers who themselves went to school in the 1990s. Part of my job is providing telephone support to teachers using CadCam systems in schools; as you might expect many calls are ICT-related, but I am surprised by the number that ask questions which reveal a very limited understanding of the nature of the materials they are using, and ignorance of basic machining principles. Some even lack the technical vocabulary to describe the problem, or understand the answer, so I often give basic technology lessons to DT teachers.
I'm not advocating a return to dovetails and hand-sewn French seams, but I do believe that, by adopting industrial software and trying to ape industrial methods too soon, we are denying children the joy of making things and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from doing it yourself.
Watching a machine is just not the same.
Phil Thane is support manager at TechSoft UK. This article does not represent the views of TechSoft.