What are the characteristics of a high performing d&t department? The D&T Association would like to know!

A couple of days ago Andy Mitchell Deputy CEO of the Design & Technology Association posed this question to members of the D&T ITE community. I thought it deserved wider consideration – particularly from d&t teachers. So I’d be please if the post below provokes you to comment

 Initially Andy asked for nominations of schools that might be considered high performing on the grounds that observation of such school would lead to identification of key characteristics. Seemed to me that this was a bit circular in that those nominating the schools would have certain characteristics in mind which they used to make the nominations. However the question got me thinking along the following lines.

Point 1 must be that whilst we want schools to aspire to being high performing a one size fits all model would be inappropriate.

 Point 2 the D&T Association has given lots of awards at its annual dinner e.g. subject leadership and mining these would surely give a list of schools where good practice was likely to be present. Scrutiny of such practice should give a range of features likely to be relevant to defining characteristics of a high performing department.

 Point 3 the situation is complex as different stakeholders will almost certainly have different views of what constitutes ‘high performing’ and even within a particular stakeholder group there will be variation. Head teachers are clearly a stakeholder group but there will be considerable variation across head teachers as to what constitutes high performing – some might, for example see d&t as a subject which provides useful learning and respite for those pupils who find the ‘academic’ curriculum over demanding and irrelevant. The view from this perspective will be different from that of those head teachers who see the subject as providing their most able pupils with highly challenging activities. Alison Hardy at Nottingham Trent University is currently in the middle of a PhD looking at stakeholder values with regard to d&t so I think she will be able to make a significant contribution to the debate.

Point 4 – related to point 3 – is that a high performing department will have a clear rationale for teaching the subject and some broad learning intentions that are consistent with that rationale. Such a rationale might read …

Imagining what might exist in the future and using tools and materials to create and critically explore that future is a unique human ability which has led to the development of successive civilizations across history. Such activity embodies some of the best of what it means to be human. Design & Technology introduces leaners to this field of human endeavour and encourages them to become people who see the world as a place of opportunity where they and others can, through their own thoughts and actions, improve the world in which they live.

Note this is a cultural justification as opposed to economic or utilitarian justifications and reflects my view that these latter justifications do not give sufficient reason to teach d&t to a majority of pupils to the age of 16.

The broad learning intentions might have two main features:

  1. Developing a perspective on technology such that pupils develop a view of technology and how it might be used. Such views should be developed through discussion and reflection as opposed to being taught through instruction.
  2. Enabling technological capability so that pupils experience what it means to ‘do’ technology as opposed to just learning about technology. This implies that pupils will devise and produce technological outcomes in a variety of forms.

It would be interesting to find out just why d&t departments thought the subject was worth teaching. Steve Parkinson of Archbishop Holgate’s School has probed this to some extent in his recent MA dissertation so it would be useful to have his views.

So what constitutes high performing is likely to be strongly linked to the rationale and learning intentions for the subject. Hence for any department that might be judged as high performing in terms of other criteria I think it would be important to know about that departments view of rationale and learning intentions. It might be that there are patterns with regard to different sorts of high performance according to underlying rationale/learning intentions.

Point 5, which again reflects the need to take a stakeholder perspective is the need for any such list of characteristics to take into account the roles and needs of those working in the department – NQTs, RQTs, those with subject responsibilities, those with department/faculty responsibilities, technicians, teaching assistants. Enabling them all to be reflective practitioners with a clear vision of their developing role and its contribution to high performance would seem a necessary characteristic. This relates strongly to the quality and availability of ITE and CPD.

Point 6 – meeting requirements of other stakeholders will be important so identifying the range of stakeholders concerned with a school d&t department will be important. In some cases requirements will overlap e.g. achieving good GCSE results will be important for parents, pupils and SLTs but we know that it is possible to achieve good results with relatively mediocre projects so looking below the surface will be very important. Note also that Keri Facer challenges the simplistic view that what parents want from education is good qualifications. It is also worth noting that in some cases different stakeholder requirements might be in conflict.

 So if any out there have comments or views on such characteristics I, and I’m sure the Design & Technology Association, would be pleased to hear them


I’m not wild about the term ‘high performing’, somewhere lurking in the idea of high performance is that it is practice as opposed to reflection driven. Nevertheless the question posed by Andy is worth more than a little thought




11 thoughts on “What are the characteristics of a high performing d&t department? The D&T Association would like to know!

  1. Hi Alison

    “Which stakeholders write the definitions?” is an excellent question. This needs unpacking in terms of the forums that are available for stakeholders to make their views known, the extent to which such views are/can be taken into account, the mechanisms by which they are taken into account and allowed to feature in any definition, and the authority that any such definition has when it emerges. This latter is important as if the definition is lacking in authority it will be ignored and have no influence but I suspect that acknowledging authority is a no go area for post modernists.

    Overlap between high performing departments and high performing d&t is an important consideration as the characteristics of high performing departments may in fact not correspond to high performing d&t – a point raised earlier on Sept 4.


  2. I agree that this is a timely discussion. D&T teachers, D&T teacher educators, curriculum writers and other stakeholders would all benefit from being included in, and listening to, the discussion. But who are the stakeholders? Do any of them have greater legitimacy in defining a ‘good’ department than others? Will the stakeholders who have the power to create a good D&T department agree on the characteristics? Does this even matter?

    Power is important to cause change, it would be interesting to involve those who have the power/authority to create ‘good’ D&T departments in this discussion; some of whom are in the list from David B in point 5, but others include head teachers, bursars/ business managers, Ofsted, and you might include pupils in this list. I’ve just spent a few months interviewing pupils, D&T teachers and senior leaders about what they think the point of D&T is, which has revealed to me how these groups do have power but are not always listened to.

    (I prefer David Spendlove’s word: dispositions, but for consistency here I’m going to stick with characteristics.)

    David rightly (and maybe obviously) says that the characteristics of a high performing department will depend on who writes them. Andy Mitchell’s original question used ‘we’ to describe the people who would use the characteristics which could be defined through a small research project – but who are ‘we’? The question was asked on a forum for D&T educators, D&T authors and researchers; does this group have the legitimacy to define the characteristics? It might seem pedantic to ask this, but who I or Andy or David think has legitimacy to define them will probably be different to D&T teachers, or head teachers, etc. So those who are doing the defining need to have their legitimacy recognised by the stakeholders who have the power to create ‘good’ D&T departments. If they don’t the characteristics will be collated, published, read for a short period and left on a shelf to gather dust.

    Even if you have a legitimate group of people involved in the discussion they won’t necessarily agree, and those who do read them probably won’t agree with them either. Does this matter? I don’t think it does, but what might be important (and I have no evidence from my PhD work for this yet) is that the stakeholders within a school have a similar view of the characteristics, and therefore an agreed view of their version of what ‘good’ D&T looks like. A consequence of a school’s stakeholders’ consensus might be ‘high performing D&T’ in the school’s context.

    I’m still exploring my thinking about stakeholders, their power and legitimacy (see P. John Williams’ chapter on ‘Stakeholders in Technology Education’ in Analyzing Best Practices in Technology Education for more on this) but I think it should be considered when trying to identify the dispositions of a high performing D&T department.


    • True to form Alison has raised a very interesting issue. David Spendlove’s distinction between dispositions and characteristics is interesting. I’m inclined to see dispositions as features indicating potential for achieving high performance and characteristics as features that have been achieved but the overriding question is, “To what extent can we have a nationally agreed definition of a ‘high performing’ or ‘good’ d&t department?” From a post modernist perspective the answer would surely be ‘no’. Any such statement could only be developed in the context of a particular d&t department and only be relevant to that department. A defendable position if you are of that school of thought but perhaps of little immediate use if you want to provide a description of characteristics or dispositions to which any department in any school could aspire and achieve universal approval. Any thoughts on how we respond to Alison’s stakeholder input dilemma/legitimacy? Given the need for d&t to establish itself as both practically and intellectually demanding and a subject of worth for pupils across the ability range some orthodoxy with regard to ‘high performance’ is long overdue.


      • Hi David,

        Thanks for your repost to my comment. Here’s my re-repost;

        Firstly a reply to your ‘no’ response to “To what extent can we have a nationally agreed definition of a ‘high performing’ or ‘good’ d&t department?” If the definition is limited to one sentence then I agree it is ‘no’ but if it is a framework then I think ‘yes’. Maybe guidelines is better than a definition? I’m still being too woolly for you David I think!

        I’m not shying away from a framework/ definition/ description but what is key to my comment is: which stakeholders write the definitions?

        I also think in your last sentence you are beginning to conflate ‘high performing’ departments and ‘high performing’ D&T, there is of course some overlap but there will be differences. Sorry to come back with another question but it’s in my post modernist nature: whose ‘high performance’ are we talking about?


  3. Thanks David, so there we are, that is pretty well the answer! I doubt anyone would dispute any of those points. Andy there is your answer, so what are you going to do with it?

    Do we need an exemplar curriculum to illustrate all those points?
    Do we need standard projects?
    Do we need to up date the Head of Departments guide?

    I am sure there are loads of guidance documents that we need to look at and improve!
    Do we need a list?

    Martin Chandler


  4. I too am unsure about high performing as I have worked in some very ‘tough’ schools where performance may be measured by your rapport with the students and the lack of suspensions issued – 🙂

    I see any inspirational Tech Ed department (not using STEM here, as I think this ‘muddies the waters’) as one that is on that constant ‘continuum’ for improvement. This is not unusual, however I see some Departments have ascended further on that continuum than others.


  5. Interesting comments from Alan Rowse (Programme Leader in D & T ITT education at USW) plus a BIG issue for consideration

    From personal experience gained from working in an outstanding DT dept for several years, and visiting a range of departments as an exam moderator and teacher trainer, I believe that the main ‘ingredients’ in which an excellent DT dept can be distilled (or reduced).
    With apologies for the checklist/ variables approach, using John Hattie’s research on achievement, we get:
    A head of dept that has the energy and vision to move it forward
    An excellent group of teachers- with all the qualities that that label entails
    A head teacher that appreciates and understands the value of DT (reasonable funding)
    A wide range of developed community links, specific to the area e.g. the freedom to customise the curriculum to the demographics

    It seems to me that when these are in place you will have a good/ excellent dept but I suspect that is true for any secondary school subject.

    The bigger issue that I see when talking to head teachers and parents is that the subject has almost ‘lost its way’ and needs a curriculum adjust to refocus and move it on. This could be via the STEM approach but are there enough STEM qualified teachers in schools to adopt this approach?


  6. Some very interesting comments have reached my inbox. Here’s a taster

    Why not ask schools/departments if they consider themselves ‘high performing’? If they do, ask them the basis for this judgement. This could lead to a list of useful criteria for high performing.
    But a cautionary note was raised.
    A department I know has virtually 100% A* to B (virtually as a C did sneak in this year) yet practices and facilities are the opposite. It’s very old fashioned!! So in terms of results it’s outstanding, in terms of DT practice, not so.
    High performance may be best characterised by a case study approach.
    The difficulty with merely identifying criteria is that it can be used as a checklist (which may be what you want) – but just about meeting each criteria doesn’t mean your are an outstanding department.
    Broader characterisation which might focus on the dispositions adopted exemplified through case studies may be a way?


  7. My immediate reaction to the question is, how many times have we been here before? And why are we still fumbling around with these basic questions when we know, out there, we have some exceptional D&T going on, so why with all the awards and rhetoric are we going through all this again?

    I think the answer is where do we have exceptional teachers? Where do we have teachers with vision and want to move the subject on? (incidentally, how many other school subjects have to move on and update at the rate we do?)

    There are many schools that achieve good results, but is that because they follow a formula and produce a controlled response to examinations or is it because they are innovative and progressive and really ask their student to explore and their world and challenge themselves to tackle real problems that the world has to offer?

    What does our exams assessment scheme do to encourage one or the other? How does a local school administration effect the way a department works, and are teachers and pupils allowed to take risks? And what happens if they don’t come off?

    If we haven’t answered the question as asked by now then I would suggest that the answer is that there are many and various characteristics of a successful Design & Technology department and it depends on the teachers in that department to pull out one or two of these and make them work! It down to, do you have really committed teachers who are excited about their work and how they can make a difference!

    Excuse my ramblings, but I hope a bit of it makes sense!

    Martin Chandler


    • Hi Martin

      I’m a great fan of teachers having infectious enthusiasm but I think this falls short of a general strategy for high performance although without a doubt it has a part to play. To my mind the following are essential if the quality of young peoples’ learning journeys in d&t provided by their teachers are to be part of a high performing department:
      Breadth, depth and balance
      Appropriate challenge across a wide ability range
      Progressively greater challenge as pupils move along the learning journey
      Activities that are both culturally authentic i.e. they relate to activity in the world outside school and personally authentic i.e. have personal meaning and relevance
      Activities that give pupils responsibility for their learning
      Activities in which pupils are decision makers and problems solvers as opposed to instruction followers and receivers of information
      Activities that support the acquisition of both conceptual understanding and procedural knowledge
      An assessment regime that provides useful feedback that enable pupils to see what they have to do to improve their learning
      If these essentials are met then it becomes easy to meet these further requirements:
      A KS3 d&t curriculum that engages and inspires pupils
      High uptake of d&t GCSE courses at KS4 and KS5
      Little if any gender stereotyping with regard to choice of topics
      None of this will happen unless the department is well organized with the specific aim of meeting these intentions.
      But you are right in that we have been here before. Design & Technology Characteristics of Good Practice in Secondary Schools 1995 (produced by Mike Ive for Ofsted) make all these points and more.


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