A single GCSE for D&T – will it fly?

Design & technology (D&T) is a relative newcomer to the curriculum. Its roots which go back to the late 1800s can be found in the teaching of a variety of crafts very much on a gender biased basis – cooking and needlework for girls, metalwork and woodwork for boys. These roots are still having a deleterious effect on the subject in that they skew the way the subject is conceptualized to give a pre-eminence to the materials that students might use and the making skills required to manipulate these materials. It is not that materials and making are unimportant (quite the reverse) but rather that they need to be seen as part of the essential concepts (so called BIG ideas) that underpin and define the subject. It was this inappropriate focus on materials/skills and the lack of BIG ideas amongst other factors that led the National Curriculum Expert Panel to declare that the subject lacked intellectual coherence and had weak epistemological roots. The development of a robust National Curriculum Programme of Study has done much to show that the subject can be defined in a way that more than meets the Exert Panel’s misgivings and it is essential that this process is continued in the development of a robust GCSE – a single GCSE that does not give undue priority to any particular material or material area. At the school level there are six BIG ideas that underpin D&T (and these can be clearly seen in both the National Curriculum PoS and the proposed GCSE). These are:

  1. The nature of the subject – D&T activity involves intervention in the made and natural world, unlike science it is not overly concerned with explanation but with taking action – often informed by scientific explanation. D&T problems are ‘wicked’ in that there are no single ‘right answers’. For D&T solutions there will always be unintended consequences or effects.
  2. Materials – Properties, Source, Footprint, Longevity. All these need to be taken into account when selecting a material for a particular purpose.
  3. Manufacture – Addition, Subtraction, Forming, Assembly, Finishing. These processes can be applied to any and all materials and define the ‘maker’ vocabulary in terms of both understanding and use.
  4. Functionality – Structuring, Powering, Controlling. These are important as they define the way D&T outcomes work.
  5. Design – Seen as decision making concerned with the Conceptual, Technical, Aesthetic, Constructional and Marketing. Decisions in each of these areas depend on the decisions made in the other areas; a change of decision in one area will effect the decisions in the other areas. It is the need to achieve a coherent set of decisions across the piece that makes designing such an intellectually tough discipline.
  6. Critique – To engage with impact beyond intended benefit it is important to scrutinize D&T outcomes from a range of perspectives including Justice and Stewardship.

I have used these ideas as the basis for discussing the nature of the school subject D&T with over a hundred secondary teachers across the country in the past 18 months in the In Service training I’ve been doing. Invariably these ideas have been well received and enabled the teachers to move away from a single materials approach to their teaching at KS3. So I have to disagree with Awarding Organisations which state that teachers are unwilling to accept this new conceptualization at GCSE. If teachers are given the opportunity to spend time with other teachers and through discussion identify the benefits of such an approach they can and do respond positively. My inset sessions last a whole day. If you frame questions about the GCSE such that it implies that you will have to completely change what you teach for no good reason other than it’s what the new GCSE requires then of course teachers will quite rightly be very reluctant to change. If the question is framed in terms of giving the subject the sort of intellectual coherence (and through this the status) of other subjects then teachers are much more receptive to the idea. Defining a specification in ways that are underpinned by the six BIG ideas will require considerable effort and resources from the Awarding Organisations so it is understandable why they might be reluctant to do this and hence frame their questions to teachers in ways that encourage teachers to cling to a conceptual framework for the subject that is inadequate and damaging. The main problem with the single material focused approach is that it results in pupils not gaining a conceptual understanding of the BIG ideas in general and missing out in particular with those concerned with functionality and critique. We are left in a situation where the very criticism of the Expert Panel is compounded and the subject lacks intellectual coherence.

There is no doubt that teachers will need professional development to respond positively and effectively to the proposed GCSE. Three cheers for this I say! If the subject is going to move forward for the better and involve the teaching of modified knowledge, understanding, skills and values so that the subject is more coherent, more easily explained to stakeholders (especially parents and SLT in schools) and more engaging for young people then it would be very strange indeed if this didn’t require some professional development. There are several organisations and institutions which would be happy to be involved in the provision of such professional development. Hence I think the Awarding Organisations should be prevailed upon to work alongside such bodies so that teachers are inspired to grasp the opportunities provided for both the subject and their pupils by the new GCSE. Bodies that would want to be involved in supporting the necessary professional development include:

  • The Design & Technology Association
  • The Dyson Foundation
  • The Royal Academy of Engineering
  • The Design Council
  • The IEEE
  • Teacher Educators in Higher Education
  • Teaching Schools
  • Various in service providers e.g. Osiris
  • Various design & technology educational suppliers e.g. New Wave Concepts

The professional development would of course need to be paid for but funds for such in service have been devolved to schools so I don’t see this as an insurmountable hurdle. The key to such professional development will be activities that enable the teachers in a school to work collaboratively as a D&T team whose expertise is deployed in ways that respond to the coherence being required by the new GCSE. And of course the D&T team will be devising a coherent, progressive five year programme (KS3 plus KS4) teaching pupils BIG ideas and how to use them right from the start in Year 7. The pedagogy needed to implement such a programme of study is now well known – it features in several ITE programmes – and has been well received in the In Service that I have delivered.

Some Awarding Organisations have expressed concern with regard to a lack of depth if the material focus is lost. I have argued above that the gain of a broad intellectual coherence by deliberately moving away from a material focus far outweighs this lack of depth if indeed it will result in a lack of depth. I think there are considerable opportunities for depth as well as breadth if the assessment scheme is designed with this in mind. Consider the following assessment model.

A terminal written paper which assesses pupils grasp of each of the BIG ideas at a broad level of understanding beyond that achieved at Key Stage 3 and appropriate for the time available to teach for this extension in a two year GCSE course. This will be new territory for both the subject and the Awarding Organisations. The current GCSE written papers do the subject little credit and an overhaul is long overdue. I have no doubt that the Design & Technology Association could convene a ‘written examination’ working party that would happily work in partnership with both Ofqual and the Awarding Organisations to devise the new sorts of questions required.


A significant, authentic D&T task of relevance and worth. I think the Areas of Interest do not go far enough in that they are in most cases thinly disguised existing material areas and will not encourage pupils to tackle tasks that are significant, authentic or relevant to today’s world. Torben Steeg and I have proposed the term Arenas of Challenge as an alternative to Areas of Interest. Our thinking has been informed by conversations with the Dyson Foundation and the work of the All Party Parliamentary Engineering Group. Arenas of Challenge might include:

  • Exploration – Possible outcomes could include remotely controlled devices to visit, record data and/or take samples from a range of hostile/distant environments
  • Disaster relief  – Possible outcomes could include items concerned with providing short/medium term shelter, clean drinking water, and communication with the outside world
  • Living and working spaces – Possible outcomes could include models for elements of the intelligent sustainable city
  • Waste Management – Possible outcomes could include items concerned with safe disposal, minimising waste, and utilization of waste or eliminating waste
  • Climate change – Possible outcomes could include items and systems to help individuals and small communities to reduce their carbon footprint
  • Protection – Possible outcomes could include items for individual protection for people in different situations (leisure pursuits, different occupations, travelling)
  • Safety – Possible outcomes could include items to keep possessions free from theft, individuals or groups free from harm
  • Comfort – Possible outcomes could include items to provide physical comfort in a variety of situation or emotional security in times of stress
  • Hygiene – Possible outcomes could include systems and devices to be used in the wild, in rural areas, in urban areas, and be concerned with individuals, groups and /or communities
  • Looking good – Possible outcomes could range from items of apparel, accessories, hair-styles, cosmetics all in the context of occasion, culture and personal intent
  • Challenged communities – Possible outcomes could include items to enable disadvantaged communities to self-help
  • Health and well-being – Possible outcomes could include items to enable changing lifestyles, to enhance well being in the elderly, promote whole family well being

It is in responding to an Arena of Challenge that significant depth will be achieved as the pupils deploy and extend their understanding of the BIG ideas they have already been taught. The good news here is that the e-scape project at Goldsmiths University led by Richard Kimbell has laid the groundwork for valid and reliable assessment of such project work. So it will require only a modest amount of resource and effort from the Awarding Organisations to develop an appropriate assessment tool. Note that in the existing focus area approach (and that proposed by some Awarding Orgnisations) a pupil starts with a chosen material and the intellectual challenge of identifying appropriate materials and choosing one or more that are particularly appropriate is lost and we are left with pupils following ritualistic craft practice and producing stereotypical products in which there is little academic rigour. The whole point of Arenas of Challenge is to make the subject more demanding for pupils of all abilities and particularly for those pupils of high ability.

The combination of the above approaches is often called a “T-based” approach and in this particular case the horizontal bar of the T represents the broad knowledge and understanding of the six BIG ideas (assessed by a terminal written paper) and the vertical bar represents the deep knowledge and understanding of the six BIG ideas developed and deployed as appropriate in responding to a chosen Arena of Challenge (and assessed by means of a portfolio and outcome using an e-scape approach).

I hope this gives you a sense of the sound rationale and feasibility that I think underlies a single GCSE proposal that is not focused on a particular material area.

Overall Torben and I are very disappointed by some of the Awarding Organisation responses as they echo our worst fears that the Awarding Organisations would respond to the proposals using a ‘minimum possible change’ mindset and whilst appearing to endorse the modernization move towards a single subject would do all they could to prevent any significant change. The changes envisaged by the proposals should be seen as challenging but not daunting and they represent a great opportunity for the subject to establish itself as both rigorous and worthwhile plus contributing considerably to the STEM education agenda.