We were pleased that the Daily Telegraph reported on the problems facing our subject. So, of course, we wrote to the Telegraph about it. We were less pleased when the letters’ editor told us, “Sorry there isn’t room on the letters page.” So here is an extended version of our letter explaining what a tragedy it is that the government has ignored the contribution design & technology can make to the general education of all pupils whatever their intended careers. Feel free to forward to all who might be able to use it for the good of the subject.
The recent piece in the Daily Telegraph newspaper (10-3-17) on the imminent demise of design & technology GCSE merits an urgent response. Amongst the factors that have contributed to the decline in numbers taking GCSE design & technology, we think two are key; the role of the EBacc and the DfE’s inability to effectively plan for a supply of new teachers into the profession. Unfortunately, the effects of these interact to create the dire situation reported. As far as teacher supply is concerned, UCAS reports that applications to train to become a design and technology teacher have dropped by 34% since last year (a year in which recruitment was already low, following a pattern of year-on-year decline), yet the government insists “…we do not consider that there is compelling evidence of a shortage of DT teachers.” The Telegraph’s article provides a clear explanation for this apparent paradox; in the face of recruitment difficulty, school leaders are simply not replacing design & technology teachers as they leave and instead are shrinking and closing design & technology departments. The financial pressure on schools gives an added incentive to take this path as does the EBacc, to which we now turn.
Our recent Working Paper ‘Re-Building Design & Technology’ has detailed the way that design & technology sits outside the EBacc, which inevitably puts it down the pecking order when it comes to student choices for GCSE. This means that there needs to be considerable clarity about the contribution design & technology makes to young people’s learning, particularly regarding its uniqueness (i.e., the learning it provides that is not offered by any other subject) and its rigour (both practical and intellectual). It seems to us that a high level of clarity about design & technology’s role in developing fully rounded young people is not always present (in schools or amongst parents and students) when discussions about GCSE options are taking place. Therefore, we would like to offer four arguments that emphasise design & technology’s importance in the curriculum.
An economic argument
A steady supply of people who have studied design & technology is essential to maintain and develop the kind of society we value. Design & technology is central to the innovation on which our future economic success as a nation depends. For those young people who achieve a design & technology qualification at school the experience may well predispose some of them to consider a technical career. This is important as our country faces a “STEM skills” gap.
A personal argument
The learning achieved through studying design & technology at school is useful in everyday situations, as it enables young people to deploy design skills and technical problem solving to address and solve practical problems at both the personal and community levels.
A social argument
In their communities, their workplaces, and through the media, people encounter questions and disputes that have matters of design and/or technology at their core. Often these matters are contentious. Significant understanding of design and of technology is needed to reach an informed view on such matters and engage in discussion and debate. For example, students designing and making robots in design & technology have to engage with both hardware and software design issues; these provide rich opportunities for them to consider some of the wider implications of robots in society such as their roles in elder care, in warfare and in displacing human jobs.
A cultural argument
Technologies and the design thinking behind them are major achievements of our culture. Everyone should be helped to appreciate these, in much the same way that we teach pupils to appreciate literature, art and music.
The sentences below have their origins in the writings of Jacob Bronowski’s seminal work, The Ascent of Man. We think they provide a powerful justification for teaching the subject that touches on all four of the arguments noted previously (economic, personal, social, cultural).
Envisaging what might exist in the future and using tools and materials to create and critique that future is a unique human ability, which has led to the development of successive civilisations across history. It embodies some of the best of what it means to be human.Through teaching young people design & technology, schools introduce pupils to this field of human endeavour and empower 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 their situation.
The implications are that design & technology requires young people to be imaginative, develop practical skills, be thoughtful and develop intellectual skills, develop a positive attitude towards confronting problems, be both reflective and active, make judgements as to what is worth doing and understand the ways that design & technology underpins cultural and social structures.
If taken seriously, the arguments given above provide compelling reasons for teaching design & technology to all young people, whatever their career intentions might be, as part of a rounded, general education. We are utterly mystified that the government continues to marginalise the subject both through the EBacc and through its inattention to teacher supply.
As always comments welcome.