The Curriculum


This paper has been stimulated by the presentation given by Sean Harford, National Director, Education, Ofsted, at The Telegraph Festival of Education, Wellington College, on 23rd June 2017 (Harford 2017), where he described Ofsted’s current curriculum survey. Although, we were unable to be present at the talk, the slides themselves gave us considerable pause for thought about the place of design & technology in the curriculum. This school subject is of special interest to us and is, in our view, much misunderstood and, as a result, underrated. We have very much enjoyed producing this paper which reflects upon the nature, purpose and teaching of design & technology in the curriculum in the light of Sean’s presentation.

The Curriculum

We welcome the curriculum purposes and principles identified in slides 3 – 5:

We also find the working definition of the curriculum on slide 10 is useful:

However, we do feel that this definition does not allow for the dynamic nature of the curriculum; it will always be subject to, and in the process of, change. This definition also does not fully acknowledge that the curriculum is, of necessity, composed of many different elements and cannot help but be, to an extent, a curate’s egg. Some parts will be well established and performing in ways that are fit for purpose; some parts will be new and although well intentioned, may need refining in the light of experience to become fit for purpose, and some parts will have ‘become tired’, no longer fit for purpose and in need of change. Any school curriculum is likely to be composed of this mix of elements. Another feature contributing to the dynamic nature of the curriculum is the introduction of new GCSE and GCE specifications which will almost certainly require schools to change some of the details of their curriculum offering even though they are continuing to teach the same subjects.

In the case of design & technology, the subject itself is dynamic. The introduction of new software and hardware affects the way that designing and making happens and is taught. And because understanding the impact of new and emerging technologies is a required element, there is a constant need to stay abreast of technological change.

The nine box framework (slides 6 – 9) is a very useful overview of the relation between policy and practice:

We do note however that, in slide 6, the direction of the arrows indicates a hierarchy in which decisions at national level influence what happens at school and classroom level, but influences in the reverse direction are not captured. To take two examples:

  • Innovative practice in one subject (developed in the classrooms where it is taught) can influence the whole school curriculum by being taken up by other subjects which, in turn, might influence government objectives.
  • Innovative practice in a department in one school can leap, for example through teacher meetings, to other schools and ultimately influence national policy.

There is also a higher order question, not captured in the diagram on slide 6, that focuses on the overall aim of the curriculum at both school and national level: What are schools for?

Neil Postman (1996) answered this compellingly, as follows:

[S]omething can be done in school that will alter the lenses through which one sees the world; which is to say, that non-trivial schooling can provide a point of view from which what is can be seen clearly, what was as a living present, and what will be as filled with possibility. . . . What this means is that at its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from making a living. Such an enterprise is not easy to pursue, since politicians rarely speak of it, our technology is indifferent to it, and our commerce despises it. Nevertheless, it is the weightiest and most important thing to write about. (p.x)

Having a clear statement, such as the above, about ‘what schools are for’ helps schools and subject departments interpret curriculum intent and informs both implementation and evaluation.

We are particularly concerned with the design & technology classroom and consider that the questions asked under ‘Classroom’ are particularly relevant to our concerns. We are mindful of the Expert Panel’s view (DfE 2011) that design & technology lacked an agreed epistemology which made it difficult for teachers to have clarity about why they were teaching the subject (purpose) and how they were teaching the subject (pedagogy). To help resolve these difficulties, we wrote the paper “Re-Building Design & Technology in the secondary school curriculum” (Barlex & Steeg 2017a) which explicitly dealt with epistemology, purpose and practice.

Intent in design & technology

In Barlex & Steeg (2017a) we describe two dimensions of intent; the content of design & technology and the purpose of the subject in the broader curriculum.


Design & technology is rightly concerned with procedural knowledge (knowing how) but a neglect of the underlying conceptual knowledge (knowing that) has led to the subject being perceived as having less worth than other subjects in the curriculum and concerned only with skills. It is important to address this misconception and one way to do this is to clearly define ideas about design & technology (ideas that describe design & technology’s fundamental nature) and ideas of design & technology (ideas that form the conceptual knowledge underpinning of the subject). We think of these as the Big Ideas in design & technology. These are summarised below and a detailed description is provided in Barlex & Steeg (2017b).

Ideas about design & technology (its fundamental nature) include:

  • Through design & technology people develop technologies and products to intervene in the natural and made worlds
  • Design & technology uses knowledge, skill and understanding from itself and a wide range of other sources, especially but not exclusively science and mathematics
  • There are always many possible and valid solutions to technological and product development challenges, some of which will meet these challenges better than others
  • The worth of technologies and products developed by people is a matter of judgement
  • Technologies and products always have unintended consequences beyond intended benefit which cannot be fully predicted by those who develop them

Ideas of design & technology (its conceptual knowledge) include:

Knowledge of materials:

  • Sources
  • Properties
  • Footprint
  • Longevity

Knowledge of manufacturing:

  • By subtraction
  • By addition
  • By forming
  • By assembly
  • With finishing

Knowledge of functionality:

  • Powering
  • Controlling
  • Structuring

Knowledge of design:

  • Identifying peoples’ needs and wants
  • Identifying market opportunities
  • Generating, developing and communicating design ideas
  • Evaluating design ideas

Knowledge of critique regarding impact:

  • For justice
  • For stewardship


We argue that there are four purposes that design & technology has in a school curriculum:

An economic purpose

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 (Institute of Engineering and Technology, 2016).

A personal purpose

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 purpose

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.

A cultural purpose

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.

These are explored in more depth in Barlex & Steeg (2017a). However, we want to say here that each of these four arguments should inform a school design & technology curriculum. While an individual school’s circumstances may vary the relative significance of the arguments, to produce a curriculum that did not respond in part to each of them would be a curriculum that was lacking an important dimension. It seems to be the case, however, that too often the current justification for design & technology rests on the economic and personal arguments. We have taken a strong view that these are not sufficient and, indeed, that relying on these two only puts the future of the subject at risk. By the same token, the cultural and social justifications seem underdeveloped in rationales for the subject. Significant effort needs to be made in developing these in ways that teachers can realistically use right from the start of the design & technology learning journey in KS1.

Meeting the totality of these arguments will be achieved by teaching children to achieve a combination of technological capability and technological perspective. These are described further in the later section on ‘Breadth and Balance’.

We would be pleased to discuss in further depth with Ofsted the above and ways in which the design & technology curriculum might be implemented.


NextThe Ofsted Survey