Design and Technology Association’s vision paper calls for curriculum overhaul

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The paper seeks to contextualise the decline of the subject, identify shortfalls across different stages of education and suggest solutions to implement at government level.

The Design and Technology (D&T) Association has released a vision paper titled Reimagining D&T, calling key stakeholders to action to save the subject from extinction.

Based on two years of investigation and research, the vision paper makes both a social and economic case for investing in the subject and reworking its curriculum to make it more relevant today. Despite the UK being the first country to make design and technology a compulsory part of the school curriculum during the 1988 School Reforms, the paper suggests that it has been neglected in the last decade.

In 2003, over 430,000 students studied the subject at GSCE level compared to last year’s 78,000 GSCE entries, according to the document. The decline carries over into A Level entries, which came out at under 10,000 in 2022 compared to 20,000 in 2003. Similarly, there has been a massive drop in qualified D&T secondary teachers, with the D&T Association counting only 6,500 last year, reduced from around 15,000 in 2009.

Image courtesy of the Design and Technology Association

Evidence from the D&T Association’s research shows that the subject is approximately four years away from “curriculum obscurity” and faces extinction in regions with “high levels of poverty”. It condemns policy makers who place “low value on student creativity” and questions the “tiers of subject performance” defined by unfair measurements and assessments. The latter is especially relevant in light of the government’s recently revealed plan to cut underperforming university courses.

The vison paper outlines the design economy’s £97.4 billion GVA contribution to the UK economy in 2019 as well as the fact that, in 2020, 1.97 million people were working in the sector (1 in 20 workers in the UK). It also details that 77% of designers work in non-design sectors – such as finance, retail and construction – stressing that the decline of design education is not just the design industry’s problem.

Rebranding Design and Technology

Throughout consultations for Reimagining D&T, the D&T Association says it became clear that the subject would require a “rebrand” from primary education level right through to higher education. It adds that a new name repeatedly came up for the subject – Design, Engineering and Innovation – which better summarises its “core epistemology”.

Another education-wide issue – which the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Equipment (CLEAPSS) consulted on – is what future design studio classrooms will look like.

The vision paper also made suggestions specific to each stage of education.

KS1 and KS2 (age 5-11)

Despite the overall trend of decline, D&T has seen some growth at primary school level, (KS1 and KS2). The paper suggests that the continued growth at this level could have a knock-on effect on secondary education as well as advising that green economy, circular design, and design’s role in global sustainability goals should be “thoughtfully added to the curricula”.

KS3 (age 11-14)

The D&T Association identifies the first three years of secondary education (KS3) as the biggest problem area. The paper says: “Too many schools have settled into a routine of ‘making things’ where the completion of the end product is the main objective”.

It says that “insufficient time and thought is devoted to the learning structured within these ‘making activities’,” meaning that students do not learn about iterative design processes” and “human skills” such as problem solving, creativity, and analytical thinking. The report infers that, if KS3 students knew more about the benefits of a comprehensive design and technology education, they might be encouraged to take the subject at GSCE level.

Although there is “an acceptance” that KS3 D&T will be taught by “a workforce that lacks deep subject knowledge”, the paper highlights that teachers should be supported in increasing their knowledge and experience through CPD (Continuing Professional Development) courses and coaching “rather than by dumbing down the curriculum”.

KS4 and Examinations (age 14-16)

Non-Examined Assessment (NEA) – a context-led assessment for which students identify a user, a problem and a brief – is still favoured by D&T teachers and students. However, the D&T Association’s research suggests that too much focus on the NEA and written exam in Year 11 is deterring students from choosing the subject at A Level.

In response, it has proposed “a series of alternative assessment methods” and received feedback on these suggestions from teachers. In the next two years, the plan is to work with teachers, awarding organisations, Ofqual, and other interested bodies to decide on “alternative ways to assess the remaining 50% of any qualification outside the NEA”.

The paper also reports that many former D&T teachers opted to move to Art & Design, which it says is down to an overloaded KS4 syllabus in D&T. The heavy content load alongside restrictions to teaching hours means that teachers have to leave large sections out of their teaching, in hopes that it will not come up on the exam. The proposed solution is to look closely at the content over the next year and refine the syllabus.

KS5 and beyond (age 16+)

Determining whether the D&T A Level qualification is valued at a further and higher education level is part of the next stage of the D&T Association’s research. The Association says: “We have received very little negative feedback from teachers about the structure and knowledge content held within the KS5 syllabus documents. This requires further exploration and needs to be compared with results from the above research.”

What can the Government do?

Though it is part of the STEM subjected group – which the Government has very publicly supported – D&T teacher training has historically not received the same level of bursary as Chemistry, Physics, Computer Science and Maths (currently £27,000), which the paper asks to be rectified. It also advocates for D&T-focused recruitment schemes, similar to the Engineers Teach Physics scheme funded by the government last year.

Due to the teacher recruitment crisis, the D&T Association also requests that the Government funds CPD training for all D&T teachers as well as funding the KS2 CAM (additive manufacturing initiative) which has been run by the Association for the last 18 months.

Finally, it asks the Department for Education to “actively engage with the Association around these recommendations”, resulting in “working documents”.

So far, the vision paper has been backed by established industry names such as Sir Jony Ive, Brompton Bicycle chief executive officer Will Butler-Adams, and chartered engineer Yewande Akinola. Ive accuses the government of “deprioritising” creative subjects since 2010, adding that “it is crucial that government, business leaders, educators and governing bodies adopt the recommendations set out in this report”.

Butler-Adams reinforces that the value design and technology “as a core tenant of our education system”, while Akinola says that an improved D&T curriculum will result in “a generation of thinkers who can bridge the gap between imagination and practical application, turning ideas into tangible solutions”.

The Association says a letter will be released imminently asking teachers, parents, industry and sector leaders to support the vision paper by signing a petition, so it can be taken to Government.

Meanwhile, the D&T Association intends to deliver on aspects of the vision that can be acted upon without government intervention.

 

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