Challenges and Opportunities in D&T

Published 22nd January 2016

Diana Choulerton HMI and National Lead for Design and Technology for Ofsted

This term’s edition of D&T Practice contains an article, written by Diana Choulerton HMI and National Lead for Design and Technology for Ofsted.  This makes for very interesting reading and contains some important messages for the D&T community.  For this reason, we are also making it available here to non-members of the D&T Association.

In my presentation at the Design and Technology Association summer school last July, I identified key challenges we face in ensuring that school students across the country experience a well taught, relevant and engaging D&T curriculum fit for 2015 and beyond. In particular at Key Stage 3 and 4.

In schools where the design and technology curriculum is well designed and taught, our subject plays a unique and invaluable role in preparing our young people for their lives beyond school. When this is the case, they develop into confident creative designers and problem solvers, equipped to utilise current and emerging technologies - a skill set much needed in the world of work and modern society in general.

Regrettably this is not always the case. The design and technology curriculum as it is taught in a considerable number of schools is out of date. In these schools, students have too few chances to engage in a truly iterative design process, develop creative problem solving skills or design using systems and control technology. There is an imbalance between designing and making activities that involve students following the teacher’s instructions and those which involve pupils in innovative problem solving. Of course, it is important that pupils develop practical making and manufacturing skills and understanding. Without these it is difficult for pupils to explore and realise designs. However, too often the teaching of making skills through focused practical tasks predominates at the expense of other aspects of the subject. Opportunities for pupils to engage in an iterative design process, determining the ways that materials and components will be shaped and combined to realise designs that solve real-life problems, are too limited or, in some cases, missing altogether. When students are given an opportunity to design, it is not unusual for the task to be mainly restricted to designing in two dimensions, tackling design tasks such as logos, surface patterns or clock face appearance.

No doubt many of you reading this, who are leaders and teachers, will be confident that this is not the case in your school. You will have ensured a suitable balance between different aspects of the subject. Each scheme of work will build on previous learning and be taught in a way that enables pupils to make strong progress. Your students will be well prepared for and achieve well in design and technology subjects at GCSE. However, the national picture of students’ achievement in the subject at GCSE is not encouraging. An analysis of students’ GCSE performance nationally in 2014, which compares students’ GSCE grade with their end of Key Stage 2 combined reading writing and mathematics level, indicates that proportion of students making the equivalent of 2 levels or better progress in most design technology subjects is lower than in many other GCSE subjects. Boys disadvantaged and more-able students make noticeably less progress than others. Furthermore, achievement in some D&T GSCE subjects appears to be in decline. The graphs in figure y compare trends in progress from starting points for a range of GCSE subjects. It can be seen that the proportion of most-able students making the equivalent of at least two levels progress, in food technology, textiles and resistant materials has declined notably since 2010. Worryingly there has also been a noticeable decline in the proportion of students with low starting points making this progress in textiles and graphic products. Using Key Stage 2 average point score (APS) as a starting point is not, of course, a perfect measure but it does provide some food for thought.

There are likely to be several reasons why achievement in most design and technology subjects appears relatively poor. The demand level of the subject, GCSE assessment methodology, poor curriculum design at Key Stage 3 that leaves students poorly prepared for Key Stage 4, lessons taught by teachers who lack the necessary skills and knowledge to teach the subject well and GCSE specifications that tend to encourage students to follow a linear design process approach and prioritise making skills above design creativity, are all possible barriers to good progress.

In my presentation, I talked about the challenges we face in ensuring that existing teachers get the training and support they need to keep up-to-date and be highly effective subject practitioners. Increasingly, responsibility for this is in the hands of individual schools, partnerships and academy trusts. Very few local authority subject advisers and independent consultants remain. Seemingly more encouragingly, there are now approximately 40 design and technology specialist leaders of education (SLE). However, information I have gleaned from my recent survey of D&T SLE, suggest that schools do not always know about SLE in their local area and the amount range of support these SLE provide outside their own school and local partnership or alliance is in most cases minimal. As a result, their contribution to improving design and technology education across the wider system is limited. The distribution of SLE also varies significantly across England. Some areas of the country have several SLE whilst others have none. Many schools have no-one nearby to call on. Increasing the number of D&T SLE could help ensure more effective support than currently available. However, so far the number of teaching schools alliances who have a D&T SLE has at best been modest. With teaching schools having to become increasingly self-funded overtime, there may be little appetite for them to recruit and deploy such SLE in the future. Furthermore, ensuring that the subject advice that the SLE provide is pertinent and up-to-date presents a further challenge to those deploying and using them.

Of course not all support has to be face-to-face. Social media provides practitioners with new and exciting ways to learn about and share good practice. There is an active on-line community of D&T practitioners. However, even here you don’t have to look far to find many examples of practice that reinforces the idea that the main purpose of design and technology is to teach students how to make products that someone else has already designed. Examples of students successfully engaging in a meaningful, iterative design process are less prevalent. There is a danger that social media is just as likely to reinforce the status quo as it is to instigate change and modernisation.

Another contributory factor, of increasing concern and very much to the forefront at present, is the significant under-recruitment to design and technology initial teacher training courses. Much has been said and written about this elsewhere, so I will not go in to further detail here. However, it is clear that this issue must be addressed if the subject is to improve and thrive.

Subject take-up is often cited as another significant threat to our subject. Since the introduction of the increased flexibility programme in 2002 the proportion of students taking a D&T GCSE has been in decline. Increasingly students who would previously have chosen a D&T GCSE had opportunities to take BTEC or other vocational course instead. Between 2007 and 2013 the proportion of students sitting a D&T GCSE dropped from 52% to 35%. Comparably, the EBacc measure which was introduced in 2010 has, so far, had comparatively little impact. The proportion of students taking a D&T GCSE over the last 3 years has remained at approximately 35%. D&T has up until now remained a very popular subject. (fig. x below shows how D&T take up over time compares with other non-core subjects). There is no national data available to tell us if the proportion of students currently studying design and technology remains as high. Anecdotal evidence suggests take-up may have dropped. There is evidence that at least some school leaders’ response to the forthcoming progress 8 measure, is to limit opportunities for students to study subjects that may yield less points, design and technology being one of these. Funding restraints and difficulties with recruitment are also cited as contributory factors. It is certainly a concern if students do not have an option to pursue design and technology at GCSE and may call in to question whether such schools have a suitably broad and balanced curriculum. However, even if there is some further decline in take-up, this is not the biggest threat to the long-term survival of the subject. There are other important subjects with much smaller take-up than design and technology.

There is much to be tackled to ensure that when students do study D&T they get a high quality, up-to-date experience. However, there are also opportunities to be seized. The new design and technology GSCE provides a unique chance to modernise the subject and pull together the somewhat disparate material areas into one cohesive subject sharply focussed on iterative design, creative problem solving and modern technological understanding and know-how. The creation of a separate Food GCSE and the removal of the requirement for it to be considered a ‘manufacturing material’, although not welcome by all, frees up food teachers from having to comply with a linear design process based assessment framework which never really fitted.

Design and technology is facing an uncertain future. There is much to be done to make sure it is the subject it purports to be and that it remains pertinent and relevant for many future generations. For this to happen we must all play our part in overcoming the challenges and grasping the opportunities presented.

Below I have listed a few questions you may wish to consider and discuss with colleagues at school and/or in the wider design and technology community.

  • What have you defined as the aim of design and technology in your school? Does it match those of the design and technology national curriculum? Are these aims shared with and understood by wider school leadership. Does your school’s leadership provide you with the resources, support and challenge needed to realise these aims?
  • Is your school’s design and technology curriculum up-to-date? If not, what barriers are in the way and how might you overcome them?
  • How do you make sure your teachers have the up-to-date skills and knowledge needed to teach a 21st century design and technology curriculum?
  • Are students choosing design and technology GCSE fully prepared for its demands? Do they understand the true nature of the subject? Will the current Year 8 have a broad enough grounding in the subject at Key Stage 3, and particularly in systems and control, to enable to cope with the wider subject content that the GCSE will include from 2017?
  • How do you contribute to making sure that good practice is identified, shared and learnt from in your school and in the wider system?


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