House of Lords Select Committee on Youth Unemployment - Thursday 24th June 2021

Published 25th June 2021

Firstly, I am delighted that we were invited to present to this committee. As your professional Association, one would hope that we would be an automatic choice when discussing the subject and wider technical/vocational learning; historically, that has not always been the case.

This is the first time that I have attended a select committee, and I must admit that I found the process (all on Zoom) incredibly reassuring. The committee was very well informed, curious, sharp with their questions and appeared to be genuinely interested in the responses offered to the questions posed, with several supplementary questions asked.

I intend to give you a feel for the questions asked and the responses that I offered. They are interesting, thought-provoking questions, and it would be good to hear what you think and if you might have responded differently if asked the same set of questions.

This was evidence session 17, so part of a substantive trawl for evidence in this area.

Question 1 - The Government has set out ambitions for technical education and training to be seen as a viable route for young people alongside academic education. What is stopping these routes from being seen as equal?

My response - There are many positives around the Government White Paper. The PM’s speech last September at Exeter College was the first time since Blair that I have heard the leader of any party talk about the importance of skills alongside knowledge. However, several issues still concern me:

  • The White Paper paints a pretty linear picture of student progression. From the age of 5-16, all students study a knowledge-based curriculum dictated by the Ebacc and heavily influenced by accountability measures. This curriculum offer does not value skills, and not only is there no emphasis on creativity and technical education, but the system is also forcing these subjects, including design and technology, to the periphery of the school curriculum offer.

Aged sixteen, students (and their parents who are quite obviously heavy influencers in this process) are forced with a choice, an academic route that leads naturally to A Levels and a university education, or a vocational path that includes T Levels and a small number of alternative technical qualifications; this route leading to apprenticeships, HE, and technician level posts.

The reality is that student progression is not (and it could be argued, never should be) that linear. Students always will and should always be able to cross over between pathways. If T Levels are not to be viewed as a second-rate alternative for ’other people’s children‘, then there must be parity between qualifications, and universities must make it clear that they are willing to accept either as suitable entry qualifications.

  • Three notable universities to date have made it clear that they will not be willing to view T Levels as suitable entry qualifications to the majority of their degree courses, these being Cambridge, Imperial College and Queen Mary’s, London. The Russell Group universities have yet to make a public statement on how they view T Levels which, given the above, I find difficult to see any other way than negatively. As a parent of an able, ambitious young man or woman, why would you encourage your son or daughter towards T Levels given this degree of uncertainty?
  • Technical does not and cannot mean ‘lower ability’. Parity of courses and award is essential if both are to be viewed as credible pathways.

Question 2 - GCSE entries for design and technology have fallen in recent years. What is the value of the subject, why has this happened, and what would you recommend to increase take-up?

My response - Design and technology has dropped from a high of over 400,000 entries (when the subject was compulsory at KS4) to just over 98,000 last year. My start point when answering this question must be to start by addressing the value of the subject.

  • Design and technology has its own body of subject knowledge, vocabulary, skills and character sets or attributes within young people that the subject seeks to deliver and build. Our subject is multidisciplinary by nature, which has been both a strength and the Achilles heel of the subject over the years. We take knowledge and learning from elsewhere on the curriculum; maths, science, English, geography; for example, we give that learning context and meaning and encourage students to use their combined knowledge base to solve real-life problems.
  • Our subject encourages young people to maintain and nurture an almost childlike sense of curiosity; why is it that shape? How could I make that fit better, look better, perform better? What is the real problem that I am being asked to solve? What material properties work best with the parameters that have been set? Are aesthetics as important as function in my solution… I could go on. This sense of curiosity and a desire to enable students to ‘ask better questions’ is what distinguishes our subject from others on the curriculum.
  • At its very least, we want young people to leave our subject aware of how important design is within the world and how good, empathetic design makes the world a better place. We want students to be mindful of how humans impact the world we inhabit and how only good design, coupled with the effective use of existing and emerging technologies, can help undo and reverse much of the damage that we have caused to the environment.
  • We teach young people how to use technology and natural resources sustainably. Through D&T young people understand what sustainability is and why it is so important. By engaging students in work that directly relates to their lives, community, and how they live, travel, shop, and work, we help make a connection that makes conservation everyone’s problem. Engagement levels in our subject are high as students enjoy the connection that our subject provides them to an increasingly complex world, allowing them to make a positive impact even in a small way.
  • Design and technology opens up conversations around existing and emerging career pathways that traditional careers education struggles to reach successfully. The recently released Engineering UK paper ‘Securing the future’ points to the difficulties schools find in keeping up with the pace of change in this field and how teachers deliver the best careers education in the STEM subjects as part of curriculum delivery.

In summary, I would argue that our subject is essential if we are to prepare our young people to successfully live, work, grow and thrive in an increasingly complex and technology-led world.

Why have numbers dropped in design and technology?

I would argue that there are several reasons for the decline in entries which, when combined, have created something of a perfect storm for the subject, these being:

  • The introduction of the Ebacc has been detrimental to any subject not named within the select eight! This is not the sole reason for the subject’s GCSE decline, but it is a significant factor as schools, worried about accountability measures, drop all the creative subjects and PE into ‘basket three’ and force young people to select one only at best, at worst there are schools that no longer offer any creative options at KS4.
  • Our subject is the worst recruited of any curriculum subject and has been for as long as I care to remember. This has resulted in school leaders who value and want to offer the subject being forced to remove it as an option or place a non-specialist in the role as they cannot find high-quality D&T trained subject leaders.
  • Our subject suffers from misconceptions from several key stakeholders around the nature of the subject, what we offer and its inherent value. This is not helped by the fact that when parents enter a school workshop, in many instances, it still smells like, looks like, and perhaps sounds like the craft-based subject that they may have studied when they were at school.
  • An obsession with school accountability measures has marginalised our subject. If you keep telling school leaders, parents, and industry that only a small number of subjects matter, well, don’t be surprised if they listen and act accordingly
  • A recent survey carried out by the Association for a paper that we are due to release soon with the RAEng demonstrates that the vast majority of secondary teachers have had little or no subject-based training in the last three years. The pace of industry development and change dictates that without this CPD, design and technology teachers are quickly out of touch and are delivering behind the curve.
  • A lack of connection with universities has been a significant cause for concern. When universities were naming ‘facilitating subjects’ for courses, D&T A Level was not named as a facilitating subject for a single degree course in the UK… a nice to have, yes, but not essential. This despite many course leaders openly stating how A Level D&T is beneficial to their degree course.
  • Finally, our subject is (or at least can be) expensive to deliver when compared to purely knowledge-based subjects. As school budgets continue to be squeezed, school leaders have been forced to look for curriculum and staff salary savings; sadly, D&T has fallen in many schools due to austerity and a need to shrink the curriculum budget.

My recommendations to correct the downward spiral

  • If we must have Ebacc, which I personally feel is educationally limiting and divisive, then D&T should be an Ebacc subject.
  • We need to immediately invest in ITE and reinstate the bursary for teachers entering the subject. We need an immediate drive to bring more D&T specialist trained teachers into schools.
  • Subject CPD in design and technology is essential. All schools should have a ring-fenced allowance for subject-specific training. This is critical in a subject where the pace of external change affects a minimum of 10% of curriculum content every year.
  • The Government should support initiatives that connect the work of D&T departments nationally with business and industry. The Association’s Blueprint 1000 and Primary Engineer are perfect examples of suitable horses to back as we seek to add relevance and purpose to the curriculum.
  • The subject is growing and thriving in the public sector while shrinking and dwindling in the state sector. We need to urgently ask why it is highly valued by parents, students, and school leaders in ‘paid-for education’ yet is seen as expendable for the majority. There is little in the way of ‘levelling up’ to be seen here, with an increasing number of sectors struggling to employ a diverse workforce.
  • One ray of sunshine and hope is the tremendous growth that the Association has seen with primary school membership and engagement over the last eighteen months. This is driven by Ofsted’s requirement for schools to deliver a ‘broad and rich’ curriculum which is resulting in many schools that have failed to deliver the subject not moving to reintroduce D&T to their curriculum. We can use this as a strong starting point for the resurgence of the subject.

Question 3 - What role does STEM education play in equipping young people with the skills for future economic needs, particularly in green technologies.

My response - Students need to be developing a body of competence that includes knowledge, skills and a set of character traits or collection of personal and professional attributes that includes the CBI and other professional body identified essentials to allow young people to be ‘work ready’. These include:

  • Literacy and numeracy
  • The ability to listen, process and act
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Aptitude, confidence, and a positive mental approach
  • Tenacity and flexibility (Grit)
  • Teamwork and the ability to self-start and take the initiative
  • Self-awareness and empathy
  • Emotional Intelligence

I would argue that our current education system, especially at secondary level, is built around accountability and the desire to push as much knowledge content inside young heads as possible without taking the time to help students contextualise this knowledge and put it to work.

Design and technology presents students with opportunities to apply gained knowledge to solve complex problems related both to their own lives and communities and to some of the biggest challenges faced by society. Our subject enables young people to take control of a problem and to make a positive, measured contribution. We had a spiralling mental health issue with young people before the pandemic; empowerment is the greatest facilitator of positive mental health, our subject has much to offer here. 

Supplementary question - Is the term ‘STEM’ useful, or does it create an artificial divide between the arts and science careers that require elements of both skillsets?

My response - I have always struggled to a degree with the STEM acronym; even worse when you start adding to this by making it STEAM etc. Suppose we are realistic in our assessment of this term. In that case, it is only the beginning and the end of the acronym that gets used for most of the time, with science and maths dominating and technology and engineering getting lost.

That said, this is an internationally recognised term, and it is not going away, so perhaps we should not fixate on the acronym but instead fixate on our engagement with it. STEM, STEAM, call it what you will. It’s what we do with it that matters!

We need to recognise that fine art is a very different beast from design and technology and STEM and while I can see no problem, and a lot of positive arguments, as to why students should study both, the reality of the EBacc system is that in most schools, students are presented with an either/or situation.

In some schools where art delivery takes a far more design-led focus, there is synergy and overlap between art and D&T (STEM). I feel that we need to appreciate both while at the same time being aware of and acknowledging the differences.

Question 4 - Do you see greater automation and technology adaptation as a threat or an opportunity for young people? How could education better prepare young people to work more effectively alongside technology as its use increases?

My response - The world is changing fast, and education in this country, anyway, is struggling to keep up. It is a cliché, but we are educating young people to work in jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have yet to be invented, in companies that have yet to be formed. We are doing this with a system designed by the Victorians and has not changed much since this time!

Automation will quickly take over the routine tasks that traditionally employed the least qualified. This is already happing with many industries having to retrain and repurpose their workforce. The one thing that is difficult, if not impossible, to automate is creativity; that is the reason why we desperately need to rethink our education system to place creativity at the centre.

In my opinion, increased automation creates an opportunity. We can either be reactive and continue to ill prepare our young people to work alongside technology in a new and very different workplace, or we can embrace the change, be courageous and start preparing our young people to work in an automated world.

To support my assertion, I would like to offer two quotes that I feel strengthen the case.

Pamela Kearney - Head of HR Amazon Europe - “We should not call them soft skills; this demeans their importance. In an age of increased automation, these ‘human skills’ will be more important than they have ever been.”

Dilbaugh Gill - CEO and Team Principal Mahindra Racing and Grand Prix E founder - “Education to me appears to be broken - When I was at school, teachers taught us how to memorise answers. With the increased availability of computers, answers are readily available. Instead, we should be teaching young people how to ask better questions.”

Young people need to understand how technology fits into their lives and broader society and how its use can improve their existence, well-being, leisure, and productivity, while at the same time being aware of some of the dangers presented physically, mentally, and ethically by this rapid growth in technology use and increased automation. This education needs to be so much more than the introduction of coding to mainstream education to embrace a far broader definition of technological competency.

I leave this question with one striking illustration that I heard from a teacher at an educational technology conference earlier this week. “If you broke into my office and stole all my pens and pencils, it might take me two or three days before I notice. If you broke in and stole my laptop, I would struggle to function effectively immediately.”

Question 5 - Why is there a persistent gender diversity problem with STEM industries? How can more young women be encouraged to take up more roles in engineering and STEM-related careers?

My response - This is not specifically an industry problem as I see it but a societal one that has plagued us for decades. Why can a country such as Spain boast of a 50:50 gender split in engineering where only 12.4% of our engineering workforce is female despite years of targeted work?

Given that we are still fighting for gender equality in the workplace, only 24% of all board seats in the UK are held by women, and 28% of companies still have no women on their board at all, it should perhaps not be a surprise that we have not solved the STEM gender issue.

There has been progress, but this progress is far too slow. Workplaces still suffer from unconscious bias when recruiting, and I feel that the STEM sector suffers from some particular perception problems. So many influential, successful women engineers that I have been privileged to discuss this topic with talk of their need to be brighter, sharper, and better than male colleagues to get on in their role.

I feel that we need to spotlight successful role models in STEM posts as I firmly believe that ‘it is hard to be what you cannot see!’. Also, the term engineering means everything and nothing - the field is so vast that students are often not aware that design, engineering, technology, and IT posts are about designing and constructing a better way of life, i.e., these roles are about people and not about ‘things’. 

Research carried out by the IMechE demonstrates that young girls (primary age and up to the age of 14) are pretty open to most professions, including STEM and engineering, but their perception and interest wanes quickly as they approach GCSEs and start to make career decisions. We need to aim to influence young women early and demonstrate an empathetic approach to STEM engagement.

It was a pleasure to be able to talk within a forum that can question and challenge government direction and policy. I was very aware that in doing so I was representing so many hard working design and technology teachers across the country. I hope I represented you well, but I am open to dialogue and challenge on any of the points raised.

Tony Ryan

CEO, Design and Technology Association



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