Medics highlight the potential catastrophe of losing practical activity in schools

Published 31st October 2018

Some of us may have been woken up yesterday morning, listening to a feature on BBC Radio 4 Today programme, one that resonates with the plight of design and technology (D&T) being experienced in schools today. Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical. Medical students have been losing the ability to manipulate and understand materials and as a consequence they now pose a risk to patients.  Hopefully this will wake up more of our key educational decision makers to the reality of what is happening in schools and the more than potential dangers associated with the demise of D&T education we are witnessing. The BBC news online, quotes Professor Kneebone saying:

"It is important and an increasingly urgent issue," going on to issue a warning that medical students might have high academic grades but cannot cut or sew.

"It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things - cutting things out, making things - that is no longer the case," says Prof Kneebone.

For many years, the D&T Association and others interested in developing creative, design and technical education in schools, have been pointing out how vitally important it is for young people to be taught practical skills, to experience working with a wide variety of materials and tools and the benefits this has to so many other walks of life. Some years ago, I recall listening to an eminent surgeon being interviewed and being asked about his own schooling. He said that the most useful subject he studied at school was woodwork!  Practically speaking, that makes a great deal of sense.  Whilst not wishing to go back to traditional craft-based approaches, the D&T Association has always pointed out how well taught and resourced D&T lessons provide the best opportunity for young people to develop a ‘practical literacy’. A literacy that will inform their ability to act, just as much as their ability to interpret and use the spoken and written word. Good D&T ensures young people design and make artefacts using a wide variety of materials. And as Professor Kneebone says:

"You have to spend a lot of time working with materials to learn to read them with your hands".

This is something to which the leading English neurosurgeon, and a pioneer of neurosurgical advances and author of ‘Do No Harm’, Henry Marsh, has also referred.  An understanding of materials, how they can be manipulated, and worked with tools and instruments in the operating theatre, is no different to that which is initiated and developed in the school workshop.

Professor Kneebone was speaking at an event on Tuesday held at the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London, at the launch of a report, published by the Edge Foundation, calling for more creativity in the curriculum. Edge has been highly critical of government, whose educational policies are directly causing a reduction in the amount of time young people spend studying creative and technical subjects such as D&T, a claim substantiated by the severe and on-going fall in GCSE entries for these subjects. The report cites entries to creative subjects having fallen by 20% since 2010, including a 57% fall in design and technology GCSE.

Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Edge education charity, says: "The government pays lip service by saying creative subjects are important, but its policies demonstrate otherwise."  She says the way school performance is measured tends to push to the detriment of arts and creative subjects as schools focus on core academic subjects.

Today’s article in The Telegraph (31st October 2018): ‘New medics not nimble enough to operate, fears leading surgeon’, provides further description of how the Professor learnt as a child, making things with his hands.

The drawing of attention to the value of a broad education by those who are not immediately associated with this area of the curriculum is vitally important. Unless concrete scenarios such as the one featured here are publically exposed, together with the longer-term obvious ramifications of the draconian effects of our current educational priorities, we stand to lose so much as a society.  The seriousness of this is amplified still further by our nation standing on the brink of having to be much more self-sufficient and generate enough skilled individuals to meet the needs of a wide and ever-widening range of professions.  Hopefully politicians will take note and act.


Article written and supplied by Andy Mitchell

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