Working at the Design and Technology Association can sometimes be a soul-destroying gig. Don’t get me wrong, there is air conditioning, free-flow coffee, and sometimes some left-over biscuits stashed away from the Christmas hamper. I don’t mean it like that. Design and Technology as a subject has been going through some tough times lately, and it can feel like an uphill battle.
The subject has been hit in recent years by several contributing factors. This almost perfect storm has seen numbers opting for both GCSE and A-Level qualifications more than halve in the last 10 years, with another five per cent drop last year. Material costs continue to rise, budgets continue to fall, and teacher recruitment is at an all-time low, with many schools unable to employ suitably qualified staff to front the class - even if they are lucky enough to have a student cohort who want to study it.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Putting D&T back on the curriculum
You may well have had ‘the chat’ by now. You know, addressing that elephant in the room – dusting off D&T and popping it back on the curriculum? I am fortunate in my role to speak with and support hundreds of primary D&T teachers. As the subject association, we have seen a massive increase in engagement from primary schools over the last few years, primarily brought on by the changes in the latest Ofsted framework and the need for school to provide a ‘broad, rich’ curriculum.
Irrespective of the reasons why there is renewed interest, and why organisations such as ours are so passionate about the subject, this is not shared by all. How many eager staff members did you have with hand aloft, shouting ‘me, me, me!’ when the coordinator role was discussed? Possibly not many. I’ve lost count of the number of teachers who were volunteered to be D&T coordinators because they happen to have assembled an IKEA Billy bookcase, or watched one series of Sewing Bee.
One teacher I spoke to, who was on sick leave from work for a week and was duly nominated as D&T coordinator whilst off ill, declared “I’m never going to take time off again!”
Yet, D&T can offer our schools and pupils so much. When asked about its place on the curriculum, we are often greeted with an agreed consensus of problem-solving, resilience, teamwork, technology skills, creativity - all areas regularly cited by business and industry as fundamental skills and attributes for success in an uncertain world ahead. So why is it still a subject that schools are reluctant to embrace?
Constructing an engaging curriculum
Common reasons are apprehension and sometimes even fear, lack of subject knowledge and limited resources and time. Throw into the mix the perception of D&T as a bad version of Blue Peter with a class of identical-looking artefacts based on the Tudors or Vikings made from loo rolls and sticky tape, and we are in a problematic scenario again.
It may surprise you to discover that almost 20 per cent of primary schools in England are currently members of the Design and Technology Association, and we work with them to try to alleviate those challenges. We have a wide range of CPD opportunities, including face-to-face and virtual, bespoke INSET and consultancy. We can help you construct an engaging curriculum using our best-selling ‘Projects on a Page’ planners covering the full D&T curriculum from Year 1 to 6 and we have EYFS guidance, too. Add in the free resources, webinars and magazines, and we have all the support you could need, from subject specialists, all in one place.
Instead of Viking longboats and Tudor houses, think of microcontrollers used to help tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or 3D printing and augmented reality being used to demonstrate community structures designed by pupils to help improve the local area.
Many schools are doing inspirational things like this and come to us for support, and to celebrate the progress they’ve made. Often, they look for the next area to access. It might be working with us on a Blueprint 1000 initiative, our project for linking education and industry, which gets subject experts in to schools to inspire pupils further and get them working on briefs set by the company.
Dust off the doubts
Don’t let setting out seem like a daunting journey. It can often begin with a look in the old store cupboard, discovering the binca fabric, tenon saws and frying pans hidden behind the well-used science kit. “Time to dust it all off and see how we can use it all again”, we often hear. I’d encourage you to put the duster down. Were the D&T schemes you last did at school all those years ago conducive to problem-solving, resilience, teamwork, technology skills and creativity, or a fun, craft-based activity based on a history unit you covered? The answer is almost certainly, yes.
So, rather than a dust, it may be time for a complete clear-out and to start again. As educators, we need to do what we can to prepare young people for a future we can’t yet envisage, but which can be supported through an inspiring D&T curriculum that teachers love to deliver and pupils thrive on.
D&T is experiencing renewed interest and popularity in schools. While there may be challenging times for the subject in many secondary schools, the green shoots we see at primary suggest the future looks rosy. Let us help you help your teachers and pupils access the best subject on the curriculum.
Pulling in the same direction
- Before introducing D&T into your school’s curriculum, you should agree what purpose the subject will serve. What attributes will it help to develop? Why should we teach it? Compile a list of responses from your staff and you will probably find elements such as problem-solving, creativity, innovation, resilience, teamwork, use of modern technology, motor skills amongst many others.
- An interesting next step is to ask staff to list all the attributes that business, industry, higher education suggest are vital for an uncertain future ahead. Search engines, research papers and anecdotal remarks will bring up a startlingly similar list. This is key. This gives the subject validity and lets you know its worth.
- When planning, refer to this list constantly. It can be easy, with the constraints of time or when your TA is off ill, to revert back to a Blue Peter experience of simply making stuff and following a teachers’ demo, and losing sight of the purpose of the subject. Are you able to pinpoint lessons and units where ‘problem-solving’, ‘resilience’ and other aspects are engineered into the lesson? Using the Ofsted manta, would we be able to ‘see it together in action’?
- Whilst a rhetorical question, it is an important one. Your curriculum and getting everyone pulling in the same direction is key. Take a look at our free ‘D&T Progression Framework’. This, along with other tools and resources available from the association can help you plan a relevant, exciting and rich D&T curriculum for your school.
Ryan Ball is director of education at the Design and Technology Association.