More design, less handicraft

 

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

First introduced into the National Curriculum in England in 1989, Design and Technology (D&T) has been one of the few real opportunities in the school curriculum to inspire young minds to take up careers in engineering, manufacturing and technology. The D&T curriculum was last revised in 2005. Sadly, new proposals from the Department for Education for D&T at Key Stages 1 to 3 (up to the age of 14), published on 7 February, fall short in their aspirations.

You would think this would be an exciting opportunity to make the subject fit for the 21st century, packed with British thought leadership on design and its role in support of our advanced industrial economy. You might even think that we could bring some academic and technical rigour to a subject that evolved 30 years ago from its roots in woodwork and home economics. It seems not. This draft curriculum is regressive, focused on basic craft and manual skills. It covers a huge range of subjects, from horticulture and cooking to textiles, electronics, construction and mechanics.

I asked my nephew, a bright 14-year-old at school in London, how he was enjoying D&T today. “There’s not much design,” he said, “it’s about making things.” I asked about team working. There isn’t any, was the answer. “We work in groups, but we each make our own clock.” Youngsters enjoy making things and it is vital to teach manual skills, but we must recognise that D&T may be the only opportunity students have at school to learn how science and maths underpin design and innovation.

In its First Steps report, A new approach for our schools, published in November last year, the CBI argues that the UK has a “conveyor belt education system that tolerates a long tail of low performance and fails to stretch the able”. With its formulaic approach and long hours of manual labour, D&T in most schools is clearly in this category.

The Academy has been working with the Design Council and the Design and Technology Association in an attempt to reform the subject by focusing on design and creativity. In the words of the association, however, the new draft curriculum “is based on craft and home-maintenance skills at the expense of advanced learning in design, engineering and technology”.

The President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Sir John Parker, wrote to The Times on 13 February to make the point that “horticulture, for all its merits, is not what we had in mind to drive growth on the scale that is needed” in the UK. Sir James Dyson, also commenting in The Times on the proposal that repair and maintenance skills should be a focus of the new curriculum, stressed that young people “should learn to invent as well as fix”.

The government’s current work on an industrial strategy is focused on finance, the exploitation of innovative technologies and, notably, building the pipeline of skilled people. As the Rt Hon Vince Cable MP explained to parliament in September, we “need a long-term commitment to world-class skills”. The D&T component of the National Curriculum should be an important part of that long-term commitment.

D&T is a vital enabling subject for young people aspiring to careers in the technical and creative industries. It must not revert to a potpourri of handicraft skills. There needs to be a balance between developing a progressive curriculum with academic and technical rigour and imparting the craft and home skills that underpin the practical demands of life, such as knowledge of materials, tools, health and safety, food, nutrition and cooking. Perhaps we should recognise that modern industrial skills are different from modern ‘life’ skills and teach them separately.

Design, technology, invention, entrepreneurship, team working and an understanding of systems and performance must be at the heart of a future D&T curriculum. The curriculum should focus on skills for enterprise. As John Miller put it in his essay What’s wrong with D&T?, published by the RSA in 2011, the subject needs “to go beyond merely meeting needs and help a new generation to shape the 21st century”. The Academy has offered to help the Department for Education. Consultation closes on 16 April. You may want to sharpen your pencil on this too.

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng
Editor-in-Chief

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