D&T Curriculum Westminster Hall Debate

But what the minister decides on the Design and Technology curriculum will be every bit as significant for our future competiveness as what the Chancellor announces in an hour or so’s time.

I am entirely confident she understands the importance of getting it right and that the consultation her department is currently engaged on is a genuine one that could lead to meaningful change.

I hope she will regard my speech as a constructive submission to that consultation.

I apologise for any unintentional plagiarism in my remarks – I have been deluged in advice and I have endeavored to attribute all the quotations and points I make in this speech, but some may have fallen through the cracks.

I’m here primarily because of a constituent – Sue Wood-Griffiths, a lecturer at the University of Worcester – who came to see me in my constituency surgery to express her concerns.

A phrase in an email she sent to me yesterday summed it all up very nicely:

“We should acknowledge that we are educating children today for a world that they will live in in the future and not the one we used to live in.”

And that’s why I was so encouraged to read the words of the minister herself in a speech on Monday, when she said.
“We will fall hopelessly behind in the global race if we do not equip successive generations with contemporary skills.”

My constituent, the minister and I are in profound agreement.

I’m also here because of my deep concern about the serious engineering skills shortage.

I suggested a package of solutions in a ten minute rule bill last month.

My first objective in that bill was to give schools - from at least Key Stage Two - a duty to provide a meaningful experience of modern science, engineering and technology.

I believe that this objective can be met through a well structured D&T curriculum in which the business community participates enthusiastically.

I now advise NDI, the defence and aerospace supply chain organisation, and I am a non-executive director of a small advanced manufacturing business; I am learning directly about the challenges employers are facing.

I have concluded that the two greatest avoidable threats to our prosperity and security are the deficit and science, technology, engineering and maths, STEM, skill shortages.

A good Design and Technology Curriculum can make a major contribution to addressing this second issue.

However, as the minister will be aware, great concern about the draft D&T curriculum is being expressed by academics and teachers. But this is no plea of simple self-interest from producer groups. Industry - the end user of the skills provided to our children at school - is deeply concerned too.

James Dyson’s brilliant Times article on 11th February “Grilling Tomatoes Won’t Train New Engineers” explains this clearly, praising the changes made in the Computing and Maths curriculums, but expressing the deepest concern about the D&T curriculum.

Yesterday he told me,

“We need more engineers but the E from STEM is missing in our schools. Design & Technology should rank alongside maths and the sciences in importance – helping future engineers understand their practical applications.”

And I talked to Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid, about all this on Monday. Steve has probably forgotten more about skills issues than most of us will ever know and he is deeply worried about what the draft curriculum could do to the future flow of engineers and technicians.

D&T is perhaps an unhelpful phrase that can mislead those outside teaching.

In D&T pupils design, test, make and evaluate innovative, functional products and systems with clear users and purposes in mind.

They use a wide range of tools, equipment, materials and processes, including leading edge, industry standard computer-aided design and manufacturing, such as laser cutters and 3D printers.

They also integrate electronics and computer programming into their designing and making and they produce intelligent products.

In fact there’s real scope for getting local SMEs to run businesses from these well-equipped school workshops. They could take advantage of modern equipment used to teach D&T that is used only for a few hours every school day. This would bring welcome direct business engagement and experience of what technology can do into schools. I know of at least one school where this is already happening.

But the government is right to propose changes to the current curriculum.

Education for Engineering – E4E - say in their excellent report published recently,

"The subject is in need of reform to bring it in line with current Design thinking and modern technologies.”

Their report proposes

“…a new model for the D&T curriculum that realigns the subject with the original progressive vision proposed when it was introduced in 1989 while making it relevant for the 21st century.”

And it has this to say about the subject:

“D&T is one of the very few opportunities for pupils to partake in a technical, practical education. It plays an important role in providing young people with a hands-on, creative experience and develops a practical identity and a capability for innovation. The subject provides opportunity for collaboration, team working and communication – skills that are essential for future employment. It is the closest subject to engineering in the National Curriculum.”

But they emphasise,

“D&T is not a vocational subject. It is a general academic subject, and has its own fundamental body of knowledge, principles and concepts which are not provided elsewhere in the curriculum.”

It’s leading edge stuff that has changed out of all recognition in the years since I was at school. But the draft curriculum appears not to understand this.

Let me try to sum up the issues that are worrying people with these three concerns that an academic sent to me.

First, a narrowing of focus: The draft programme of study for Design and Technology returns to a 1950s DIY curriculum with an emphasis on basic craft and household maintenance skills. It places at risk the creative, challenging learning in design, engineering and technology that is part of the present D&T curriculum.

Second, a lack of rigour and challenge: The published draft programme of study for D&T lacks academic or technical rigour, challenge or ambition. It is completely out of step with the needs of our advanced industrial economy and sophisticated labour market. It will undermine routes into further and higher education for talented students by failing to provide the skills and knowledge they need to progress and by failing to inspire students to pursue careers in the creative industries, design, engineering, manufacturing and technology.

Third, a reduction in value, status and popularity: The draft proposals will further reinforce the perception that applied subjects are less valuable, which in turn will lead to academically gifted young people being discouraged from choosing technical and creative subjects at GCSE.

As Sir John Parker, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering said in a letter to The Times,

“The original D&T curriculum brought in by Kenneth Baker 20 years ago was more progressive than what we have now.”

Although I worry about curriculum overload, I have no objection to including food technology within the D&T curriculum as it suits many of the concepts that should be in a good curriculum.

But it is surprising to see cooking given absolute primacy in the curriculum, and I quote:

“The National Curriculum for design and technology aims to ensure that all pupils: understand food and nutrition and have opportunities to learn to cook.”

The draft curriculum goes on to list the subsidiary objectives of the curriculum with these introductory words,

“It also [note the ‘also’] aims to ensure that, working in fields such as materials (including textiles), horticulture, electricals and electronics, construction, and mechanics, they…….: and the list begins.

As Dr Paul Thompson, Rector of the Royal College of Art wrote to me,

“We need our young designers to be focussed on problem solving, market analysis, proof of concept, user interface and user experience, materials technology, visual literacy and aesthetics, sustainability, commerciality, and so much more. I really cannot see how home economics fits with this discipline at this particular level.”

Dr Marion Rutland, at the University of Roehampton has made a strong case to me for including food technology in the curriculum, but not cooking.

She differentiates between the two key issues underpinning the teaching of food in schools, and I quote,

“One is the perceived importance of pupils learning to cook as a ‘life skill’ and the second is the potential contribution of food technology in design and technology to include academic rigour and contribute to the pupils’ overall learning. Ofsted has noted a lack of clarity regarding the nature of food technology and a need for a more intellectually challenging curriculum with more in-depth nutritional knowledge and greater scientific understanding and technical rigour.”

She goes onto suggest that cooking may be more suited to the personal, social and health education (PHSE) curriculum or through cooking clubs.

My principal concern, though, is that the whole draft curriculum is written in a way that retreats from the combination of rigour and inspiration that the department is rightly seeking in other areas of study.

The curriculum should be encouraging creativity in its students, offering them choice over how to approach problems and giving them as much autonomy as possible in their approach.

Students need to experience the reality of STEM in the modern world to understand it. And for this they need real project work and real industry partners to bring it all to life.

Making design and technology fun, relevant and stimulating.

Instead the draft curriculum prepares its students for a low technology past, not a high technology present and future.

A couple of weeks ago, Dick Olver, Chairman of BAE Systems and Chair of E4E, speaking to a conference at the Royal Academy of Engineering contrasted experience on the Computing and D&T curriculums. He said,

“With Design and Technology … we seem to have a problem. Again, the Royal Academy of Engineering, along with the Design and Technology Association and the Design Council, provided advice to the Department for Education on new programmes of study for the subject. This time however, it seems our recommendations have been completely ignored. Instead of introducing children to new design techniques such as biomimicry, we now have a focus on cookery. Instead of developing skills in Computer Aided Design we have the introduction of horticulture. Instead of electronics and control we have an emphasis on basic mechanical maintenance tasks. In short, something has gone very wrong.”
The introduction to the subject content of the draft curriculum begins depressingly;

“In Key Stages 1 to 3 pupils should be taught progressively more demanding practical knowledge, skills and crafts…”

Contrast all; this with the well crafted phrases of the “purpose of study” for the Computing curriculum, which, ironically, comes immediately before D&T in the consultation document:

“A high-quality computing education equips pupils to understand and change the world through computational thinking. It develops and requires logical thinking and precision. It combines creativity with rigour: pupils apply underlying principles to understand real-world systems, and to create purposeful and usable artefacts. More broadly, it provides a lens through which to understand both natural and artificial systems, and has substantial links with the teaching of mathematics, science, and design and technology.”

To put my request to the minster simply, it is this - devise a D&T curriculum that follows the excellent example of the Computer curriculum.

And perhaps look at what her opposite numbers are doing in the widely praised Scottish “Curriculum for Excellence.”

I welcome the minister’s emphasis on the need to avoid excess prescription in the curriculum and the need to leave schools to be as free as possible in what and how they teach, but the words in these draft curriculums will direct what teachers do, and as DATA says,

“The core knowledge in the D&T proposals will not encourage teachers to develop exciting and stimulating lessons. It marks a radical and regressive departure from current practice. The language of the draft is utilitarian and uninspiring:
• ‘common’ practical skills
• ‘common’ materials
• ‘common’ ingredients
• ‘common’ tools and techniques
• ‘straightforward’ recipes
• straightforward’ skills
• ‘simple’ techniques
• ‘everyday’ products

“It will not inspire teachers to use their professionalism and expertise to motivate and engage pupils.”

Why does this matter so much?

The UK has a desperate shortage of engineers and technicians.

Engineering UK estimates that we have to double our output of engineers from the education system. That means increasing engineering graduates from 20,000 to 40,000 each year. And the same is true of apprentices.
If new technologies make new demands we will need many more still. And the history of the human race suggests that is exactly what will happen.
The D&T curriculum is one of the best long-term ways of addressing that shortage.

I loved abstract Maths and Physics. At my grammar school there was no D&T. Metalwork and woodwork were for the less academically able.

So I did well with my Maths and Physics but didn’t really understand what I could do with them. That’s probably why I’m not an engineer.

A good D&T curriculum, though, helps students to appreciate the uses of Maths and Physics and will inspire many young people – and, I suspect, especially girls – to pursue careers in science, technology and engineering.

Students who would otherwise never even have thought of it. Because they would have thought the sciences were not for them. Because D&T made science relevant.

Worryingly, DATA say

“The draft proposals will further reinforce the perception that applied subjects are less valuable, which in turn will lead to academically gifted young people being discouraged from choosing technical and creative subjects such as D&T. We need our very brightest young people to be creative and able to focus their talent on real-world challenges. Design and innovation are widely identified as drivers of economic growth and the basis of Britain’s long-term competitive advantage. If subjects like D&T are marginalised, where will this innovation come from?”

The irony is that the UK has been leading the world in its understanding of this – and our competitors are catching up.

As one academic wrote to me:

“Research into D&T education over the last 20 years has been world-leading. Other countries look to ours for the lead in how to teach Design and Technology. The works of Richard Kimbell, David Barlex, Kay Stables, Marion Rutland, Eddie Norman, David Spendlove, Frank Banks which build upon earlier higher education research by Ken Baynes, Bruce Archer and Phil Roberts leads the world in this area.

“Their research has led to what is modern D&T, and while there is of course a place for practical work and skills, this should not be the main focus of an argument for the defence of the subject.”

Can sustainable growth ever return if we are rejecting the knowledge economy in favour of simply training up young people for manual jobs?

Reading the draft, it seems that this is the intended direction, equipping 'operatives' for middle-sector manual jobs, or empowering people to be able to make do and mend.

Where then will the next generations of designers and engineers come from?

But there's another insidious influence which affects both boys and girls. That is on the brightest students. Both sexes are too often turned away from STEM careers due to a totally mistaken belief that they only offer technician level activity. Oily rags and machine shops.

We need more technology in schools - not less –to show the exciting reality of modern science, engineering and technology.

In the days when technical drawing, woodwork, metal work, electronics and engineering were all taught - and respected - in schools, then Britain produced some of the most successful inventors, designers and engineers on the planet.

A modern D&T curriculum would be concerned with learning about today’s world of design and technology and its economic and social value.

It would use real projects, relevant to students to show how maths, science technology, design and engineering work together.

It would use modern methods and project management tools to manage deadlines and resources.

It would teach safety and precision. It would teach how to develop and refine products to meet real needs.

And it would straddle materials, components, systems, electronics, data and services to create high quality outcomes.

And it would do this using a range of technologies, including food and textiles, yes, but not to the exclusion of all those other technologies of the future that it should be encompassing.

(QE Prize)

And as the minister’s speech on Monday reminded us, the Prime Minister rightly says we are in a global race – and he didn’t mean a pancake race.

To win that race we need to foster our creativity and innovation. To extend the metaphor, our young people must not just to learn how to cook pancakes but rather constantly to search for better pancake ingredients and recipes and design and build better stoves to cook them on.

This draft curriculum would stifle innovation and deter talented young people from careers in technology and engineering.

But with the same vision that underpins the Computing curriculum, our young people can help our country to win that global race.


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