Strong messages have repeatedly come forth from governments past and present about the need for education to support manufacturing and science in Britain. And yet GCSE Design and Technology – the subject which can start pupils out on a career through A level to product design or engineering at degree level and on into industry – goes on falling in popularity.
The continuous drop in numbers of students sitting Design and Technology GCSE is dramatic: in 2013, 221,416 students took the subject – a decade earlier, 439,617 students took it. That’s a fall of over half. It may be that pupils are not interested, and it may also be that in recent years the subject has been given less priority by schools who see that the focus in performance measurement is moving towards a concentration on a few core subjects, with design subjects a very unimportant factor.
DT has often been seen as a Cinderella subject – the modern descendant of ‘woodwork’, fit only for less academically able students. But the current content of the GCSE is technical and complicated as well as practical. It looks at how things work and what they are made of, but mainly it sets out to teach the basics of product design – so it provides a fundamental grounding for feeding students into working in industry, and to powering our economy.
The skills learned in the GCSE also expand on ideas from other subjects, particularly science and maths. Teachers comment on how, by applying those concepts in practical, everyday projects, Design and Technology often helps students to develop a true understanding of mathematical and scientific ideas. Students need logic, analysis, creativity and common sense. The new curriculum will include robotics and computer-aided manufacturing – it’s a long way from woodwork.
As James Dyson, whose Foundation supports DT in schools, put it: ‘DT inspires young people to go into industry as designers, but also, it inspires creativity and – perhaps most importantly – encourages them to work out their own answers to problems. It gives them vital life skills, whether they go on to become engineers or not – and we downgrade it at our peril.’
The subject is traditionally taken by boys. Yet, in fact, girls accounted for over 41% of people taking the exam in 2013. And the girls are good at it: the gender bias in high results that applies across the board at GCSE is very strong here: of those female students who sat DT GCSE, 26.6% achieved A* and A grades, while only 12.3% of male candidates got these high marks.
Perhaps schools could be boosting their results by encouraging more girls to see DT as an attractive option? Perhaps the subject should be entitled ‘Product Design’ and not the dreary ‘Design and Technology’? Certainly, if our current and future governments want to generate our economy’s future stars, they need to insist that energy is put into reinvigorating DT as a useful, relevant and stimulating subject to study. They need to take Cinderella out to the ball, and not leave her scrubbing floors in the dark.