D&T: fighting for curriculum survival

With the current skills’ shortages in the creative, manufacturing and engineering industries, subjects like Design & Technology need to be seen as a valuable subject for young people to study, especially once the UK leaves the EU, argues the Design & Technology Association.

The political landscape has shifted hugely and rapidly in recent weeks. The decision by the majority of the public who voted in the referendum to leave the European Union had a seismic impact in Westminster and well beyond our shores. The PM tendered his resignation, signalling the start of the race for Number 10, which was won by the Rt Hon Theresa May MP. The subsequent cabinet reshuffle saw the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP replace Nicky Morgan MP at the Department for Education and all these movements leave us – the Design and Technology Association and the education, creative, design, manufacturing and engineering sectors – with a number of questions.

The rise and dominance of the Ebacc was at the behest of former Education Secretary of State, Michael Gove MP, and this policy was continued by his successor, Nicky Morgan MP and continues under the current Schools Minister, Nick Gibb MP. With the changed leadership at the DfE, the D&T Association hopes that attitudes and thus policy towards those technical and creative subjects that are currently outside of the Ebacc will change to take account of the new and evolving environment arising from Brexit.

Raising the subject in parliament
Richard Green, chief executive of the Design and Technology Association, says: “We should acknowledge the efforts of parliamentarians who already recognise the pitfalls of sidelining subjects such as Design and Technology. Michelle Donelan MP continues to raise the subject in Parliament and, as recently as 20th July, she wrote to the new Prime Minister to put her case.

“Her letter, signed by 87 MPs from across parties, calls for the new Design and Technology GCSE to be part of the Ebacc and highlights the inequality of only 6% of the UK’s engineering workforce being female and that we face an annual shortfall of 69,000 engineers. It goes on to say that the education system should encourage and inspire pupils to be engineers and points out that the new D&T GCSE can deliver on this and thus play a role in plugging the skills gap.

“Michelle Donelan MP, John Pugh MP and others have long been beating the drum on this front but their calls have sadly often appeared to fall upon deaf ears. We remain pleased with and thankful for their input and that of those MPs who participated in a debate in Parliament on 4th July about the increasing marginalisation of all technical, creative and artistic subjects as a result of the Ebacc and accountability measures.

"This debate ran for almost three hours and arose because there were in excess of 100,000 signatories to a petition driven and supported by the likes of our peers and friends at Bacc to the Future and ourselves.”

All these parliamentarians are concerned that the Ebacc and associated accountability measures are, at best, marginalising the time available for subjects such as Design and Technology and, at worst, seeing them fade away entirely from school timetables.

Losing compulsory status
Until 2004 D&T was a compulsory GCSE subject. The loss of statutory status and current accountability measures, however, resulted in an over 50 per cent fall in D&T GCSE entries between 2003 and 2016. This has been further compounded by the proposal that no school be considered as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted unless 90 per cent of pupils study EBacc GCSEs.

The Ebacc focuses on traditional academic subjects: English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language. It has been suggested that some school timetables are crammed with only Ebacc subjects as a sort of ‘insurance policy curriculum’ in an attempt to maintain healthy positions under the Ofsted scoring system. Indeed, a 705 of 1,300 respondents to a survey conducted by the Design and Technology Association, said that government accountability measures were resulting in decreasing numbers of pupils opting to study the subject at GCSE and, in some schools, it has been cut entirely.

Fighting for survival
Technical and creative subjects are fighting for curriculum survival. Thus, Design & Technology, often the catalyst for those students who would later enjoy careers in product and systems’ design, engineering and manufacturing – via apprenticeships or graduate entry – is struggling for curriculum time.

In addition, uncertainty about the future of D&T during the national curriculum review discouraged potential secondary D&T teachers from applying for Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses. Some stark statistics may help to put that into context - this September there will be at least 2,000 fewer teachers than are needed – a vacancy in two in three secondary schools. This dire situation can only be exacerbated by the disparity in bursaries for trainee teachers, i.e. £30,000 for maths and physics but £12,500 for D&T.

Richard Green continues: “All this is at a time when the shortage of skills sees manufacturing and engineering employers crying out for personnel with appropriate capabilities. This situation will neither support the government achieve its objectives of producing three million apprentices nor a re-balanced economy.”

“The irony and frustration is that this is happening as representatives from China, South Korea and the UAE visit GB to learn how D&T is taught. They recognise that their curricula lack the design and creative problem solving, linked to technical knowledge and practical making skills which our D&T provides.”

Concern from industry
Several ‘elite’ industry names from the ‘Best of British’, including Sir James Dyson and Lord Bamford, are voicing their concerns about the skills’ shortage and the standing of D&T. They fear for the next generation of engineers and designers that GB plc needs – an estimated 1.8 million new engineers in the decade leading up to 2022.

Richard adds: “Government not only should heed the worries of the aforementioned leading British industrialists but also recognise that they believe that part of the solution resides in re-balancing education.”

What needs to be done?
Richard believes there needs to be a three-pronged solution to resolve the issues facing D&T and the skills’ shortage, concerning the government, examining bodies, and employers.

Firstly, the government must change its accountability measures to include a creative/technical subject for all pupils at Key Stage 4. It must address D&T teacher shortages by equalising bursary incentives to attract the best entrants into ITT. What’s more, the government should promote wider understanding of D&T, its contribution to STEM and to career paths in engineering and the creative industries.

The examination bodies must ensure that the new D&T GCSE and A level qualifications are rigorous and challenging to increase the credibility of the subject. And lastly, employers should consider collaborating in developing real-life and relevant D&T activities and resources; help D&T teachers engage with professional practice through work experience, internships and apprenticeships; and help to highlight D&T’s value to government departments through their companies and professional institutions.

Helping Britain’s industry
“D&T truly can harness the interest and ambitions of students to help meet GB plc’s need for design and engineering apprentices and graduates and maybe help re-balance the economy too,” comments Richard.

“I was hoping that this would be reflected and recognised by the Independent Panel on Technical Education and the government’s Skills Plan. However, the Independent Panel was not tasked to look at pre-16 education and the government response reiterated the prioritisation of Ebacc subjects. How can young people be expected to choose technical career routes post-16 when their opportunity to study them pre-16 is being squeezed? The government appears to be, inadvertently perhaps, severing the pipeline of talent into careers supporting individual fulfilment and GB plc’s international reputation for design innovation and creativity.”

The sectors which Richard Green refers to contribute around £500 billion to the GB economy. Richard believes that the DfE, which has taken over responsibility for apprenticeships and the Skills Plan, is inadvertently working against its own objectives by making head teachers focus on Ebacc results, thus reducing the opportunity for D&T to feature in the school timetable and damaging the pipeline for future engineers and designers. Richard commented: “Post the referendum and the vote to leave, I am more concerned than ever. Brexit and attitudes it may have fostered could see skilled workers from the EU leave Britain, exacerbating the already worrying skills gap. We are already struggling for individuals with the requisite expertise to support British manufacturing but I fear we are unlikely to find sufficient people equipped with the right mind and skill-sets to help take GB plc forwards.

“The government needs to act to amend or re-calibrate the education system or the position will only become worse. D&T should either be included in the Ebacc, or if that is a step too far, accountability measures should change to include a technical subject for all pupils at Key Stage 4.”

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