Reimagining Design & Technology

Tony Ryan, chief executive officer of the Design and Technology Association, discusses the steps we can take to rejuvenate design and technology in our schools – and why it matters

We were the first country in the world to make design and technology education compulsory for students. It was a brave move at the time, and we recognised the world was fast changing and needed the right skills and knowledge in order to adapt to societal changes.
I was leading a design and technology department in a very popular girls’ school at the time, and when the subject was first ‘imposed’ on all students, there was some resistance both from young people and from their parents. We had to prove our worth, and more than any other subject on the curriculum at the time, it felt like we had to try harder and communicate better. Slowly but surely, over the next couple of years, we won our audiences over by sending enthused young women home each week, highly engaged and motivated by the ‘real’ nature of the tasks posed and problems set.
Good and bad news travels fast in a school community. I had a great team of teachers, and collectively, we had students coming down to the department at every available opportunity. The headteacher noticed we were learning from other aspects of the curriculum (maths, physics, geography and PSHE, for example) and in doing so, we were giving learning real meaning and answering the ‘why’ that all students ponder.
Why is all the above relevant? Because design and technology is currently in a very bad place and is in danger of slipping off the school curriculum completely. Where other countries have followed our lead and have introduced and grown through design and technology education, we have pretty much neglected it alongside every other creative subject on the school curriculum.
An emphasis on an ideologically led ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum over the last twelve plus years has seen the subject drop from 430,000 GCSE entries at its (admittedly false) peak to just over 78,000 last year. A Level has dropped from over 26,000 entries to just under 10,000 in the same time. We had a fraction under 15,000 specialist design and technology-trained teachers in 2009; we now estimate this number to be just over 6,000. Even where headteachers value the subject and want to keep it alive for their students, take it from an ex-headteacher: if you cannot find the right leadership for a subject and you will not be penalised for not delivering it, you will drop it like a stone!
So why does this matter? Indeed some would ask, does it matter?

My ‘go-to’ researcher and guru as a headteacher was Professor Guy Claxton. He has the ability to take complex research concepts and make them easy to digest and process. In 2008, he published a book, the title of which asked an obvious but pertinent question: “What’s the point of school?” Before you continue reading, just stop and ask yourself this same question. Why is it important? What is its purpose? What are the expectations that we placed on school for ourselves, and for those of us who are parents, for our sons and daughters?
Claxton summarised school’s purpose as: “To prepare young people for the future”. This is more than a set of exam grades or a base level of knowledge across nine or more subjects; we are preparing our young people to step confidently into an increasingly fast-paced and often hostile world. Students must leave school equipped with skills outside of academia that will enable them to move confidently. Schools should encourage young people to be self-aware, capable of high-level communication, socially confident, and be diligent problem solvers. Being in a classroom setting (regardless of the subject of the students strength in it) should be a space where students learn to be empathetic team players capable of leading, while at the same time demonstrating the confidence to allow themselves to be led by others.  
It is worth noting that while design and technology is struggling in many state schools, it is growing and thriving in most private schools. One parent recently explained this, stating the termly school fee and explaining, “At that price, this is not a ‘nice to have’ an after-school club; this is a core part of the curriculum, it’s where learning is given context and where the jobs of the future will be created”.
The Design and Technology Association is a registered charity that I have the privilege to lead. We are a member organisation with over 33,000 teacher members and a growing list of industry partners. That link between the often-disparate worlds of education and business is essential to the subject’s future and, dare I say, to the future of so many sectors of business and industry already struggling to employ the next generation of thought leaders, innovators, and creatives.
Our recently published vision for the future of the subject ‘Reimagining D&T’ has received wide acclaim. However, we are not happy to just talk about the change we need to see; we are setting about making that change happen. We have already successfully lobbied to see the teaching bursary for new teachers to the subject increased to £25K. We have over 28,000 primary members teaching the subject to students aged five to eleven; the subject is growing and thriving with this age group. Inspired by Industry is focused on ensuring what is taught at KS3 (11-14) is challenging, highly motivational and relevant to our young people.
We were the first country in the world to lead with design and technology education; we can do so again.