Skills for a fast changing society

Design and technology is the study of how to think, develop and make a better world, and should be valued and nurtured in a post-Brexit UK, urges Dr Julie Nugent, chief executive of the Design and Technology Association

In a recent conversation with a young entrepreneur, I was told that his company’s school programme was born out of frustration with an education system that sends him double first engineering graduates with no practical experience, many of whom had never even held a spanner.

His frustration is shared by many employers who bemoan an education system that struggles to develop the practical skills and problem-solving abilities that our industries need. Many UK business leaders talk of a skills crisis, where a shortage of talent in critical industries – advanced manufacturing, creative and digital – is already impacting on our global competitiveness.

Add to this concern the challenges that UK businesses will face post-Brexit, and it becomes even more important to invest in a strong and competitive education system that will support our young people in the development of their potential, and ensure that our growth sectors have access to the skills needed to address their current and future employment needs.


The Design and Technology (D&T) Association is passionate about the role that education plays in the development of young people, helping them meet and embrace an ever‑uncertain future. We believe that the benefits offered by design and technology merit serious consideration like never before.

Since its introduction as a mandatory curriculum subject in 1988, design and technology has evolved into a rigorous academic subject with clear aims, attainment goals, and benefits.

Design and technology is the study of how to think, develop and make a better world: innovating new products, services and experiences from concept through to design, manufacture and use. The subject draws on the principles of design, mathematics and science and applies them to a practical purpose in the real world. It can introduce pupils to a vast range of new technologies, encouraging them to think about and be inspired by the myriad of career opportunities available now and, importantly, in the future.


Throughout the primary and secondary curriculum, the subject encourages both individual initiative and team work; it supports academic and vocational learning; introduces critical thinking and reflective practice; and promotes creative learning – so important in fostering lifelong skills of innovation, resilience and the ability to be flexible. It also provides the opportunity for young people to engage with tools, equipment and materials, giving them the practical capability and confidence employers state is lacking.

Research into design and technology teaching shows that the subject improves pupils’ self-esteem, their motivation and achievement, and their numeracy and literacy skills. More widely, the subject can inspire young people to consider and develop careers in key growth sectors, including engineering, manufacturing, creative and digital industries.

A 2015 report by the National Foundation for Education Research identified that a higher proportion of students who undertake design and technology A level pursue an engineering degree than those who don’t: 19 per cent compared to five per cent.
Additionally, a higher proportion also study degrees in creative arts and design (26 per cent in comparison to nine per cent) and architecture (nine per cent against one per cent).


Although design and technology covers an extremely broad variety of knowledge and skills, the subject may suffer from what James Dyson referred to as an “image problem”.

Too many people have an outdated notion of a subject which is low tech and craft‑based – missing the connection to the vast array of new and existing technologies such as robotics, computer control, CAD/CAM, including the use of 3D printing, laser‑cutting and so much more. Our provision of high quality continuing professional development for teachers is designed to help them keep up to date with use of new technologies available for the subject.

Related teaching resources, often developed with industry experts and sponsors, support the use of up to date skills and equipment, as well as providing teaching and learning resources that contextualize their use. Well taught and resourced design and technology offers young people the opportunity to develop relevant skills and knowledge and through designing and making, experience the application of a range of technologies. These include electronics, engineering, materials and textiles technology and the application of computing.

At this juncture in British history, when the world around us is changing at an exponential rate, a subject that teaches our younger generations how to imagine, design and implement improvements is surely one that educators must consider investing in?

Of course, the issue is complex. We want our schools and colleges to develop young people who are: high achievers, critical thinkers, rounded individuals, responsible citizens, ambitious business people, skilled workers, innovators and entrepreneurs. The challenge for government is to balance educational needs and provision with business opportunity. Accepting that the digital revolution will transform all areas of industry and society, with jobs replaced by automation and artificial intelligence, the question of the government’s long term education strategy becomes more pressing.


In this context, a subject that is committed to developing the curriculum in line with technological progress, and that seeks to equip pupils for the future by bridging the aims of education and the needs of industry can play a pivotal role. Every year around six million young people study design and technology, and the D&T Association works closely with government, advising on curriculum and teacher issues.

Most recently, we have advised on the content and structure of the new GCSE and A Level curriculum, due to be implemented this year. This new curriculum has been developed with the needs of industry in mind, with specific A Level D&T routes of product design, engineering and textiles and fashion.

However, as in many areas of education, there are challenges that need to be overcome.

The introduction of the Ebacc and Progress 8, has led to a marginalisation of non‑core subjects. The impact of this emphasis on academic over creative and practical subjects is having a profound effect on the take up of GCSE and A level design and technology.

As a consequence of its perceived devaluing, prospective teachers of the subject are not applying for teacher training. Indeed, in 2016, both the 59 per cent initial teacher training shortfall and 10 per cent drop in GCSE uptake were the most dramatic in the history of the subject.

The reaction from our partner organisations – Edge Foundation, EngineeringUK, Dyson Foundation, Creative Industries Federation – was immediate and positive in their support and call for government investment: the UK needs design and technology.

The recognition of the subject’s value was reflected by a parliamentary campaign in which over 80 cross party MPs supported a call for design and technology to be given greater consideration as a core subject. More recently, MP Neil Carmichael, chair of the Education Select Committee has voiced his support of including skills, such as engineering, in the Ebacc.


The UK’s skills shortages across engineering and manufacturing, creative and digital sectors demand a long-term integrated approach to investing in education and skills.

As we move forward in a post‑Brexit world, the UK needs to proactively ensure that it retains its reputation for innovation and creative leadership, and takes steps to nurture and sustain its design, engineering and manufacturing sectors.

The Design and Technology Association supports the recent Industrial Strategy, but urges a more integrated approach to the development of an education and skills infrastructure that can support this vision of a competitive and prosperous UK.

Whilst the strategy includes a significant focus on reforming post-16 technical education, there is more to be done to link this with the world of pre-16 education. We need to nurture the interest and engagement of young people from an early age – better linking the school curriculum with post-16 learning and skills opportunities, including apprenticeships and higher education.

The Association is keen to position design and technology at the forefront of world class creative and practical approaches to learning, where pupils of all abilities are empowered to consider how they can make a direct and positive impact on the world around them. For this reason, we want to engage more employers and investors to work with us and schools to make the links between industrial needs and practical D&T activity in the classroom. This includes the setting of real world challenges with related support.

We see this partnership between education and industry as critical to ensuring that we teach the skills that will empower young people in a fast-changing society.


Societies the world over are considering the impact of the ‘digital revolution’ – where transformation is happening at an exponential rather than a liner pace. The impact of emerging technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, bio-technology, autonomous vehicles and 3-D printing will be unprecedented: disrupting and transforming all areas of society as well as entire systems of production, management, and governance.

Young people today face an uncertain future: changing political and economic alliances, the impact of Brexit and shifting global alliances. We need to give them the skills and the confidence to embrace these changes – and nowhere is this more appropriate than through the study of design and technology.

In this context, it is helpful to remember that the UK was the first country in the world to make design and technology mandatory across primary and secondary education and, as a result, we are recognised internationally as educational pioneers who have successfully produced generations of world leading innovators.

The subject’s emphasis on creative learning, enterprise and entrepreneurship attracts many international clients looking to adopt a future‑focused design and technology curriculum. China, Japan, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates are all adopting our approach to design and technology in the curriculum with a stated intention to foster innovation and entrepreneurship and develop business‑critical skills in pupils from an early age.

As we commit to preparing our young people for a future that we cannot fully predict, the Design and Technology Association holds an optimistic belief in the ability of our young people to achieve their potential.

But to enable this, we need to create the education system our current and future younger generations and businesses need. We encourage educators and policy makers to embrace the words of Lord Baker, chairman of the Edge Foundation, and design a “21st century education for a 21st century economy”.

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