Design & Technology

Time for action: D&T’s classroom crisis

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As a school subject, Design & Technology has barely changed in decades, and as student numbers evaporate, so does the future workforce. It’s time for action, writes Ryan Ball of the Design and Technology Association


As a parent, I know my job. One of the most important is that, when my child brings something they’ve made home from school, I say how proud I am, how fantastic it is, and ask leading questions about this amazing thing that has been bestowed upon me. I don’t ask what the blinking heck it’s supposed to be and screw my nose up.

However, when it comes to secondary school-level Design & Technology classes, even I struggle. It might be a ‘clock’, but my child will tell me, “I’ve no idea what all those little bits actually do and the technician completed it for me as it didn’t work.” Or it might be an emoji-shaped cushion, with bits of stuffing emerging from its poorly handsewn seams. You see my point: it’s hard to muster enthusiasm.

There’s no authentic designing happening here, no problem-solving, no innovation. It’s just a Blue Peter-style activity, foisted on schoolkids in the vain hope that they will be inspired by it and decide to dedicate their future lives to design, engineering and manufacturing. If I didn’t know better, I’d be having the same conversation that many other parents have with their children: “Don’t take Design & Technology as an option. You’re better than that.”

It’s easy to criticise. I taught design and technology in secondary schools for almost 20 years, and it’s challenging work. Budgets are tiny, class sizes are large, time is limited, and demands are high. We need to support our schools and our teachers to be the best they can be and to help them to provide exciting, relevant activities for the classroom. It’s the best way to ensure that our children will be ready to make an impact in an ever-changing world.

At its height, some 430,000 UK pupils took Design & Technology at GCSE level each year. Today, the number stands at around 79,000

Spark interest

It’s easy to throw buzzwords around in education — or in any sector, for that matter. Ask anyone in charge of recruiting what attributes and skillsets they look for in job candidates, and you hear the same words repeated again and again. They want people who are innovative, problem solvers, creative thinkers, resilient.

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In our secondary schools, you would think that the one subject that would represent a cauldron of opportunity to encourage all these attributes in young people is Design & Technology. But instead, we see a crisis. At its height, some 430,000 students took Design & Technology to GCSE level each year. The number now stands at 79,000.

I was recently called to give evidence in the House of Commons on the teacher recruitment crisis in this subject. Schools are closing departments, selling off tools and machinery and shutting the doors to Design & Technology. Many children simply do not get to experience it as a subject, because it’s no longer offered in their school, to any year group.

To help support schools and inspire the next generation of designers, the Design & Technology Association, an educational charity formed in 1989, has embarked on an ambitious and exciting initiative, ‘Inspired by Industry’.

This involves talking to real companies about real problems and replicating what they do in the classroom. Since September 2023, the Design and Technology Association has released 12 free design ‘contexts’ for schools to use in their Design & Technology lessons. Schools receive videos, imagery, worksheets, CAD files and other learning resources that they can use for free and all editable to fit the needs of their cohort.

Students listen and learn how professionals do this work, then tackle the same challenges in class. They see people working in the sector to whom they can relate, who look like them, who sound like them. They get to know about roles they didn’t even know existed. They get to work on problems that companies they know (and some that they don’t) are working on.

Get involved

Sound good? It is, but there is a ‘but’. First and foremost, it’s tough getting inspirational companies to step forward and help. We produce the bulk of the work; we just want your insights. From start to finish, industry input is around six hours.

And we need funds, because it’s costly and time-consuming to produce the resources. For example, one context alone will likely be around 120 pages/slides of supporting material and approximately 30 minutes of video.

Alongside this, we also want to run free teacher training events, helping educators identify how best to use these resources in their own classrooms.

So this is my call to action for companies working in these fields and to the people who run them: please get in touch with us to offer your support!

It might take the form of funding, or assistance in building a design context, or simply supporting the initiative in order to ensure that all children have access to quality Design & Technology education.

Whatever you can offer will be extremely welcome. After all, our sector can’t afford not to help, surely?


About the author:

Ryan Ball is director of education at the Design & Technology Association.

Having taught Design & Technology at schools in the UK, Middle East and Asia for almost 20 years, he later joined the D&T Association with a remit to oversee and advise on the educational aspects of the association’s work.
www.designtechnology.org.uk


This article first appeared in DEVELOP3D Magazine

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