What do you reckon British D&T teachers and the People’s Republic of China have got in common? Stephen Holmes discovers a Catch-22 scenario that needs urgent attention
From watching period dramas and reading middle-England tabloids, teachers apparently used to be well-respected members of communities.
The type that could verify your ‘true likeness’ on a passport photograph, or be trusted to beat your child into learning the answer to 7 x 9.
Yet the view of teaching today has fallen away from this glorified sepia status. Today it is seen as a caricature of career path dropouts, pay disputes and militant truancy enforcement. Which is strange, as teachers should be treasured now more than ever.
The profession has more problems to solve than most multi-billion dollar corporations. The subjects taught at school are becoming increasingly specialist, further penned in by the razor-wire fences of teaching guidelines and health and safety.
Given that the government has been jollying around with the national curriculum for some time, the subject of Design and Technology (D&T) has been hit particularly hard.
At risk of being abolished only a few years ago, now it is a poster child of bandwagon-jumping politicians wanting to spice up the UK’s ‘Tech Future’.
It all sounds rather modern, and if you’ve had cause to visit your local school, chances are it’s a vibrant hub of future-facing technology.
However, for the teachers it can be chilling stuff: A lot of the primary school teachers are scared stiff at the curriculum’s new direction for technology of ‘thinking computationally’, and quite rightly.
A rough figure shows that out of all the primary teachers in the country, only a dozen or so have a degree in a computational subject.
For the rest, the fear of teaching a five or six-year-old child how to ‘code’ is a reality with very little support.
Moving up the years, teaching a modern 3D CAD package or running a classroom 3D printer in a secondary school can be equally unnerving.
For years teachers have had the comfort of the Design and Technology Association to fall back on for help and assistance in such matters.
Its website is full of answers to the everyday classroom and workshop questions posed by teachers, but it is also a key cog in the chain directing government changes to the D&T curriculum.
Despite this key influence, state budget cuts mean the D&T Association has to find its funding elsewhere, which is where the bigger long-term problem for the UK lies.
Designed in China
Recently I spoke with Richard Green and Andy Mitchell, CEO and assistant CEO, respectively, of the Design and Technology Association.
Both were at the awards presentation for the D&T Association’s brilliant Great British Make-Off, a schools competition where pupils worked alongside professional designers to create new products for cyclists.
Noticeably fatigued, they explained that they had only recently returned from a trip to China.
I expected to hear that they’d undertaken a fact-finding mission in order to improve British education with some of the well documented communist gusto that is propelling China to superpower status.
Instead they told me that they had been imparting the knowledge. “Britain developed design and technology as an academic discipline, and our curriculum is widely seen as the best in the world,” says Green, writing about the same visit on the D&T Association website.
China is keen to evolve its education system into the world’s best, no longer wanting to be seen as a global manufacturing hub, but as a design powerhouse also.
“Although tens of thousands of Chinese citizens are employed in making iPhones, the country enjoys less than a fiftieth of the profits from the finished device,” explains Green.
“Although the phrase ‘Made in China’ has long shaken off connotations of cheap, substandard goods, China no longer wants the reputation of being a mere manufacturer. “They don’t want the back of an iPhone to say “Made in China, Designed in California”, but “Designed and Made in China”. And who can blame them?”
To reach its goal China is tapping up all the Western resources it can – buying fully formed design agencies and luring university lecturers – and now its sights are on the teaching knowledge of British schools.
However, it is hard to look upon the D&T Association as a Cold War spy selling state secrets. A registered charity, it has to make its own money to continue lobbying parliament simply to keep D&T as an active subject, let alone to provide courses and teaching materials for teachers that need them.
It’s hard not to sound like a trumped-up nationalist when suggesting that Britain should stop selling one of its best skills out the backdoor, but the system is trapped within its own Catch-22.
If anything, this is a call to help support the D&T Association, to save them having to divulge more teaching information to countries like China, and maintain future prosperity for the British design industry from the very base level.
A total shake-up is needed, but a good place to start would be for the design industry to show further respect and support for the role teachers have at the foundations of this industry.
China wants our design skills, and we might have to give them up