Design Technology in the National Curriculum…..building for the future.

Scale models made using CAD/CAM aid the design process. Ideas by GCSE pupils.

I try to write one post a week but failed in my mission last week, preparations for the annual Schools Network conference on Engineering and Design Technology interrupted the flow a little.  The focus of the conference was the importance of these subjects for a 21st century education and as it turned out the event may have been timely.  Not only was this a wonderful chance to hear some great speakers and learn  new things but I was also privileged to renew some friendships and make new ones.  That and the invitation to speak at the conference were rather occupying my mind  on Monday night so my apologies.

The conference always endeavors to feature some stimulating guests and this year was no exception.  A tour of the biomedical engineering department at Warwick University, the venue for the conference, left many of us speechless though not it must be said when we were shown what they get up to in their rapid prototyping unit; there was quite a buzz from delegates then, I can assure you.  (For a quick update on rapid prototyping see )  James Pitt from the Ellen Mc Arthur foundation made us all think again about sustainable design, if you don’t know the work have a look here:  Ruth Amos, designer of Stairsteady, made an inspiring contribution and the whole event was rounded off in most memorable style by Stephen Payne, naval architect and lead designer for the Queen Mary 2.

Regular readers will know that I do not have a high opinion of the current governments policy on education and the breaking news at the conference was the announcement of the removal of GCSE equivalence from a huge swathe of vocational qualifications.  The subjects that featured in early news bulletins were, I suspect, culled from government briefings and selected to seem ridiculous.  Later in the day the truth was creeping into the media.  No commentary that I heard pointed out that the equivalence had been established by bodies under the direct control of the government.   No comment was made on the desirability of setting a value for vocational qualifications in terms of GCSE grades in the first place, nor that this was a necessary position given the insistence on measuring school performance and setting league tables to compare schools in these terms.

Much was made of the desire to prevent schools from cheating the league tables, the assumption being that many schools select “easy” vocational courses to artificially inflate the points scored by their students and hence influence their ranking in the league tables.  Now to be honest this is a little like the referee in a football match stopping the game and insisting on the goal posts being moved as too many goals are being scored.  Given the one key difference that the government are responsible for setting up the game, the rules of the game and the scoring system.  Is it just me or is there an irony in a government that wants to raise the intellectual capital of the teaching workforce but complains when the one they have already got persists in finding weaknesses in government systems?

Much more importantly some very highly valued courses have been irreparably damaged in this process.  Courses that in many cases are demanding, rich in content and most of all value for those taking them.  Not to mention the hours and hours of creative endeavor, studiously applied by colleagues across the country who were doing this not because they saw a way to cheat the government over league tables but because they saw a way of providing something of quality, of lasting value and of relevance to the students in their care.  Yet again the effect of this action has been to downgrade the value of vocational education and to make publicity capital out of the idea that such courses are the easy option compared to GCSE courses in more traditional academic subjects.

Thinking a little around the word vocation I am reminded that it originates in the Latin vocare,  “A vocation (from Latin vocare, meaning “to call”), is a term for an occupation to which a person is specially drawn or for which they are suited, trained or qualified.”  (  Perhaps in the sense that one might feel called to be a politician?  It is often used in the sense of a knowledge that is not easily subject to declarative analysis, the type of activity for which one might be said to have a talent or a knack, perhaps a gift.  Or to put it another way the sort of activity that while necessary or beneficial to human life in its broadest sense is not easily subject to analysis by those who are not practitioners.    Perhaps we are missing true vocation in government?  Perhaps the new tradition of private education leading to an  Oxbridge degree followed by a spell in some capacity before embarking on a career in politics is a misguided one.  Perhaps we need to return to the ideal of an individual driven by passion to make the world a better place but with the world experience to achieve that goal as the best route into politics.  Vocational politicians?

I started with the National Conference and I want to return to it.  The theme of the importance of design education was not chosen as a selling point but arrived at from a deep consensus understanding of what 21st century education will need to be like, not for the academic or the vocational but for all.  I was privileged to be part of a discussion that was about the real world needs of children and of our society, a discussion between highly committed and intelligent practitioners from education and industry who shared some common goals.  Not least it was a gathering of like minds who feel the need to make a case to the government about the value of design technology and engineering in education.    To all of you who are a part of that both at the conference and my in your corner of the world, my thanks and the thanks of the designers, entrepreneurs, engineers and others who have cause to be grateful to their teachers.

2 Responses to “Design Technology in the National Curriculum…..building for the future.”
  1. Kevin Jones says:

    Hi Geraint,
    As always, an interesting and stimulating starting point for discussion, however my guess is that very little discussion will ensue as most of your readers will be in full agreement with everything you say.
    The one thing about this Government and vocational educational that still seems at odds with each other is their pursuit of STEM graduates. Surely if we encourage, as I agree we should, students to study STEM related subjects because they lead to some pretty useful careers, we are encouraging them to take a ‘vocational’ route. Maybe the difference, with this and every other Conservative (controlled) Government is the acceptability of the chosen career path. Is this hypocrisy? sure not!!

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your comment, I guess the statement we both heard recently that there is no joined up government would apply here. I have not yet heard anyone disagreeing with the need for STEM subjects to be promoted, what we don’t yet have is an understanding of the significance of good design and technology in promoting these subjects and in equipping our children with employabilty skills that are perhaps not directly vocational but in demand by almost every employer.

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