The sum of all fears……..the Gove effect in action at DesignEd.

Carbon offset in action. A winning design by one of our students. Light bulb packaging that becomes a plant pot for seedlings.

DesignEd is the name of an exhibition of the Design Technology work of students from across Cornwall, hosted by University College, Falmouth.  (  if you fancy a look at the place.)  Now in it’s fifth year the exhibition was initiated by Richard Scott, a teacher of design in a school and  John Millar, then on the staff of the college.  From the very first year a large number of schools and colleges participated, bringing pupil projects in product design, food technology, graphic design and textiles together to create a stunning display in the wonderful Design Centre  at the Tremough Campus.

As you might imagine for a first event there was a great deal of checking out of the other schools, picking up ideas for projects and display tricks, chatting about the subject we teach and catching up with colleagues.  What was immediately apparent was that there was an astonishing array of talent on display across a huge range of creative endeavours.    Some awards were given to outstanding work but the overall impression was extraordinary and everyone who attended the exhibition was amazed at what our young people were capable of.  The following year the event attracted almost every school and college in the county.  Standards were even higher, both in the quality of work done by pupils and in the quality of display.  In short this has become one of the most significant opportunities for developing the subject available to most of us who teach here.

Of course the event did much more than that.  It provided a forum for parents, senior leaders and industrialists to share an understanding of what was being done in the subject across a great range of schools and colleges.  It was a great showcase and a terrific advert for the value of what we were achieving together. It also fed in to the emerging mission of the college to promote high quality design based industry in Cornwall but catering for world needs and markets.  A mission that was becoming possible because of digital technologies  in a county which is all too used to seeing the young talented leave to find work and careers elsewhere.  But of course, all of this was before Mr Gove started implementing his policies, or generating soundbites as we might chose to call it.  So what impact has the sudden spate of new directives from his office had on this wonderful celebration of design education?

Perhaps most obvious was the number of schools who were not represented at this year’s event.  I have no way of establishing the reasons for this but perhaps straightened finances have some bearing; it does require some organising to transport and arrange sometimes quite large pieces, and of course time.  A much more worrying theme emerged from conversations with other staff.   Quite a number of schools had achieved Technology College status, a response to government proposals which saw funding accrue to the school to support it in meeting quite challenging targets.  One of the expectations was that in such schools pupils would be expected to study Design Technology to examination level alongside a balanced spread of other subjects.  The consequence of this was that Design Technology departments were supported, to a greater or lesser degree, through developments, most crucially digital technologies.  Also for the first time in many schools children of all abilities were studying Design Technology.  Regular readers will know that I would argue that the subject should form a part of the curriculum for any pupil because of the opportunites and benefits that it gives, not because we need more designers and technologist. ( No, wait; we desperately need more of them don’t we?)

Well all of that has changed.  Michael Gove made a speech in which he announced that henceforth school success would be measured by the number of pupils achieving what he dubbed the English Baccalaureate.  All funding for specialist schools ceased immediately, or as the government would have it was transferred into the general budget.  Now you might think that the leaders of schools are intelligent and capable people with a strong moral purpose and indeed I am sure that many of them are.  However the immediate reaction was that with no more additional funding coming into school and with school success now being measured by results in languages and the humanities it was time to pull the plug on all that design stuff.  Schools with immensely successful departments providing wonderful experiences for all pupils suddenly found themselves deprived of the brightest 60% of their pupils as these were the ones who were likely to get the school the grades it needed to be deemed a success.

Some schools have had a chance to think this through and come to the conclusion that it was a mistake, some took that rather bold stance from the very outset, no doubt aided by the drubbing that a parliamentary select committee gave the English Baccalaureate.  What is most worrying and has had the greatest effect on pupils, as evidenced by the range of work on show at DesignEd, is that some schools are so driven by the illusory success that league tables hold out that they have continued to chase the dream.   Excellence is hard to build but easy to destroy.  Teachers are like any other people, they will work themselves into the ground, achieving amazing things and of course in the process doing wonderful things for our children, because they feel valued and supported.  Take that away and it can become a very difficult thing to justify to yourself the continual grind.  That, of course is exactly what has been done to some really good department teams.

The truly worrying feature of all this is that our children’s  education is being handled by school leaders at all levels who are prepared to jump to every whim of politicians who appear to know little and care less.  What of the vision for the creative industries and the regeneration of an isolated local economy as part of a digital world?   Well some of us still think it is a dream worth chasing and I dare to hope that next year at DesignEd we will see a turn of the tide.




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