Teaching Design and Technology

August 2, 2007

Blueprint magazine

Work from Ripley St Thomas C of E School, Lancaster

Design and Technology at secondary level is in a state of flux. The subject is no longer compulsory and it’s harder than ever to justify trips to see D&T applied in the real world. Ruth Hedges asks D&T teachers how they foster creativity and what they need to make the subject flourish.


The Design Council’s recently published report, High-Level Skills for Higher Value, outlines a ‘plan for the future of UK design’. The long consultation prior to publication mooted several ideas which would enhance the design profession in the UK.

These included protecting the professional description of ‘designer’ and limiting the number of places on university design courses. In the final report, facilitated by the Design Skills Advisory Panel and supported by the Design Council and Creative and Cultural Skills, these had either been removed or diluted. What remained was a strong emphasis on the need for the design industry to work with schools, plus recommendations for a schools’ design mark and a teacher development scheme.

This sounds fantastic, but what of the pressures facing those who teach design and technology, What does it mean to the people charged with inspiring students each and every day, and who have to persuade school heads to cough up for yet more expensive kit? When the National Curriculum was introduced in 1990, design and technology was made compulsory (as well as losing the word ‘craft’ from its description). In September 2004, its status was changed to an entitlement subject. In other words: all pupils were entitled to study it – if they wanted to. The landscape was further complicated by the introduction of specialist technology and engineering schools that must offer the subject at Key Stage 4 (for children aged 14 to 16).

And what of the Design Skills Advisory Panel’s description of a teaching body with a hugely disparate set of skills? The Design and Technology Teachers’ Association, the body representing the profession, has some of the highest membership numbers for any subject area, and professional development through Advanced Skills Teacher training is gathering momentum. With the design industry well canvassed by the panel, what about the teaching profession?

We have asked some of the UK’s most innovative D&T teachers about design and technology in their school, how they feel about its opportunities and challenges, and the best ways forward.

Donna Trebell, 38
Head of Design and Technology,
Mascalls School, Kent
Specialist Arts College

I’ve been in teaching for 18 years. First, I went to art college in Carlisle and then went to Thames Polytechnic to do design and technology. I went on to get a master’s in technology education and I’m now completing a doctorate.

We are definitely working with technologically literate children, but I think they still need and enjoy the rounded experience. When I started you didn’t have the internet in schools. When it came to the research section, it was always hard work, and it was a question of looking through all the old books and doing lots of photocopying. So actually getting children on the internet is brilliant.

The fact that there’s now 2D Design and ProDesktop is absolutely superb, in the right place. I just think that what you need is the right tool for the job throughout the design process. Now that we have those available to us, it’s proving to be a very, very powerful tool.

There would be benefit from more interaction between the industry or professionals and education as long as it’s the right people. If it’s just to come in and talk, I think it’s a waste of time. But if you’re doing a unit of work and you know specifically what you want and brief them properly, then it can be really good.

D&T’s going to become more technological, just by the nature of the beast – the whole world is. But I also think there has to be an emphasis on the design side, because that’s where the higher-order thinking and problem-solving comes into the subject. For me, that’s the bit that needs emphasis.

If you can get really good designing going on with all that thinking, all that research and problem solving then that’s where the quality is in the subject, and we can really hold our heads up and say that we’re doing great things for these children.

Stuart Douglas, 34
Head of Design and Technology
Ripley St Thomas C of E School, Lancaster
Specialist Language School

I did a design degree at Liverpool university in 1993, then worked in the music industry for Pete Waterman and Pete Tong. I did my Postgraduate Certificate in Education at Huddersfield University and took a job at Ripley School in 1998.

There’s a big emphasis on designing at our school – concepts, prototypes and working it through. We follow the principle, like a lot of big companies, of producing lots of creative design sheets and going into CAD, developing it a little bit, then going back to designing, drawing and sketching over the design and so on.

I would absolutely love it if someone like Richard Seymour would come into school and talk to the pupils, but then also do a little masterclass.

Ten years ago we were still doing very traditional projects, but it’s evolved, using the technology that’s available to us such as CAM, laser-cutters, rapid prototyping. And lots more girls are doing the subject.

Unfortunately, it’s increasingly difficult to get out of schools. We used to go to the New Designers exhibition every year, but it got to a point two years ago where it was going to cost our students £90 to go for the day. The students miss out. There’s nothing like seeing it for yourself.

Here we’re trying to foster international projects which we can work on collaboratively, like a real design team would. My ultimate goal at the school is for big companies to come in and say: ‘We’ll set a design project and will work with the group for the next year.’ The prospect of working on a live project for a company is immeasurable.

A lot of government ministers have a view of D&T from when they were at school – probably of making a bird box. These are the people that are making funding decisions and saying that D&T is no longer compulsory. D&T is the most creative subject in school, it’s the one that brings in more from any other areas. It teaches the kids to question everything.

All the time we’re trying to get in more modern projects and switch the kids on. You see it sometimes in Year 7 when their eyes light up, and you think ‘I’ve got you’. It’s like a revelation, like a ‘Wow – I know I want to do this subject for the rest of my life.’

Helena Jedlinska, 50
Textiles teacher
Langley Park School for Girls, Bromley
Specialist Technology School

I did a two-year foundation at Leeds School of Art, three years at St Martins in fashion and textiles, a two-year MA at the Royal College in knitted textiles, and then worked as a freelance in the industry. In 1997 I went to Goldsmiths to do a postgraduate certificate in education.

I’m lucky enough to teach just my subject, textiles. Basically the girls can make anything they like. We use SpeedStep software and we’ve also just got a laser cutter. They work in a sketchbook from secondary sources. I used to take them to the V&A, but that’s been cut because it ‘interrupts continuity of learning’.

There’s a lot of talk that D&T should be taught at primary school and I’m increasingly of the persuasion that unless we do that, we’ll just teach it piecemeal.

I think children’s awareness of design is limited because of the curriculum. Essentially, we are working to a timetable, we’re working to a bell, to exam results. There are serious curriculum constraints. We see them for two hours a week at GCSE, then they pack up their lovely work and we don’t see them for another three days.

Everyone’s talking about more creativity and I see a lot of teachers who are very committed and really working hard to keep the subject developing. I think the curriculum could be broken down. When the girls have a whole day they love it and they get so much done. But we have to really make a case for that.

Unless there’s more flexibility in the curriculum, the vocational subjects in a school situation just aren’t going to work. There needs to be more flexibility for teachers – maybe an enforced sabbatical after five years. It’s a crying shame that those people who are innately creative, with real skill and real belief in the subject, aren’t allowed to keep that fresh.

Paul Gardiner, 54
Head of Electronics, within D&T
Finham Park School, Coventry
Maths and Computing Specialist School

I started as an electrical engineer and worked in industry. In 1978 I went into teaching physics and science, then moved into computers and electronics.

Now I have a workshop where each student has a computer of their own. People would say that’s above average, but half the system is pretty much eight years old, and not really up to the task of running the software that we’d prefer to use. I have problems convincing the management of the need for updated resources. We don’t have a laser cutter, we do have CAD/CAM equipment and I’ve just acquired a second-hand PCB cutter.

At the moment we are involved in a project with a few others schools working with IKEA on How people live in Coventry. They design themselves a new bedroom using IKEA furniture, and IKEA designers will be visiting us to work with students on their designs. The best one will be created in the new Coventry IKEA store.

Things have definitely changed since D&T was no longer compulsory at Key Stage 4. I’m now down to about 14 students at GCSE. Technology is one of the most popular KS3 subjects, but the problem we have is convincing parents and students that there’s a future in studying it, and that’s a public perception problem.

I’m definitely in favour of bringing in outside expertise and inspiration, but I think it’s a mistake to think that D&T departments exist to fuel the design industry. Technology in schools is the platform for delivering problem solving, or showing maths, science and computing in action. It gives students a context and a relevance. That aspect is completely unappreciated.

The main changes for D&T will be how we make things in the classroom, and that has implications for how we design them and what tools we use.

I would expect to see more equipment available such as rapid prototyping, and in many schools it has gone that way already. If that doesn’t happen, I fear that design and technology may disappear altogether from school as and when the perceived cost effectively wipes out aspects of the subject. I have seen evidence of that happening already.

David Hayles, 61
Advanced skills teacher in D&T
Saltash Community School, Cornwall
Specialist science, mathematics & computing college

I trained in craft and design at Goldsmiths college and started teaching in 1967.
In the late Sixties it was still very much traditional woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing. All pupils did the same projects, the design was already done for them. Materials and drawings would bein a cupboard and you took
them through it step by step.

After 18 months, I went to Hornsey College of Art and lectured. It was a very exciting time because it was when design education was in its infancy and there was a move away from pure handicraft towards design. It was all being generated by the teaching profession and was something that we were all very interested in. Fantastic, it was. I went back into secondary education in 1991.

My particular interest is promoting creativity in D&T and I’ve done quite a lot of work with Goldsmiths in this area. For a long time we’ve been hampered by adopting a particular linear model of designing. I started giving pupils a design task that they could tackle in any way they liked. The creative ideas and the progression was quite phenomenal.

We did a very successful project on designing a seat for an art gallery which had to fold up – they were working as teams, or in pairs, or individually. I’m lucky. If I ask for a group to work for two days as a block, the head says: ‘Do it’. The school’s very supportive.

The Technology Education Research Unit at Goldsmiths wanted to see what I was doing to get creativity going. They came down to observe and devised some assessment procedures. Then, we did a second project together and that has now been adopted by OCR (Oxford and Cambridge examining board) in its new Product Design GCSE.

In the past, I’ve taken my A-Level group to places such as Disneyland in Paris for a design week. You can’t overestimate the impact of something like that. I would fight as hard as I could for students to be able to get out and see what’s going on around them.


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