Almost every week we see headlines telling us how far the UK is down the World league tables for maths and English. And the response from UK government is to pillory schools and teachers, revise the core standards yet again and increase the level of testing and monitoring. With the spotlight on schools getting more intense their response is all too often putting even more time, resources and energy into the teaching of maths and English. The result is a reduction in time, budget and resources for other subjects including D&T. Through their surveys and work with schools, the D&T Association has hard evidence of reductions in curriculum time, resourcing and staffing. With the greater freedom that comes with Academies, for the first time some have removed D&T completely from their curriculum!
So what are the leading countries doing to maintain their position in league tables and further improve their education systems? Are they spending more time dedicated to the teaching of English and Maths? Are they paying higher salaries to teachers of English and Maths? Are they investing in professional development of English and maths teachers? Strangely the answer to these questions is no. Instead, many have realised that a narrow focus on English and maths stifles creativity and entrepreneurship, jeopardising their economies. They have identified that, to be successful, countries need to have strong and efficient creative industries and are investing heavily in education to encourage young people to consider careers in design and engineering.
This continues a trend I have been involved in over several decades. North America and Australia have been learning from D&T here in the UK for many years adopting the best strategies, resources and projects.
In North America, Technology Education (the nearest thing to D&T) is an elective (optional) subject and only available in some schools. With a few notable exceptions projects are traditional make activities with little design input from the students and still referred to ‘shop’ in many schools. A small number of schools run STEM projects, many focussed on robotics competitions and often run by science teachers. The US curriculum standards were revised recently with engineering requirements added for the first time but attached to physics, bypassing Tech’ Ed’ altogether. The push over several decades to introduce design into US schools has not had a major impact and you have to wonder whether their creative and manufacturing will continue to decline.
In stark contrast, Australia has a mandated curriculum that includes D&T and is very recognisable to us in the UK. With design at the core, the Australian D&T curriculum encourages the use of a wide range of materials including control systems and requires the use of digital design and manufacture. I look on in envy at the dialogue and projects being discussed on the Facebook forums for D&T ‘down under’.
Maybe maths and English teachers in the top countries in the league tables are better than their equivalents in the UK. There is a growing realisation that the high scores in maths and English are due not to excellent classroom teaching but to after school coaching and hot housing. Many of the top performing countries in English and maths put children through additional lessons and cramming. During a recent visit to Japan I spoke to pupils, teachers and parents where official school starts at 8.30am and finishes at 4.30pm. Before and after school sessions are the norm in these schools with many pupils attending additional classes for two hours before school and every evening until bedtime. Is it any wonder Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world?
Many countries who currently sit at the top of league tables have realised their schools are not preparing pupils for the complex, fast changing and technological world they will live in. Their position at the top of global league tables has been at the expense of free thinking, creative, employable people who can make a contribution to a healthy and prosperous economy. And where are these countries looking for help developing creative subjects like D&T? There has been a massive increase in the number of D&T experts from the UK attending conferences and advising Middle East and Pacific rim governments.
In a perverse twist, the D&T Association is simultaneously lobbying the UK government to reverse the marginalisation of creative subjects like D&T and at the same time helping countries like China set up design education in their high schools. Is the UK government listening to the D&T Association and other professional bodies? It seems not, with the Gove legacy and accountability measures continuing to narrow the curriculum available to UK pupils. While the UK government decimates the creative subjects, other countries have recognised design and engineering are the key to prosperity.
If their strategies work, politicians will soon be boasting that the UK is higher in world education league tables. They may not be so keen to take responsibility for an increase in mental health problems among children and the UK slipping down the world league table of design and engineering excellence.