World education league tables and D&T

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.

Professional development for D&T teachers

The first part of my teaching career was spent putting into practice what I learned at school and college and beginning to learn the techniques of teaching.  Alongside, my efforts to keep up with developments were encouraged by the school and county adviser who supported local teachers meeting to work on new ideas and projects. Once a week after school, like-minded teachers met to explore electronics and systems and control resources provided by the advisor.

I missed the HMI summer schools which older colleagues still speak about with fondness but every year my school supported me by funding summer schools on modern technologies.  I attended several week long courses at the National Centre for School Technology in Nottingham and NEMEC in Southampton.

At the start if my career computers were just becoming available so our group of teachers decided to develop projects around these. We built on work by the government funded Microelectronics Education Programme (MEP) and, supported by more experienced colleagues I began writing curriculum and training materials, leading after school sessions and summer schools for other teachers.

With the launch of the national curriculum in 1989 the government diverted funding from subject developments into generic professional development. A focus on generic teaching and learning was probably long overdue and there is evidence that classroom practice has improved but, with the exception of the KS3 strategy for D&T, central government funding for developments in non-core subjects like D&T disappeared leaving a void lasting over 25 years. The national centres of excellence like NCST, NEMEC and BST have disappeared and week-long intensive courses are a distant memory.

Imagine for a moment the guardians of compulsory schooling in the UK had an epiphany and found funding for professional development of D&T teachers.  Who is there to nationally to lead on developments and organise the training?  Who will support teachers locally when they are back in the classroom? The D&T teachers I speak to are lucky to have one day of professional development per year and most have to use this to attend health & safety courses or exam updates.

The D&T Association’s summer school is a big step in the right direction with intensive, hands on sessions and there are signs it is becoming a ‘must-attend’ annual event for teachers.

The regional meetings organised by the association are another positive development, supporting local networks of teachers. Having attended and led these, the value of the formal inputs is equalled by contributions from other teachers and opportunities to network.

The problem of teacher expertise is huge and to make any significant progress will require policy makers recognising the issue and funding.  The aim should be a minimum of five days intensive PD every year for D&T teachers and access to local development group meetings.  Subject leaders should get an additional one day meeting every term.

Teacher expertise in D&T

in the 1970s I spent three years training to be a CDT (D&T) teacher at Loughborough College of Education. Alongside the education thread, the course included intensive taught courses on design theory, material science, electronics, mechanical, pneumatic and electronic systems, jewelery and the latest electro-mechanical ‘teaching machines that were going to make us redundant within 10 years!

The excellent grounding in school that I talked about in a previous post was expanded and extended including the study of the science behind the materials, processes and how they are applied to products and systems.

During the final year we had to complete a major project and these ranged from a gemstone faceting machine to full size fibreglass speed boat and sports car all designed and built from scratch.  Newly qualified teachers leaving Loughborough College new more than enough about the ‘stuff’ of D&T and could concentrate on learning how to teach at the start of their careers in the classroom.

Since the 1970s three and four year teaching training courses have almost disappeared, replaced with PGCE and more recently, school based training. Both assume entrants have all the necessary design and practical skills when the reality is many do not. Today newly qualified teachers enter the classroom with significant gaps in their knowledge, skills and understanding and, due to reductions in professional development budgets, cannot access courses to fill these gaps in their expertise.

In my view, the gaps in teacher’s expertise is the single biggest reason for the decline in D&T.

I will explore other factors in the decline of D&T in future posts.

Decline in D&T – time, space and resources

Whilst typing a reply to a post by David Barlex asking whether D&T is harder than physics I began pondering the decline in status D&T has experienced over the last decade. You can read my response by following the link above to David’s post. If reductions in funding for D&T are responsible for the decline where is the evidence?

In this post I will look at my experiences as a pupil in the 1970s  and compare that with schools today.

As a boy I was always interested in practical subjects so chose to attend an out of catchment area secondary modern school.  It had a suite of well equipped workshops and technical drawing rooms and I was taught a wide range of skills using wood metal and plastics plus technical drawing. D&T lessons lasted half a day every week and were mostly practical with the scope for design gradually increasing. At ‘O’ level (GCSE) and ‘A’ level we had almost free choice of projects and mine included an oscillating table saw, unicycle and monkey bike made by chopping a scooter.

Pupils today are fortunate if they have two hours per week for D&T.  They complete a larger number of small projects in a narrower range of materials but in good departments experience a wider range of technologies.  For many pupils their skills of making are limited with little time to practice and refine their knowledge and understanding of materials and manufacturing techniques.

Specialist areas in schools have changed with metal and wood areas being combined in multi-material rooms.  With less space, the range and number of machines and processes has been reduced cutting down the amount of time pupils can experience these techniques. Unless pupils know how materials behave how can they possible make design decisions about which materials are most suitable and how much material to use?

The D&T projects I made, in what is now called key stage 3, were carefully planned by teachers to cover the range of materials and techniques needed to prepare us for the examinations to come later. In examination courses we negotiated our projects with teachers and, within reason, they would purchase any materials or components that weren’t stocked.  Before we could take our projects home we paid for the materials used. Limited capitation in today’s D&T department mean the materials, processes and even contexts for GCSE and A level projects are restricted limiting opportunities for pupils to follow their own interests or explore topical contexts and needs.

There are many other reasons for the decline in D&T and in the next post I will explore changes in initial teacher training and the effect on what is taught in schools.

Stellar experience!

We are currently visiting our son in Japan and taking a couple of weeks touring.  My wife booked us into a small rural hotel advertising an evening visit to a Lunar observatory which sounded interesting but we were in for a very pleasant experience. Having visited Mt Aso, an active volcano we arrived at a lovely chalet style hotel in the largest volcanic caldera on earth.  After freshening up we enjoyed a wonderful gourmet dinner followed by an hours tour of the night sky using a range of telescopes culminating in looking at Jupiter through an 800 mm diameter mirror reflecting telescope. We could clearly see the stripes around the planet and some of the moons. The telescope is the largest in Kyushu, weighs 11 tons and cost 1 Billion Yen!  It was purchased and installed by the owner of the hotel who is an enthusiast. The cost for two people to stay including dinner, breakfast and the observatory was £104 for the night.  Amazing value, well done Gaynor!