D&T – time to reverse the decline

This year saw 3% fewer students taking Design and Technology than 2013 – just the latest in a slide in numbers over the past few years

By Richard Green, CEO of the Design & Technology Association

On this year’s GCSE results day, we were delighted to see the high quality Design and Technology (D&T) work – demonstrating once again how innovative young people can be designing and making using hand, machine and computer-aided manufacturing technologies.

But, despite the fantastic results and the smiles of the leaping teenagers splashed across every newspaper the next morning, there was a much bleaker picture painted by a further decline in the number of students taking D&T. This year saw 3% fewer students taking Design and Technology than last year and this was just the latest in a consistent slide in numbers over the past three years (9% in 2013, 5% in 2012 and 12% in 2011), meaning GCSE D&T is now studied by less than a third of all students (31%), compared with more than half (56%) 10 years ago.

These figures were mirrored by this year’s A-level statistics, too. Until 2006, D&T was one of the fastest growing A-level subjects, but we’ve seen a gradual decline in entries, with just 13,691 candidates entering GCSE exams in D&T in 2014 – 683 fewer than 12 months before. We believe this month’s examination numbers at both A-level and GCSE are yet more evidence that the unique skills taught by D&T and the broad range of careers available to those that have continued their study in the subject are not being communicated effectively by schools and businesses.

The large number of initiatives promoting STEM subjects as the solution to skills gaps in manufacturing and engineering place too great an emphasis on science and maths, at the expense of engineering and technology. As the only subject on the curriculum that actually puts STEM learning into context, D&T develops creative problem solving, practical and team-working skills that are valued by real businesses across industries.

And the reality is that things are likely to get far, far worse. Unfortunately, the EBacc marginalises creative and practical subjects in favour of a very narrow set of academic measures. The UK’s creative, technology, engineering and manufacturing industries contribute a huge amount to the economy, but the constraints the EBacc places on schools is squeezing the life out of the very subjects upon which Britain’s future as a global powerhouse is built.

There are reasons for optimism, however, and we are working with the Department for Education and exam bodies on the reform of GCSE and A-level qualifications to ensure the best possible outcome. We’ve also just launched our Great British Make Off competition for schools, with the aim of helping teachers provide children with real-world challenges to overcome and highlighting the various careers available to those with D&T qualifications.

We know that well-taught D&T can equip children with skills valuable in any career, not to mention the practical design skills that might inspire some to become the next generation of entrepreneurs, engineers, computer scientists and designers.

Twenty-five years ago Britain became the first country in the world to enshrine D&T in the National Curriculum. But today, as booming economies in the Far East look to copy the model our education system pioneered, we face the very real prospect that D&T could disappear entirely from many schools within the next five years.

If the Government fails to capitalise on the unique contribution D&T can make to children’s education – and, ultimately, the economy – it would be nothing short of scandalous.