Pearson Edexcel Design and Technology Research Programme May Update
In this first update on our research programme, we are sharing our insights into the pain points we identified from the EPI report on national decline in D&T entries. Our first month of research has been focused on meeting with a breadth of stakeholders, including: the subject association, those working in initial teacher training, teachers, and a number of esteemed design and technology advocates, either working in higher education, or those retired and now contributing to the wider discussion on design education.
When we launched our research programme, we set out to explore the following:
- The reasons behind the national decline in D&T, and the context under which we might prepare for future reform.
- The cause of regional differences in D&T entries, and how we might help to respond to these.
- The growth of engineering as an alternative, and what this means for the progression to HE.
- What challenges face teachers, senior leaders, and those making decisions, in various settings (new, free, MAT and independent schools).
Much of our work in May and June will focus on the teacher experience of the reformed qualifications and their journey since reform, the perception of pathways to higher education, and the factors that are impacting schools in their decision to enter students for GCSE and A level qualifications in D&T. We do not yet have the answers to our really big questions, but following our work in April, we have been able to bring together the views of many individuals, and we are looking to analyse reactions to this first May update to inform next steps. Here are our key findings so far.
D&T and its value to HE progression
The value of D&T qualifications at both GCSE and A level should be to support the progression of learners onto their next step, be this to higher education, or otherwise. In speaking to senior lecturers for both Product Design BSC and BA routes, they shared some useful insights into the candidates they interviewed during the application process to their degree courses.
Firstly, successful applicants onto HE Product Design courses were more commonly falling into two groups; A level D&T applicants who were predominately male and from independent school backgrounds; and A level Art and Design applicants who were from the state sector backgrounds, and were more commonly female. Candidates from these two groups presented portfolios of creative work that demonstrated talent, creative thinking, complex and iterative design journeys, and held themselves well in the process of interviewing for a place on a Product Design course.
A level D&T applicants from state sector schools, who presented a portfolio of D&T coursework, were less likely to be successful for the following reasons:
A. The quality of evidence presented in their portfolio (A level coursework) did not show a cohesive journey, and was more typically a body of written work, with limited amounts of designing, prototyping and making.
B. A lack of potential talent (exemplified through a passion for design beyond the classroom) was evident during interview.
Whilst our HE stakeholders were not representative of all HE pathways, their feedback was that the work that secondary school learners were producing through their D&T course (KS5 particularly) was not sufficient evidence of the level of talent and passion required for degree-level study of design. Applicants who completed a personal project or national competition involving a level of creative design, making or iteration, typically demonstrated more passion than those who presented an A level D&T portfolio of work. This does not mean that the A level portfolio could not achieve the requirements of HE, but that more commonly it failed to. Those preparing for an Arkwright Scholarship application or competing in the National VEX Robotics competition for example, would potentially have stronger evidence to support their application to HE both from a perspectivee of demonstrating an individuals self driven passion, but also for its creative, iterative and problem solving approach, more than a portfolio of D&T A level coursework typically would. The value of D&T seems in part to echoe a recent article from Sir James Dyson:
“The problem at school is that design and technology is no longer a serious subject,” he said. “It’s not a subject you can use to get into university. I mean, you can get into design universities with it but if you wanted to do physics, it’s not considered a valuable A-level. And so fewer and fewer people are taking it, and particularly fewer and fewer girls.”
Whilst D&T may help students progress into some design pathways, the wider view from the more competitive HE courses is that D&T education at KS5 is not meeting their needs. The solutions for D&T could be drawn from where HE currently feels the secondary school offer falls short. If teachers of both GCSE and A level D&T courses were able to move away from portfolios that contain a collection of individual pieces of skill, knowledge and process evidence, and move towards a cohesive, self-driven design journey where individual passions can shine, a portfolio would be more suited to HE progression. The current specifications encourage human centred design approaches, which expand into areas of User Centred research and material/process/technology exploration that works perfectly as a response to the NEA. These, where self-driven, could create the environment for talent to shine, and portfolios to become a clear and well communicated journey.
Reflections from HE stakeholders were that whilst entry requirements for courses related to Industrial/Product Design would not be changing away from Mathematics and Science any time soon, there was scope for learners to study social science related courses such as Psychology, which would add value to the study of Design at degree level, because of its content in analysing and understanding user behaviours. The challenge for Design education is to adopt the teaching of more progressive design approaches more evident in UX Design courses, to move the value of the NEA up the list of HE application evidence.
HE stakeholders held perceptions that there were a number of factors leading to the decline in value of D&T to HE progression for the study of Design, and that HE course leaders should do more to resolve these issues at a local level, in part responding to the regional differences in the EPI report.
The perceived pain points for schools (HE and wider stakeholders)
We spoke to all of our stakeholders about their perceptions of the challenges faced by secondary schools around offering D&T as a course at GCSE and/or A level. We were able to group these challenges into three themes:
- The issue is the reformed courses (GCSE & A level)
They are too difficult to teach, the mathematics and science content is a burden, there has been little support for teachers to update their approaches, there has been no time for middle leaders to make these changes to the curriculum
- The issue is that secondary D&T courses fall short of the needs of HE and Design education
Schools continue to offer focused practical tasks, KS3 carousels in material areas, legacy KS3 offers that are translating into lower graded GCSE and A level outcomes, curriculums have a focus on skill and tool learning over a study of design with its own epistemology, parental perceptions of D&T have not changed
- The issue is the perceived value that decision makers hold for D&T
SLT have not funded or provided access to the training and equipment needed to update, workshops are deemed expensive money pits, higher grades are easier to attain in other optional subjects, D&T is not judged as holding future proof learning or employable skills, Ofsted show little interest in the inspection of D&T curriculums.
What else has stood out from our research so far?
We have learnt that there is not a centrally cohesive approach to responding to the challenges of design education in UK secondary schools, and that whilst there is a significant amount of discussion and debate happening in pockets both regionally and nationally, there is not a single joined up body of activity where everyone is coming together to pool their efforts, agree what should be done, and work together to deliver these. Whilst there were exceptional individuals who were aiming to bring together like-minded teachers, educators, organisations and think tanks, their impacts in isolation were only making small improvements.
Reactions to this research
We shared this research with individuals who registered to be part of this programme. Here are some key quotes where they have reacted to this reading, but anonymised.
“The disconnect between HE and schools is alarming... I suspect that the cart is driving the horse ; teachers do what is necessary in the limited time available for students to access the highest possible marks in the NEA.”
“A real rethink of specifications is required and I feel this would address much of what has been highlighted so far.”
“Pupils are judged, from a young age, in the art of ‘knowing the right answer’, arguably when faced with the ‘unknown’ of generating designs with no fixed right or wrong THIS in their minds is why D&T is hard. ”
“...for many pupils no matter how much time or energy is put into dispelling myths about courses it comes back to ‘making’…. ‘When are we making something?’ ‘Are we doing practical this lesson?’ There is a constant battle in lessons to engage pupils in design beyond focused practical tasks... "
“This (research) appears to miss the opinion of apprenticeship and vocational providers, therefore is flawed in giving a broad and balanced perspective on the broader issues faced.”
“From what I have learnt from schools that have suffered from a decline, the following seemed to be very common:
- Subject not valued by the head teacher
- Ebacc resulting in the head teacher narrowing the curriculum
- Subject is expensive to fund
- Experienced staff have left and the school has struggled to recruit
- Schools have got non-specialists to teach the subject
- Curriculum is not engaging”
Our next steps
We are looking to work with organisations to bring our research into schools and to engage with teachers. To that end, we are working to move from remote research to getting out to locations where we can talk to large groups of teachers to discuss what will have a significant impact on these pain point themes.
Join the debate
We continue to encourage everyone associated with and passionate about design and technology education to register on our form and be part of our work, which we will continue to share and publish freely for all to engage with. Please use our landing page to find our recent surveys, and use the #teachdesign so that we can track any discussions on social media.