Design and Technology Research Programme - Subject challenges and diminishing textiles
In May 2022, we provided the first in a series of research updates that focus on the qualitative data behind the trends seen in the EPI report, which in January 2022, clarified in numbers the national decline of Design and Technology in UK schools. Recent podcasts by those in the education sector have speculated around the challenges and future of the subject, and our research continues to unpick these issues.
In this January update, we begin to add value to the conversation around national decline in Design and Technology through two clear insights.
In September we ran a series of focus groups with D&T teachers, to ask them about the subject in the context of their school. We spoke separately with groups predominately made up of independent schools, and groups of schools who were predominantly from the state sector. Here are some of the insights we can draw from this work, to share with the D&T community.
We asked teachers to identify their concerns at centre level, which we have translated into the following list:
- Recruitment – the challenges faced by schools and subject leaders around being unable to recruit a subject specialist.
- Cost – the issues associated with updating or replacing equipment, workshop maintenance, and the ongoing cost of training and H&S accreditation, which includes recent pressures associated with cost of living and the consumables for NEA making.
- A decline in numbers of students choosing the subject, and its declining value in the school curriculum compared to “academic” optional subjects at KS4 and KS5.
- The lack of value of A level D&T towards progression pathways at higher education level, including both as a required subject for design related degrees, and for non-design related degrees (as a 3rd grade). A level D&T was judged harder to achieve a high grade compared to A level Art, Craft and Design.
- Poor perceptions of the subject in the eyes of parents, not only linked to higher education progression, but also associated with the low quality of outcome (products) being made and taken home to parents throughout KS3 to 5.
- A lack of diversity in the student exam group cohorts, in schools failing to retain female students at both GCSE and A Level, failing to attract cohorts that are representative of the school's demography, and a decline in females interested in Design, who choose Art college over Design.
It was evident that D&T teachers were aware of the lack of value of the subject to stakeholders around them, notably parents and higher education.
Higher education progression presents a significant issue for D&T, given the lack of value the subject holds to the application process for design degrees (where mathematics and science are required, and a third grade can come from any discipline). This disconnect between secondary and higher education can be traced back to a number of challenges, which include:
- the D&T curriculum has tried to provide the study of too many separate material specialisms in one “catch all” subject, whilst a more focused study of one pathway would be better for design degree progression
- work from A level D&T None Exam Assessment (NEA) portfolios presented to HE staff during interview does not include suitable evidence required to study higher level design. (user centred design, service design, and experience design)
It was noted that...
...Whilst A level D&T was not an inhibiter to progression, candidates that presented portfolios with a heavy emphasis of manufacturing evidence were less likely to be offered a place onto the design course.
...Teachers were aware that students would potentially be better placed seeking a third grade from another subject such as Art, Craft and Design, than from D&T, due to the D&T exam component (students would typically do well in one component type but not the other).
...Students unsure about their desire to study design at degree level would be potentially better off studying subjects such as Psychology or Business, which not only add value and increase the potential opportunity for students to use this learning for the purpose of a design degree, but also provide students with more choice should a design degree not be their intended degree choice.
One of the clearest insights gained from our focus groups related to the numbers choosing the subject for GCSE or A level, and the composition of those classes.
Numbers in the independent sector are the healthiest they have ever been for many if not all centres we spoke with. Not only have numbers in D&T classes grown in recent years, but the number of exam classes running concurrently, and the number of staff employed to teach them, has been on a positive trajectory. Whilst teachers felt that D&T was serving their needs, they gave insights into subverting beyond the subject to achieve these positive outcomes.
The demography of D&T classes across other centre types has not seen equally positive improvement. In some centres we spoke to, female numbers were up, whilst in a large number of centres, classes continued to be all males. As a representation of the centre’s student demography, teachers reported a lack of diversity, including classes made up entirely of white males, despite opportunity for all students to choose the qualification.
In some centres, classes were more representative of the student demography of the school in both diversity and gender balance. The challenge ahead for HE is to see more diverse and gender balanced cohorts continuing to study design beyond their secondary school experience of the subject, despite its failings for purposeful and valued progression.
A trend that we felt required further research related to the differences in provision between those in the state sector and those in the independent sector. Upon reflection of our focus group teacher experiences, those working in the independent sector were significantly more positive overall about D&T, in both its growth and future growth potential at their centre. Teachers spoke with confidence about the value of the subject in the eyes of their students, parents and from their SLT.
By contrast, state sector teachers were less positive. Whilst the factors listed earlier summarised the issues being experienced, teachers presented fewer positive insights relating to the future of the subject and its potential to grow at their centre, with some concerned for their short to medium term future as teachers of the subject.
Textiles appears to be a strand of D&T for which the future may also be more challenging than other material specialisms more typically classified as Product Design (timbers, metals, polymers, electronics). Teachers considering the future of D&T felt that textiles was not included in national discussions relating to the future of the subject.
Our D&T focus groups continued to show a distinct difference between state and independent sector insights, with independent schools having a much more positive textiles narrative to share. State sector schools continued to not only struggle to provide a differentiated course offer to that of their Art, Craft and Design colleagues, but also struggled to avoid being drawn into a carousel of Textiles, D&T and Food at KS3, which signalled to some stakeholders that textiles is separate to D&T, despite this not being the case at GCSE.
At Pearson Edexcel, we have seen increased movement from GCSE D&T to GCSE Art, Craft and Design, identified through the marking of None Exam Assessment (NEA) for both subjects this summer 2022. Whilst this is pleasing to see that students continue to be offered creative subject opportunities in schools, it raises concerns for a lack of clear water between the subjects of D&T and Art, Craft and Design in the UK curriculum. Our Summer moderation teams noted that Art, Craft and Design submissions under the textiles area of study appeared to come from D&T departments, with entry evidence indicating that historically, the school had previously offered GCSE D&T. This data is part of a growing trend of movement from D&T to Art, Craft and Design, which we believe is by choice. We will continue to investigate this change, and feedback on this in future research updates.