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Design and Technology Curriculum

Volume 560: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2013

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the draft design and technology curriculum and to hear the Minister’s response.

I shall sum up the issues that are worrying people in three themes, which an academic suggested to me. The first is that there is a narrowing of focus. The draft programme of study for design and technology returns to a 1950s DIY curriculum with an emphasis on basic craft and household maintenance skills. It places at risk the creative, challenging learning in design, engineering and technology that is part of the present design and technology curriculum.

Secondly, there is a lack of rigour and challenge. The published draft programme of study for design and technology lacks academic or technical rigour, challenge or ambition. It is completely out of step with the needs of our advanced industrial economy and sophisticated labour market. It will undermine routes into further and higher education for talented students by failing to provide the skills and knowledge that they need to progress, or to inspire students to pursue careers in the creative industries, design, engineering, manufacturing and technology. Thirdly, there is a reduction in value, status and popularity. The draft proposals will further reinforce the perception that applied subjects are less valuable, which in turn will lead to academically gifted young people being discouraged from choosing technical and creative subjects at GCSE.

So, what the Minister decides on the design and technology curriculum will be every bit as significant for our country’s competitiveness as what the Chancellor announces in his Budget speech in an hour or so, so I hope the Minister’s voice lasts during her response. I am sure she understands the importance of getting it right, and I am sure the Department’s current consultation is genuine and could lead to meaningful change. I hope she will regard my speech as a constructive submission to that consultation. I apologise for any unintentional plagiarism in my remarks. I have been deluged with advice, for which I am grateful, and I will endeavour to attribute all my quotations and points.

I am here today primarily because of a constituent, Sue Wood-Griffiths, a lecturer at the university of Worcester, who recently came to see me in my constituency surgery to express her concerns. A phrase in the e-mail that Sue sent me yesterday sums everything up nicely:

“We should acknowledge that we are educating children today for a world that they will live in in the future and not the one we used to live in.”

That is why I was so encouraged to read the Minister’s speech from Monday, when she said,

“we will fall hopelessly behind in the global race if we do not equip successive generations with contemporary skills.”

My constituent, the Minister and I are in profound agreement.

I am also here because of my deep concern about the serious shortage of engineering skills. I now advise Northern Defence Industries, a defence and aerospace supply chain organisation, and I am a non-executive director of a small advanced manufacturing business. I am learning directly about the challenges that employers are facing. I conclude that the two greatest avoidable threats to our prosperity and security are, first, the deficit, which I am sure will feature largely in the Chancellor’s Budget speech, and secondly, science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—skill shortages. That is what makes our debate so important. I want to see people studying to become skilled engineers so that they can maintain and sustain the F-35, which will shortly be based at RAF Marham in the Minister’s constituency. STEM skills are important to our security.

Engineering UK estimates that we have to double the education system’s output of engineers. That means increasing engineering graduates from 20,000 to 40,000 each year, and the same is true of apprentices. If new technologies make new demands—and the history of the human race suggests that is exactly what will happen—we will need many more engineering graduates and apprentices.

As I am sure the Minister knows, the low participation rate of women in engineering is a particular scandal, and I believe the design and technology curriculum can help to address that. I suggested a package of solutions in a ten-minute rule Bill last month. My first objective in that Bill was to give schools, from at least key stage 2, a duty to provide pupils with a meaningful experience of modern science, engineering and technology. I believe that objective can be met through a well structured design and technology curriculum in which the business community participates enthusiastically.

As the Minister will be aware, academics and teachers are expressing great concern about the draft design and technology curriculum. That is no plea of simple self-interest from producer groups. Industry, which is the end user of the skills provided to our children at school, is also very worried. James Dyson’s brilliant Times article of 11 February, “Grilling tomatoes won’t train new engineers,” explains that clearly and praises the changes made in the computing and maths curriculums, but it expresses deep concern about the design and technology curriculum. Yesterday, he told me:

“We need more engineers but the E from STEM is missing in our schools. Design & Technology should rank alongside maths and the sciences in importance—helping future engineers understand their practical applications.”

I talked to Steve Holliday, chief executive of the National Grid Company, about all that on Monday. Steve has a profound understanding of, and involvement in, skills issues. He, too, is deeply worried about what the draft curriculum could do to the future flow of engineers and technicians. He has just sent me this remark:

“D+T is today beginning to bring to life science and provide inspiration to tomorrow’s engineers who are so critical to our future.”

I strongly agree with Steve.

“Design and technology” is perhaps an unhelpful phrase that can mislead those outside teaching. In design and technology pupils design, test, make and evaluate innovative, functional products and systems with clear users and purposes in mind. They use a wide range of tools, equipment, materials and processes, including leading-edge, industry-standard computer-aided design and manufacturing, such as laser cutters and 3D printers. They also integrate electronics and computer programming into their designing and making, and they produce intelligent products. In fact, there is real scope for getting local small and medium-sized enterprises to run their businesses from those well equipped school workshops. They could take advantage of modern equipment used to teach design and technology that is used only for a few hours each school day. That would bring into schools welcome direct business engagement and experience of what technology can do. I know of at least one school where that is already happening, but the Government are right to propose changes to the current curriculum.

Education for Engineering, E4E, says in its excellent recent report that

“the subject is in need of reform to bring it in line with current Design thinking and modern technologies”.

The report proposes

“a new model for the D&T that realigns the subject with the original progressive vision proposed when it was introduced in 1989 while making it relevant for the 21st century.”

The report has this to say about the subject:

“D&T is one of the very few opportunities for pupils to partake in a technical, practical education. It plays an important role in providing young people with a hands-on, creative experience and develops a practical identity and a capability for innovation. The subject provides opportunity for collaboration, team working and communication—skills that are essential for future employment.”

Women have those skills in abundance. The report emphasises that design and technology

“is the closest subject to engineering in the National Curriculum.

D&T is not a vocational subject. It is a general academic subject, and has its own fundamental body of knowledge, principles and concepts which are not provided elsewhere in the curriculum.”

Design and technology is now leading-edge stuff that has changed beyond recognition in the years since I was at school, but the draft curriculum does not reflect that.

In a letter to The Times, Sir John Parker, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said:

“The original D&T curriculum brought in by Kenneth Baker 20 years ago was more progressive than what we have now.”

Although I worry about curriculum overload, it is right to include food technology in the design and technology curriculum because it suits many of the concepts that should be included, but it is surprising to see cooking given absolute primacy:

“The National Curriculum for design and technology aims to ensure that all pupils: understand food and nutrition and have opportunities to learn to cook.”

The draft curriculum lists the subsidiary objectives of the curriculum with these introductory words, and I note the word “also”:

“It also aims to ensure that, working in fields such as materials (including textiles), horticulture, electricals and electronics, construction, and mechanics”.

The list then begins with a series of rather mundane objectives compared with what we ought to expect from the curriculum.

Dr Paul Thompson, rector of the Royal College of Art, wrote to me:

“We need our young designers to be focused on problem solving, market analysis, proof of concept, user interface and user experience, materials technology, visual literacy and aesthetics, sustainability, commerciality, and so much more. I really cannot see how home economics fits with this discipline at this particular level.”

Dr Marion Rutland of the university of Roehampton made a strong case to me for including food technology, but not cooking, in the curriculum. She differentiates between the two key issues underpinning the teaching of food in schools:

“One is the perceived importance of pupils learning to cook as a ‘life skill’ and the second is the potential contribution of food technology in design and technology to include academic rigour and contribute to the pupils’ overall learning. Ofsted has noted a lack of clarity regarding the nature of food technology and a need for a more intellectually challenging curriculum with more in-depth nutritional knowledge and greater scientific understanding and technical rigour.”

She went on to suggest that cooking may be more suited to the personal, social, health and economic education curriculum or to cooking clubs.

My principal concern, though, is that the whole draft curriculum is written in a way that retreats from the combination of rigour and inspiration that the Department is rightly seeking in other areas of study. The curriculum should be encouraging creativity in its students, offering them choice on how to approach problems and giving them as much autonomy as possible in their approach.

Students need to experience the reality of STEM in the modern world to understand it, and they need real project work and real industry partners to bring all that to life and to make design and technology fun, relevant and stimulating. Instead, the draft curriculum prepares its students for a low-technology past, not for a high-technology present and future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on his excellent speech. He mentioned earlier that he was approached by a constituent who happens to work in my constituency at the university of Worcester. I have been approached by a constituent who is a senior lecturer at Birmingham City university, and she strongly supports my hon. Friend’s point. She said that there is concern that the current draft of the curriculum appears to hark back to the past by trying to create a “make do and mend” culture. If we are looking for phrases from the past that ought to be relevant to our design and technology curriculum, perhaps we should be looking to “the white heat of the technological revolution,” rather than “make do and mend.” Does he agree?

I am glad to hear Harold Wilson’s words spoken on this side of the House for a change. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The phrase “make do and mend” will feature later in my speech. His constituent makes a powerful point that goes to the heart of the issue that we need to address. I pay tribute to the university of Worcester for teaching design and technology so well to design and technology students and teachers.

Speaking to a conference at the Royal Academy of Engineering a couple of weeks ago, Dick Olver, chairman of both BAE Systems and E4E, contrasted the experience of the computing and design and technology curriculums. He said that with design and technology

“we seem to have a problem. Again, the Royal Academy of Engineering, along with the Design and Technology Association and the Design Council, provided advice to the Department for Education on new programmes of study for the subject.

This time however, it seems our recommendations have been completely ignored. Instead of introducing children to new design techniques such as biomimicry, we now have a focus on cookery. Instead of developing skills in Computer Aided Design we have the introduction of horticulture. Instead of electronics and control we have an emphasis on basic mechanical maintenance tasks. In short, something has gone very wrong.”

The introduction to the subject content of the draft curriculum begins depressingly:

“In Key Stages 1 to 3 pupils should be taught progressively more demanding practical knowledge, skills and crafts”.

Contrast that with the well-crafted phrases in the purpose of study for the computing curriculum which, ironically, comes immediately before D and T in the consultation document:

“A high-quality computing education equips pupils to understand and change the world through computational thinking. It develops and requires logical thinking and precision. It combines creativity with rigour: pupils apply underlying principles to understand real-world systems, and to create purposeful and usable artefacts. More broadly, it provides a lens through which to understand both natural and artificial systems, and has substantial links with the teaching of mathematics, science, and design and technology.”

My request to the Minister is a simple one. Will she please devise a D and T curriculum that follows the excellent example of the computer curriculum, and perhaps look at what her opposite numbers are doing in the widely praised Scottish curriculum for excellence?

I welcome the Minister’s emphasis on the need to avoid excess prescription in the curriculum, and to allow schools to be as free as possible in what and how they teach, but the words in the draft curriculum will direct what teachers do. The Design and Technology Association says:

“The core knowledge in the D and T proposals will not encourage teachers to develop exciting and stimulating lessons. It marks a radical and regressive departure from current practice. The language of the draft is utilitarian and uninspiring”.

It refers to “common” practical skills, “common” materials, “common” ingredients, “common” tools and techniques, “straightforward” recipes, “straightforward” skills, “simple” techniques and “everyday” products. DATA says:

“It will not inspire teachers to use their professionalism and expertise to motivate and engage pupils.”

Why does this matter so much? As I said, the UK has a desperate shortage of engineers and technicians. I loved abstract maths and physics, but there was no D and T at my grammar school and metalwork and woodwork were for the less academically able. I did well in maths and physics, but I never really understand what I could do with them, and that is probably why I am not an engineer today. A good D and T curriculum helps students to appreciate the uses of maths and physics and will inspire many young people—especially girls, I suspect—to pursue careers in science, technology and engineering. Some students might not have thought of that because they thought that sciences were not for them, but D and T made science relevant.

Worryingly, DATA also says:

“The draft proposals will further reinforce the perception that applied subjects are less valuable, which in turn will lead to academically gifted young people being discouraged from choosing technical and creative subjects such as D and T. We need our very brightest young people to be creative and able to focus their talent on real-world challenges. Design and innovation are widely identified as drivers of economic growth and the basis of Britain’s long-term competitive advantage. If subjects like D and T are marginalised, where will this innovation come from?”

The irony is that the UK has been leading the world in its understanding of the issue, and our competitors are catching up. An academic wrote to me:

“Research into D and T education over the last 20 years has been world-leading. Other countries look to ours for the lead in how to teach Design and Technology. The works of Richard Kimbell, David Barlex, Kay Stables, Marion Rutland, Eddie Norman, David Spendlove, Frank Banks which build upon earlier higher education research by Ken Baynes, Bruce Archer and Phil Roberts leads the world in this area.”

He continued:

“Their research has led to what is modern D and T, and while there is of course a place for practical work and skills, this should not be the main focus of any argument for the defence of the subject.”

Can sustainable growth ever return if we are rejecting the knowledge economy in favour of simply training up young people for manual jobs? The draft curriculum suggests that the intended direction is to equip operatives for middle-sector manual jobs, or empowering people to be able to make do and mend. Where then will the next generation of designers and engineers come from? Another insidious influence that affects the brightest students, both boys and girls, is that both sexes are often turned away from STEM careers due to a totally mistaken belief that they offer only technician-level activity: oily rags and machine shops. We need more technology in schools, not less, to show the exciting reality of modern science, engineering and technology. In the days when technical drawing, woodwork, metalwork, electronics and engineering were taught and respected in schools, Britain produced some of the most successful inventors, designers and engineers on the planet.

A modern D and T curriculum would be concerned with learning about today’s world of design and technology, and its economic and social value. It would use real projects that are relevant to students to show how maths, science technology, design and engineering work together; it would use modern methods and project management tools to manage deadlines and resources; it would teach safety and precision; it would teach how to develop and refine products to meet real needs; and it would straddle materials, components, systems, electronics, data and services to create high-quality outcomes. It would do that using a range of technologies, including food and textiles, but not to the exclusion of all those other technologies of the future that it should encompass.

As the Minister reminded us in her speech on Monday, the Prime Minister rightly says that we are in a global race, and he did not mean a pancake race. To win that race, we need to foster our creativity and innovation. To extend the metaphor, our young people must learn not just how to cook pancakes, but to search constantly for better pancake ingredients, recipes and design, and to build better stoves to cook them on.

Keeping the “e” in STEM silent, to use James Dyson’s brilliant phrase, means that the draft curriculum will stifle innovation and deter talented young people from careers in technology and engineering. With the same vision that underpins the computing curriculum, our young people could ensure that our country wins that global race. At the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering award ceremony on Monday, one speaker said that engineers are the poets of the practical world. My plea to the Minister is to help them to keep on writing that poetry.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) for raising this important subject. His speech was funny and well researched. I particularly liked the reference to the “white heat of technology”. I think that was the first time I have heard a Conservative quote Harold Wilson, and perhaps the first time I have heard Harold Wilson quoted in this House, which is interesting. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend said. Design and technology is an extremely important subject, which builds on this country’s long history of leading the world in design, innovation, engineering, manufacturing and architecture. The chain of British world-class achievements stretches from the giants of the industrial revolution, such as Watt and Brunel, to household names of modern high-tech design, such as Sir Jonathan Ive and Sir James Dyson.

Design and technology has a vital role to play in inspiring young people. Unlike my hon. Friend, I did design and technology at school and very much enjoyed it. It taught me a lot and has been helpful in my later life. It bridges theoretical and practical education, encourages the application of mathematics and science to engineer solutions to real practical problems, and delivers vital practical skills. My hon. Friend captured some of the tensions in the subject—its domestic, industrial and commercial application—but we need to address all those issues because it is important that our young people can do things in their own homes as well as apply them more widely. In counties such as Norfolk, the catering and horticultural industries are high-tech and require young people with specific skills in those areas.

We have retained design and technology’s place in the compulsory national curriculum. We have funded the Design and Technology Association to deliver high-quality continuing professional development to teachers with a focus on computer-aided design, manufacturing, electronics and communications technology. However, we have made changes in the new national curriculum, and there has been a broad welcome for the strengthened place of food and cooking in particular. One issue with the previous curriculum was that it tried to shoehorn food and cooking into a design process. It has its place in industry, but also has a place in teaching young people about where food comes from, nutrition and the ability to cook. We want more young people to be able to do that. The Department of Health is very interested in how we address Britain’s obesity problem. There has been a warm welcome for what we have done with food and cooking.

We have sought in our draft curriculum to broaden what schools may teach and to give them more freedom to inspire young people, which is why subjects such as horticulture are included but are optional. If schools have leading horticultural centres nearby, they may want to develop that subject. The approach in our national curriculum is to focus on what schools do rather than how they do it. We expect teachers and head teachers to develop their curriculum and professional development much more, so that they can inspire young people.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned developments in the maths, computing and physics curriculum. I agree that it is important to note the need for many more engineers and so on in this country. We need the subject to be inspiring for girls and boys. Such subjects depend on maths, physics and computing, and we have received strong support for our reform of those curricula. I welcome my hon. Friend’s help in pushing the agenda for getting more 16 to 18-year-olds doing maths, and the Secretary of State’s long-term goal is for all students to be doing that within 10 years.

Design and technology is important, but it is part of a broader range of subjects that will encourage young people to go into particular industries. There is a strong case for saying that subjects such as mathematics and physics also need to be able to point to their practical application. For example, we have included a greater financial element to mathematics so that young people understand its practical application and can apply it to their domestic circumstances as well as to any future work. It is tricky to ensure that the subject of design and technology is both aspirational and rigorous, and that students are able to apply it to their domestic, commercial and industrial lives, but that is the task we must fulfil.

It is not appropriate for a subject such as cookery to be in personal, social, health and economic education. Instead it should be part of design and technology. However, it was not a deliberate act on our part to give food and cooking a position of primacy in the curriculum. Indeed, improvements could certainly be made to the curriculum, and I take on board my hon. Friend’s suggestions. I recently had a meeting with representatives from the Design and Technology Association, who said that they will come back with further suggestions on how we might improve the language and make the subject as aspirational and as rigorous as possible while not losing the breadth and the flexibility that we are trying to give teachers.

Teachers could continue to teach the existing material under our proposed new curriculum. I agree that we need to make it clear that the subject is both rigorous and important. We want young people to study it and be inspired by it. I am very happy to take forward this discussion with my hon. Friend and other hon. Members over the coming months to ensure that the final curriculum is absolutely right and is supported by leading chefs, such as John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby from the LEON restaurant chain, who are involved in our school food programme. It must also be supported by our leading engineers, such as Sir James Dyson. I want to get to a point where we have something that is widely supported by industry and by people who want to see an improvement in the abilities of students in food and nutrition, and where it is understood by schools that the subject is very important.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue and bringing it to my attention. It is a matter that we have already been working on, particularly in relation to how we link it better to the other curricula that are being developed. He has kindly made some positive comments about the computing curriculum, and a few of the issues he mentioned in relation to design techniques, such as computer-aided design, cross over both subjects. It is important to understand how those subjects are linked, so that we can see, for example, which part of technology is in design and technology and which part is in the new computing curriculum. The whole point of the new computing curriculum is that it is much more related to programming and to understanding how computers work, so that more young people will be inspired to enter our important IT sector.

Before the Minister finishes, and in order to help her save her voice for a second or two, may I say how encouraged I am by her response? Her remarks take us very much in the right direction of travel, and I look forward to engaging with her on this process, as she has so kindly suggested.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and for handing me a glass of water. I am afraid that I have a rather croaky throat today. We want to get the curriculum right, and we are very involved in a consultation; I have made that very clear to the Design and Technology Association.

I will not hide the fact that in this particular curriculum, we are trying to do a lot of different things; we are trying to prepare students for life so that they are capable citizens who can carry out practical work in their own homes. We also recognise the importance to industry of having people who are inspired from an early age. I hope that the flexibilities within the curriculum will enable local schools to work more closely with industry to make the subjects as relevant as possible and to give students as much practical experience as possible early in their school career, so that rather than becoming politicians, more of them will be inspired to become engineers.

Sitting suspended.