Saving Design Technology

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Design Technology


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
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If Design Technology is to survive in an EBacc world, should technology teachers reconsider their curriculum?

It is my belief, that design and technology teachers across the land need to seriously rethink their approach to key stage 3 design technology (11-14 years) in secondary schools. Allow me to explain why …

I have been a head of design technology in three schools and had the privilege of building one from the ground up. I’ve defended the ‘subject’s corner in schools’, local authorities and have also had national recognition with DATA (Design and Technology Association) for student work and department innovation. As a middle leader, I experimented with the carousel and option blocks, specialised and non-specialised teachers, length of projects, mixed ability and group – you name it. I want to take a moment to write about some longer-term alternatives for the subject, but first, allow me to share some of the problems associated with DT.


  • It’s expensive for schools to fund all that the curriculum area has to offer
  • Budgets are dwindling and DT departments cannot maintain machinery that becomes quickly outdated
  • The key stage 3 experience often requires specific timetabling and class size thresholds
  • Small class size guidance for health and safety reasons is exactly that – it is not law – but often becomes a battle between department and school leadership
  • Traditional projects and stereotypes remain associated with the subject – from colleagues and parents
  • Recruiting teachers to the subject is in serious decline – particularly in food technology and electronics
  • The subject is out of favour with the current government, therefore steering public attitudes and popularity away from the complex and demanding opportunities the subject has to offer. This in turn impacts on option choices at GCSE and parental influence on students, thus the subject’s demand.
Provocation 1: Curriculum

For years I believed that various ‘material experiences’ across the design technology curriculum was the way for all schools to achieve a broad curriculum offer for their students, and do this on a rotation basis every 8-12 weeks throughout the academic year. However, I no longer believe this is a valid reason for any DT department to continue to offer this model for teaching and learning, a) as a curriculum offer for 11-14 year olds b) the subject’s long-term future and c) as an evidence-informed methodology.

I’ve taught all areas of the subject my entire teaching career, from primary to A-level and every material area – everyone! For those of you who are unfamiliar with the curriculum, this includes a broad range of subjects:

  • Resistant materials – some may remember this as woodwork, metalwork
  • Graphic communication
  • Textiles
  • Food technology – some may remember this as home economics or cookery
  • Electronics
  • Product Design
  • Computer-Aided Design / Manufacture (CAD/CAM)
  • Engineering.

The initial problem with all of this, what to offer and what not to teach children. Any school cannot offer all of the above. A department of teachers can only offer so much and with any subject, the deeper you dig, the more complex the matter and the expertise required.

For DT departments, we should consider what subjects to offer students, particularly as the national curriculum does not prescribe that students experience every material listed above. Secondly, some schools/teachers are expected to have the knowledge and skills to be able to teach each of the material areas on rotation – or at least that is still the perception. Schools, particularly at key stage 3, are limited by the number of teachers, students, rooms and ‘timetable blocks’ they can offer so that a) the teacher is knowledgeable with the subject b) that students thrive in the subject area and c) the school offers students an experience in the material.

Either way, these factors impact timetabling decisions. I suspect other areas of school life have the same difficulties. For example, in humanities or PE, there is often a carousel system and those teachers are also expected to teach areas outside of their expertise. For example, a gymnast specialist may find themselves teaching students how to play basketball, or a historian having to teach Geography. This also happens in some science departments, but it is less prevalent because of the ‘core’ nature within the curriculum. Therefore, rooming, number of teachers and expertise – or perhaps what the teacher wants to offer children – limits what a school can / cannot do and what the students can experience. This often drives curriculum decisions rather than what the core values of the subject has to offer.

Provocation 2: Costs

It is becoming even more challenging for heads of design technology to have the right materials and equipment in front of their students. My issue with the design technology curriculum is that it is a costly subject for schools and head teachers to sustain. With the current cuts to school funding, this becomes a difficult challenge for schools to keep the subject alive – particularly if outcomes are not strong and the costs of various goods and services increase. With dwindling budgets, this makes it an easy area of the school for head teachers to spend less on and with good reason.

As a result, you will find some departments being closed down; departing teachers not replaced as schools rethink their curriculum offer (with fewer hours in the week) and worse, equipment being sold off or binned as classrooms are remodelled for other areas of the curriculum. It is vital heads of department are innovative, are forward thinking and look to save costs internally rather than seek funding from their headteacher.

Provocation 3: Knowledge and Skills

For decades, design technology departments have worked on a carousel process where key stage three students would rotate around the department to experience various materials/teachers. In various settings, there will be some refinement in places, longer hours, extended projects or rotation from project to project with not much thought.

In some progressive approaches, a teacher would move with their students into a different material area – even if the teacher is not a subject expert – for the benefit of the teacher knowing their students better. Another alternative is a more traditional approach, where the teacher stays in their subject area and the students rotate every 7-12 weeks to garner an experience – each teacher sharing assessment information with another teacher in order to streamline workload for an overall assessment of a child’s knowledge and skills. This allows the teacher to remain the expert whilst the student gains enough time to be exposed to a subject/material area- to have a go at designing and making something – and then move onto another subject.

Do we really believe a student can develop various subject knowledge, skills and design process expertise simply by moving from material to material? Worse, to be able to make an accumulative, accurate and reliable assessment of that child from 3 or 4 teachers teaching them for just 8 weeks?

There are many benefits to a carousel model, but over the last decade, I’ve started to unpick some serious problems with this methodology – as a design technology first and as a senior teacher second  – which has significant flaws (in the current assessment and evidence-informed landscape). Within one department, assessment can vary wildly between teacher to teacher simply because each subject requires a different understanding. The student or teacher may be [insert evaluation grade term here] at. I’ve taught food technology to GCSE level, but I’m not a chef. I have no scientific understanding of food and I would seriously become unstuck teaching the subject at A level. This is something I could learn throughout my career, but if there was never any intention on my part to develop this aspect of my subject knowledge, I could be teaching children at key stage 3 the wrong knowledge. Maybe this was the reason I and thousands of other DT teachers choose one area to specialise to degree level. Exactly like a biologist or a chemist teaching A level students. They may have to teach 11 years olds another area of ‘science’, but would become unstuck teaching another area to a more demanding level.


So, regardless of subject, do carousel models work within schools? Not just from a logistical perspective, but from an evidence-informed principle that supports better outcomes? My evaluation: I suspect not.

Secondly, as a group of students move on to another area of the curriculum, it is unlikely a teacher will teach those students again until the next academic year – and again, for only 8-12 weeks. So, why do we expect these children to retain, for example, any ‘food technology’ knowledge or remember any skills for theory and practical application in [insert subject] discipline? How often have you heard teachers in design technology say, ‘my students cannot remember any [subject] knowledge from last year’? It is simply counter-productive.


If design technology teachers wish to save their subject area from being squeezed out of the curriculum altogether, particularly in the current climate of an EBacc (English Baccalaureate) – in which the Department for Education anticipate, 90% of all students will study by 2025, design technologists must redesign DT from the ground-up to secure its long-term position within the curriculum – not only to save jobs, but to save the subject as we know it from being culled altogether.

Simple solutions:

  • Rethink your key stage 3 curriculum – try offering students the opportunity to stay with a subject, all year.
  • Offer solutions to headteachers to make materials, class sizes and costs easier to justify
  • Steer well away from projects ‘you did at school’. We’ve all moved on from 20 years ago!
  • Ask yourself: what do you really think students can design and make in 8 weeks?! And assess accurately?
  • Use every opportunity to involve colleagues and parents in workshops after school hours to help steer attitudes
  • Celebrate the complex knowledge of the subject with cross-curricular displays and exhibitions
  • Develop projects that recycle school materials and create visible displays around the school
  • Seek to develop projects within the subject with other areas of the school, particularly with business and core subjects
  • Invite external specialists in regularly to support students’ experience of the curriculum – challenge their bias too.

Design technology teachers must have at their disposal, what is to be taught within the curriculum versus subject expertise, rooms and resources. Then strip back ‘experiences’ and look more towards long-term gains in one or two materials so that students can develop deep and meaningful knowledge.

In today’s climate, we can no longer accept “experiences” as the ‘ordre du jour’. Instead, consider long-term teaching in replace of shorter material experiences so that students achieve better outcomes. And by this I don’t mean grades, I mean ‘true subject knowledge and expertise’. This is the only way I see a short-term gain – to develop a rigorous and more accurate assessment of the child – can achieve the long-term security of the subject at national curriculum level and attract the very best of teachers to move the subject forwards.


24 thoughts on “Saving Design Technology

  1. I quite agree that the subject needs to change and evolve. However over time I think it perhaps needs to go even further than you suggest, given the costs of running craft-based workshops, funding expensive resistant materials, recruiting staff and giving the subject a revitalised image.

    One way of doing this would be to adopt an approach that draws more on the Design Thinking and Digital Maker movements that are emerging in various countries, where students spend more time solving complex open-ended problems through a wide range of modelling and prototyping techniques and less about learning the theory and practice of traditional ways of working in wood, metal and plastics. An understanding of the concept of quality of thought and action can be acquired in many ways, not just in the use of resistant materials.

    At the same time the D&T community needs to make a much stronger claim as a subject for inclusion in STEM where it is ideally placed as a discipline that brings the other STEM subjects together in a meaningful way.

    1. Hi,
      Really interesting to read your comment and I would like to know more.
      I am a trainee teacher looking to create connections and gain experience/ knowledge from the best teachers and leading establishments in design and technology. I would like to know how best to increase the recognition of the subject.
      Any reccomendations?



    2. As far as the cost of the subject is concerned, it doesn’t have to cost anything as I have proved . When I was a C. D. T. Teacher at a small secondary independent school I took on the challenge of turning what had been simply a woodwork room into a room where we could do work in Wood, Metal, plastics, and Electronics and was about to start Computer control robotics with a BBC B computer. All this I achieved by scrounging materials from local manufacturing firms that were throwing away materials in skips that were large enough for the average pupils course work. Wood was found from local furniture manufacturers and double glazing firms, metal for casting was found from local garages that were throwing away aluminium wheels, plastics was found from signage firms that had removed signs from shops, and finnaly card for architectural modelling was obtained from silk screen printing firms that had a surplus of overhead point of sale signs for supermarkets. I even managed to replace the benches with benches from a firm that was relocating to another part of the U.K..
      It only has to take a telephone call to ascertain what local firms are throwing away by the skip load and they will even deliver it to your door saving them the cost of disposing of it and saving the environment by not having to dump the material in land fill. A win win situation for both parties. I also found that the irregular shapes of the plastic offcuts served to act as inspiration for jewellery. It only takes imagination to achieve a surprising amount. So go on and try to see what you can achieve by this means, I think you will be pleasantly surprised. After all, to use a saying that was used in my youth, waste not want not. A saying that has gone out of fashion it our throw away society, and one that I feel will become ever increasingly apparent as our resources dwindle.

  2. The subject is Design AND Technology, not Design Technology. Let’s at least get that right. Beyond semantics, the two are entirely different. In the past 5 decades many teachers and policy makers have failed to understand what is meant by either Design OR Technology as two distinctive fields of study. Putting them together was an educational construct, in 1989, and not one of the ‘real’ world. As a consequence, the contrived curriculum subject of Design and Technology stood little chance of success. The evidence is that, nationally, we now have a situation where design education is weak, because it has disconnected from Art (and design). Similarly, technology education is weak, and misnamed because of tentative links to science and maths, and disconnection from engineering or technical competence for making. Ironically this was posited, with authority, in 1974, in the Department of Education and Science funded RCA Design in General Education (1979). It is a shame that neither educators or policy makers heeded the reports findings. The new GCSEs, in Design AND Technology do not resolve the problem. They either deliberately, or erroneously, remove links between Art and Design and Technology and Engineering. A better and more accurate title would have been Product Design. The subject has been devalued even further.

  3. I have taught many different courses in design and technology and we cover CAD/CAM , design to construction . I teach students who cannot even use scissors , model basic ideas in card , to using basic hand tools. The CBI reported that vast areas the construction industry especially in the South East rely on foreign labour . 50% of all wood joiners come from abroad. I have recently completed a STEM project with a major international car manufacturer and I was talking to one of their trainers who said that their have apprentices cannot even handle basic spanner’s and ratchets. I have know idea where to go with it but the ebacc is turning a whole generation of kids off education who do not have the skills that industry requires .

    1. I think the EBacc is a dangerous bias that will blight the chances of 1,000s of kids. School leaders – if they are brave enough – must ignore it with the hope that it will be quashed before 2025.

    2. As far as Design and Technology goes, it is perhaps the only subject that directly equips pupils for a career. Other than perhaps computer, maths and English, which nobody would argue against, does equip pupils for a career. All other subject are solely for the benefit of the intellectual well being of the pupil, namely Art, Music, Geography, History, Science, Biology, etc. etc. So why shouldn’t Design Technology become just thought of as an intellectualy expanding subject and think of it as a subject where the pupils experience what it is to achieve the impossible, by making some artefact that either has a use in society or not as the case may be. Surely the aim of all teaching is to broaden the mind, to explore the unexplored and leave the useful aspect of the subject to be taught in a work environment where all the pupil or employee will need will be taught by the employer. I myself have made Guitars for most of my life, I was never taught to do so but just reasoned it out by trial and error. Having done woodwork for only two years at school giving it up in favour of metalwork. I found that most of the skills needed for woodwork are easily transferred having worked in metal. I should say that the school I went to was a secondary modern school back in the late 1950s and the thought that I would become a teacher was not even entertained.

  4. What is wrong with teaching design in the context of the required outcome (product/system/service) and using a range of technology to realise ideas and as a proof of concept? I have thought for some time that the term ‘technology’ is a tacked on title to differentiate us from Art and Design but ironically that subject now offers more ‘design’ based routes than D&T while many schools cant afford (or have the technical expertise) to run courses that are more engineering based.
    Every subject uses technology, we are more likely to use tools and machinery in realising ideas and solving problems. I think the subject needs a PR makeover and possibly a new name.

  5. Well said Nigel, as always! We are losing Design AND Technology, we could as many schools appear to be doing switch to 3D Art, but that would be a great shame as the essence of teaching Design and Technology to me is as important to me as it was in 1995/6 as a student on a well respected PGCE Design and Technology Course. Product Design even when taught well and in it’s broadest sense has its flaws and has not done the overall subject many favours and the EBacc is hugely misguided as so many pupils are already missing out on the education that Design AND Technology provided and the important link it made to so many FurtherEducation Courses and Future Careers.

  6. Out of all the students who rake our course beyond gcse, not just a level, but apprenticeships and employment. The current DT Model seems intent on developing a course that supports what is possibly only 20% that go on to study it at degree level. With focuses on design and the iterative process. Yet the other 80% of students who go further than gcse are being squeezed out further. What makes it worse is that the new gcse looks to close the door on the lowest 20% of the gcse cohort who just can’t access fully the new system. There should be a system in place that supports both routes both those who want a more design focus academic route and those that want to develop practical skills with some design elements. As above the new system reflects more of a product design route. But we seem intent on compartmentalizing students, that they must have a specific skill set. Yet industry is crying out for practical skills as well as creative designers. With an ever increasing shortfall of engineers each year growing I don’t believe we are really set up to help fill that gap.

  7. I have just become a Head of Design and Technology department and my background is in Art and design. Obviously new to the subject area however one constant is Design. I want to be radical and embed the Art approach to learning in technology. My desire would be design-led projects that promote individual students choose the materials they select in order to realise their outcomes. This is my vision, however, no doubt constructed by the exam criteria. But I passionately want to base the emphasis in process and development t of the idea they apply the technical aspect to the generation of it much in the same way the industry would approach and concept design and manufacture process.

    1. Justin, you might find the 3D Art (AQA) approach at GCSE and A level, works well for you as the portfolio approach encourages a degree of experimentation and development through using and understanding materials and requires very good quality made outcomes. This still gives opportunities for some good quality CAD and even 3D printing and CNC work which can be incorporated. The hard bit is ensuring the students use good quality original source materia, we took them to the Museums in London as a starting point. To keep their momentum going for the longer portfolio work a number of process based workshops helped where they could use a range of materials they were interested in, we facilitated work in glass blowing and forming, fine metalwork – jewelry and woodwork and even using textiles! At KS3 we developed drawing and CAD skills as well as mini design units focusing on a wide range of materials skils and knowledge. Getting specialists in and students out to visit specialsist is also key. The hardest part was working with a very limited budget so much of our materials were recycled from furniture bought cheaply at auction and donated. Even harder was keeping a range of equipment and machinery going without a technician but we managed. Our students went on to a range of art and design courses as well as architecture and surveying and a good few into practical careers from Thatching to Silversmithing. It was hard work, but enjoyable and utilised the many skills as DT teachers that we had built up over 30 years. I think the DT Curriculumn will change again in time to reflect Industry demand but not until we have lost too many good teachers and workshops. Give it a go and good luck.

  8. We need to create an environment where divergent, creative, analytical and exploratory thought and process are nurtured and encouraged and that in order to develop these into real world outcomes, students are exposed to a wide range of tools and possibilities, not just those typically associated with the classrooms of DT. In the real world, solutions arise out of an exploration and understanding of the challenges and problems, commonality and alignment between subjects (or what makes up life) rather than separation and compartmentalisation. Education needs a revolution in order for it to prepare students who approach the world with eyes, minds and hearts wide open, who are responsive, excited, able to make connections and see innovative solutions. We are quickly moving from autumn into winter for the traditional education model and the world of work it once strove to prepare students for. We need agile, divergent thinkers who can adapt, move and see opportunities for positive change in the world around them. Building a DT department is a great achievement but can we nurture students who are curious, can make connections; who stay inquisitive, flexible, adaptable, thoughtful, thirsty for knowledge; a generation that can start to sow the seeds of change we so desperately need, not least in the way we approach and think about learning and the way in which we treat and nurture our children and young people.

  9. Thank you for this interesting discussion. I think we can all agree the crisis is real, there’s been a massive change not in our interest that’s going to become increasingly challenging (more so than Robogove… as in no connection to life). Is there anyone among you who can provoke a reaction in DATA, STEM and examining bodies to adapt to EBacc priorities? Am I being ignorant to things that are already going on? Nothing has reached my school, yet.

    What sort of people can cope with current working conditions and redesign a whole department like DT (ones without kids). A big hitter needs to show the way; bring it all together and stop trying to cover the breadth it currently does (imagine a tea bag used the second time).
    School teachers are overworked and without the energy/ time to induce change. Following recommended ‘best practice’ is the easiest way (not mine). It’ll just take a big hitter and a smart marketing campaign to get some momentum (I know a guy!)….

    Expelling the myth that DT is currently a practical subject would be a fantastic start. Or, making it more practical…

    Construction at KS3?

    What about an EBacc equivalent for the kinaesthetic learners…. is anyone debating the inequality of EBacc and how it misses a high proportion of preferred style of learning? Would an EBacc equivalent for art/ design/ practical based inviduals divide a nation? Not when the earning potential is the same….

    We need a new vision…. not, ‘pie in the sky’



  10. Interesting reading.. for the past three years we have ran a very different model to most at KS3 in which pupils study 1 hour of Design and Technology and one hour of Food Technology. No rotating, pupils stick with teacher all year round and pupils knowledge retention has sky rocketed. We are in the early years still and the curriculum is very knowledge based unfortunately mainly due to new demands of the AQA Design and Technology GCSE big pupils love it. I do intend to review the curriculum again for next year looking at how we can further embed the iterative design process whilst still the giving time to teach the basics of the of the core knowledge including most of the various material areas, woods, metals, plastics, textiles, paper and board and smart/modern materials. Alongside this cones design communication, practical skills and CAD so lots to learn but over a year, can really be done in depth with constant revisiting of prior knowledge…

    1. Well done Simon; this seems to be a more sensible method for memory and in my opinion, better for student outcomes, uptake and overall, better performance. Hence, the perceptions of DT shift by those not directly involved with the subject.

  11. I agree we do need to make changes to Our subject before it is too late. For the last year and a half my school have been redesigning the subject curriculums and was originally asked to do some soul searching and work out why our subjects are so important to children, what knowledge and skills are important to our students future. Dr David Barlex has already answered this In that it is part of our cultural evolution and that design and technology is one of the oldest subjects around. Since the cave man days we have been problem solving and designing products to help move society along…I agree

    This gave me the passion to redesign the dt curriculum at my school. After years of trying different carousel systems, material areas being taught due to staff specialisms and budgets being reduced we have thrown out the carousel, moth balling some older machines and equipment to conserve resources and pressure of having to ask the head for more funding and the issues this causes.

    I’m a big believer in the link between dt and science and how they co-exist together. You only have to go to the science museum to see how engineering, DT play a big part. I think they need to change the name of the museum lol. I have wrote a spiral curriculum where students focus on a few areas Of engineering/design only and build on this further throughout as they progress throughout the key stages. I aim to teach my students about aeronautics, structural engineering, car design, sustainability etc. To embed material knowledge so they can make better design decisions. Understand the impacts on society. Every project uses an iterative approach to learn from our mistakes, apply theory and develop small prototypes. I will be teaching science theory in every module. Students will learn about the principles of flight, why things float, measuring speed, principles of structural engineering to name a few.

    Long term plan is complete. Smt love it. Now have 25 new medium term plans to write.

    I suppose my curriculum will be more STEM but without a heavy focus on the maths and the science will be more physics. More STE lol

    My vision for DT at my school is for students to do their NEA about flight, car design, structures etc rather than Pointless products for themselves. My school is in a deprived area and I hope to motivate more students into A Levels and engineering degree apprenticeships.

    My head said to me the other day that kids only want to come to school for the creative subjects not the core subjects. But unfortunately the core subjects take priority due to the ebacc, gov etc. I need to make the subject so fun and enjoyable and academical so that when I ask my head for a new laser cutter next year, theres no way he can say no lol.

    Good luck to us all

  12. Great article Ross. Enjoyed reading the discussion. In Singapore and other cities in South East Asia we have a huge growth in D&T. We have so much support, healthy budgets, good student uptake and a positive community around all aspects D&T.

  13. I blogged about this a while ago. The D&T curriculum needs developing. It’s not all bad and broken, but definitely needs addressing. It does not, as some would think, provide skills for students to go into a place of work. It does not equip them for working in the design world either. A huge problem is that we are still assessing outcomes rather than processes.
    My thoughts are here:

  14. I totally get you on with the moving away from a carousel in D and T. I have now taught D and T in 7 schools over 16 years and each school has had its ‘take on it’. Those where there was no carousel what I would say is that the planning is often shared and therefore you’d be teaching someone else’s projects and vice versa. The problem can then be disparity in expectations, assessment and just general lack of knowledge. Plus the room swapping which inevitably happens becomes a logistical nightmare. I now teach in a small school where there is no scope for removing the carousel as the teachers don’t have the knowledge or expertise to teach other areas. Something you don’t really say about in your article. What do you do if you have a textiles teacher who’d actually much prefer to be teaching art, or a science teacher who’s been dragged in to teach STEM as part of D and T. With the best will in the world, they are sadly never going to be able to teach all subjects. The knowledge we need to cover in our subject is so vast I’d say there are very few teachers who can teach all subjects within D&T. Which leads me onto recruitment in general and the training of new teachers. This so depends on the school you are trained in and often the area you live in. I live in an area where D and T teachers are as rare as hens teeth.

    My solution in my circumstance is to try and move away from ‘projects’ and instead look at problems and/or contexts as a starting point. I’m still trying to get away from the perception of resistant materials, wood work and metalwork too! It’s a really interesting discussion point though. But far too often you are working with the resources you have in your department and can’t shape the resources you have to fit what you’d actually like to teach.

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