Curriculum Politics in Action (by Ken Baynes and Eddie Norman)

Design Education: A Vision for the Future ... LDP's response to the draft proposals for Design and Technology in the English National Curriculum (2013)

Design Education: A Vision for the Future … LDP’s response to the draft proposals for Design and Technology in the English National Curriculum (2013)

The Department for Education has published its ‘Design and technology: Draft GCSE subject content (September 2014) and asked for feedback based on 3 questions (our emphasis has been added in bold):.

 Is the revised GCSE content (in each of these subjects) appropriate? Please consider:

  • whether there is a suitable level of challenge
  • whether the content reflects what students need to know in order to progress to further academic and vocational education
  • whether the amount of content in the qualification is appropriate and, if not, whether you have any suggestions for removing or adding content

Our feedback might not be a perfect match, but essentially concerns the first two of these, although the second appears to restrict the aim of Design and Technology education to the notion of ‘upward progression’.  The curriculum for GCSE Design and Technology is not a finished artefact. It is up to, Awarding Organisations, Boards of Governors, head teachers, subject specialists, parents and, of course, young people to put it into practice. That is a dynamic and somewhat uncontrollable process. Many of the people involved will have a keen understanding of the creative essence of design activity and so of design education, but many will not. In the present educational climate the very real danger is that Design and Technology at GCSE level fails to build on the positive – genuinely ground-breaking – aspects of the document and resorts to a formulaic approach both to student’s work and the criteria of the exam.

The aims of educators at GCSE level should be high. In today’s young people they have remarkable ‘raw material’. Teenagers have a fully adequate supply of energy, curiosity and, almost automatically, a critical attitude to what their ‘elders and betters’ have already done. Add to this their vivid awareness of contemporary culture and technology and you have what sounds suspiciously like the specification for a designer.

Let’s start by agreeing. This is the introduction to the Department for Education’s ‘Design and technology: Draft GCSE subject content’ (again our emphases has been added in bold):


  1. GCSE subject content sets out the knowledge, understanding, skills and learning outcomes common to all specifications in design and technology.
  2. GCSE specifications in design and technology should encourage students to understand and apply the iterative design process that can be summarised as explore, create and evaluate. They should encourage students to use creativity and imagination to design and make products or prototypes that solve real and relevant problems, considering their own and others’ needs, wants and values.
  3. Students should acquire subject knowledge in design and technology that builds on their key stage 3 learning, incorporating knowledge and understanding of different materials and manufacturing processes in order to comprehensively deliver their concepts and products/prototypes. Students should learn how to take design risks, become resourceful, innovative, enterprising and capable citizens. Through the evaluation of past and present design and technology, students should develop a critical understanding of its impact on daily life and the wider world and understand that high-quality design and technology is essential to the creativity, culture, sustainability, wealth and well-being of the nation.

This passage ends very well.  The significance of design and technology as an aspect of design education within general education is well expressed.  Eddie Norman has already raised concerns about the expression ‘apply the iterative design process’  (see ‘An Iterative Model of Designing’ on LDP’s Blog on 30 October),  but within that phrase is a clear concern to move away from ‘the linear design process’ and towards a more appropriate interpretation of 21st Century designing.  There is also a concern about the way in which ‘values’ are addressed.  Designing involves making value judgments.  Values are not ‘considered’ in a detached manner as part of an objective decision-making process, but are the essential basis for much of design decision-making.  So why are they not mentioned again in the document?  Could it be that designing is being interpreted as some kind of strategy to be employed rather than a holistic expression of an individual’s activity in relation to a task? Ken Baynes has asked the question as to whether ‘Art and design’ and ‘Design and technology’ would not be ‘better together’ (see  ‘Better Together?’ On LDP’s Blog on 14 November) in order to engage in the kind of design education to which curriculum designers have been aspiring for generations.  Design Schools are emerging as the power bases for design in higher education all around the world and they are multi-disciplinary. Design thinking and design-driven innovation are equally emerging as key aspects of professional practice and they are also multi-disciplinary, requiring  individuals to be able to work across disciplines and embody inter-disciplinary capabilities.

In the document ‘GCSE D&T Subject Criteria Consultation: Key Messages from the D&T Association’, these comments appear at the beginning (again our emphases have been added in ‘bold’)

  1. The D&T Association was seen as an important stakeholder by the DfE/Ofqual when developing the GCSE D&T Subject Criteria. Other stakeholders included teachers, consultants, higher education institutions, teacher trainers, professional institution and awarding organisations. The Association was undoubtedly influential in what has been published and the final draft version contains many positive aspects. However, the published version is a compromise and much of the stakeholders consensus view was ultimately changed or omitted.  
  2. It is important to remember that the Subject Criteria are not specifications. Their purpose is to inform and guide the Awarding Organisations (AOs). AOs are required to include the specified subject content in any new GCSE entitled D&T and will be drafting new specifications to submit to Ofqual for approval based on this content. The new GCSEs will be taught from 2016 will be designed to be harder and more rigorous than the GCSEs they replace. Consequently the role of AOs in the future development of the subject cannot be over-emphasised. Depending on how they interpret the subject criteria they have the ability to help the subject evolve into a rigorous and relevant qualification with clear progression routes into employment and higher education, or to produce slightly modified versions of current specifications which will do little to examine true D&T capability and will hold little relevance to employers or higher education. We will be making the case strongly for the former in our response.

Reading the documents, you can almost imagine yourself being in the room and the tension between those arguing for a modern 21st Century interpretation of design education, and those trying to preserve the status quo. From our perspective the vital matter is how the interpretation of designing as it will be presented to the next generation is being framed.So, in the draft GCSE subject content for Design and Technology:

  • There is an interesting range of contexts … fashion, interiors and furnishings, advertising and promotion, consumer electronics, leisure and mechanical systems within which exciting design opportunities could be developed, but as the D& T Association commentary notes: ‘… (these) could in practice be too easily interpreted as replicating Graphic Products, Resistant Materials, Systems and Control/Electronic Products and Textiles Technology.’
  • There is a description of a model of designing as ‘… an iterative design process that can be summarised as explore, create and evaluate’ that could lead to valid and appropriate design activity in the context of progression, but it could also revert to the next ‘linear design model’
  • There are ‘Designing and making principles’ and ‘’Technical principles’, but no clear references to the teaching and learning of values that provide key building blocks for design decision-making eg aesthetic values and economic values

In the end you have to conclude it’s ‘all to play for’, and the critical matters will be the decisions made by the Awarding Bodies, and Ofqual’s responses.  It is time to work out how they are held to democratic account. We’ll certainly do what we can through LDP.  This Blog item will form the basis of LDP’s response to the DfE’s consultation.

It had been previously decided by the Government that Food would be treated separately in a GCSE called ‘Cooking and Nutrition’. Food has had a chequered history in the curriculum. Historically, Home Economics seems always to have been searching for a bigger protector. Science was a logical possibility if the emphasis was on food and nutrition rather than cooking, textiles and child care. But the original design departments offered Home Economics a reasonably congenial setting. The translation to Food Technology was not so happy. Food became just another design medium and the emphasis was on the food world of mass farming and the supermarket. About ten years ago food educators began vigorously to campaign for an independent subject (Food and Nutrition) with cooking at its core. This was a highly vocal and political movement which probably succeeded because of the spectre of obesity and the resulting strain on the NHS. This is almost certainly a positive development. Although, as Ken Baynes explains in Design: Models of Change, there is a design aspect to food and cooks, professional or domestic, engage in ‘designerly’ thinking, the core of food education lies elsewhere.

It is easy to appreciate one of the key problems facing the authors of the document. It is a dilemma common to anybody trying to develop an examination in which creativity and original thinking are required. Today they are battling against the essentially utilitarian curriculum model followed by all governments for at least a quarter of a century. The broad thrust of the National Curriculum is normative, based on acquiring knowledge and knowing the ‘correct’ answer. Most of today’s exams take this approach and Mr Gove pushed steadily in that direction. What then of subject areas such as Art and Design, Music, Drama and Design and Technology? Here the right answer is not to have the same answer as everyone else. The examiner’s skill is to recognize the qualitative range embodied in answers which are neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’ but definitely different. This is something that defies any kind of box ticking but, on the other hand, requires exactly the kind of skilled judgement, based on wide experience that we might hope that examiners would have.


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