Response to Amanda Speilman’s speech

Last week, I was surprised (and initially delighted) to hear Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector for Ofsted, talk about design and technology at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Let me put this into perspective, no significant communication about design and technology has come from Ofsted since the 2011 ‘Meeting Technological Challenges’ report – a synopsis of then-current views of the state of design and technology.

Spielman spoke at the V&A Innovate Conference about the current state of design and technology. I picked up that she was speaking via Twitter which I immediately retweeted and emailed design and technology colleagues as I felt this was could be a watershed moment. However, a day later when I revisited the speech, I had second thoughts.

So why did I change my mind?

For me, Spielman’s speech contained misconceptions about the nature of design and technology, hints at the government’s knowledge-based curriculum ideology, and digs at the design and technology community.

First, her view of the nature and purpose of design and technology was revealed in her first question:

‘Given this decline [in the plummeting number of pupils studying GCSE design and technology]1, where are the designers and innovator of the future going to come from?’

I have long struggled with the idea that a productive UK creative industry relies on pupils studying design and technology. To use this argument as a justification for the subject implies that a primary purpose of design and technology is to facilitate pupils’ route to careers in design and/or technology-related industries. In other words, Spielman refers to D&T as if it were a vocational subject.

In my research I found many different justifications given for design and technology, with the vocational aspect only a small part. For Amanda Spielman to open with this reason is indicative of how Ofsted perceive that design and technology is primarily a vocational subject. If school senior leaders align with this view of design and technology, the subject will continue to be marginalised and fewer students taking it as a GCSE subject.

Secondly, the language used revealed the influence of government ideology on Ofsted’s thinking about curriculum content . Throughout the speech the National Curriculum was quoted, and used to explain what should be taught. Yet, it was interesting to read what was excluded as much as what was included.

‘Expertise’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’ came up whenever curriculum content was discussed and yet ‘design’ and ‘creativity’ were rarely mentioned. But for me, it is creativity and innovation that are at the heart of design and technology.

This focus on expertise and knowledge links to the government’s ideology of a knowledge-based curriculum. The problem with this is two-fold. Firstly, design and technology knowledge is misunderstood by those outside the subject in ways that contributed to the re-write of the design and technology National Curriculum in 2013. Second, some believe design and technology has no knowledge of its own, and instead applies knowledge from other subjects. Spielman states that ‘an important characteristic of design and technology is that it contextualising knowledge and puts it into an active setting’. This makes design and technology subservient to other subjects (e.g. the silent and ignored ‘T’ in STEM) and therefore a lesser subject.

Finally, there was a jibe at the design and technology community:

‘Despite the efforts of the Design and Technology Association, there hasn’t really been a strong and united community that holds all the wisdom, as there is for some other subjects.’

Now, I count myself amongst that community and I partly agree with her comment. But there is not a simple reason or solution for this position.

Design and technology originated from many subjects (home economics, technical drawing, woodwork and so on) and the influence of this is still being felt today. A teacher who taught pre- and post-National Curriculum had to change their role, view and values of their subject. These challenges are still being played out in the classroom and community today as I found in my research. It is difficult for a community with different views and values to come together.

Subject associations can play a key part in bringing together a subject community. But with government funding for subject associations cut in 2010 they have had to make difficult choices. The Design and Technology Association has taken calculated risks to survive, bidding for charity and government projects that sometimes only partially aligned with the nature of design and technology. Maybe they have not been able to respond to and support the community as much as some would like, but at least they are still here.

Solutions that will bring the community are complex and difficult to implement. I expect there will be a demand for funding to organise events to bring the design and technology community together, but I can’t see funding being forthcoming. Whether a subject association is the right facilitator for this remains to be seen.

My hope begins with where this article started – I am delighted that someone in a key position is talking about design and technology but frustrated that design and technology has been misrepresented. The challenge is for the design and technology community to respond assertively to her hope that a renewed focus on the curriculum will help develop design and technology.

Listen to Alison talk about Amanda Spielman’s speech on her ‘Talking D&T’ podcast

1 According to Amanda Spielman, ‘Between 2003 and 2017, the number of D&T GCSEs taken by 16 year olds in England plummeted by nearly two-thirds, from 420,000 pupils to just over 150.00.

Alison Hardy

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