Design and technology

Low take-up of design and technology threatens the government’s ambitions

Government ambitions to stimulate technology, engineering and manufacturing could be threatened by dwindling take-up of relevant subjects, writes Sam Tuckett

Government ambitions to stimulate technology, engineering and manufacturing could be threatened by dwindling take-up of relevant subjects, writes Sam Tuckett

23 Mar 2022, 5:00

For years, design and technology qualifications were a staple of secondary education. From woodwork to electronics, product design to engineering, these subject areas pushed creativity and introduced young people to interests and skillsets they may otherwise have never realised they had.

But the case for their importance goes well beyond historical precedent and new-found passions. Indeed, the government appears to recognise the value of having young people skilled in these areas.

This is demonstrated by a range of recent policies, including the lifelong skills guarantee and Institutes of Technology, which encourage take up in qualifications including science, maths, engineering and manufacturing – as well as through the new engineering and manufacturing T level. The government’s aim to have more young people skilled in these areas is crystal clear.

Although these initiatives may help to boost take-up in design, technology and engineering related courses in the 16-19 phase, it remains the case that little emphasis is placed on these subjects at school age.

Back in 2000, Design and Technology (DT) was more of a core part of the curriculum, and most pupils in England left school with a GCSE in it. Since then, the number of entries has declined persistently and shows no sign of slowing.

New research from the Education Policy Institute highlights that even within the past 10 years, the proportion of pupils entering a DT or related GCSE has halved, and was just 22 per cent in 2020.

It is difficult to pinpoint what is driving this trend. There have been a host of accountability and wider education reforms over this period. However, while reforms which pin more focus on core subjects such as English and maths have done nothing to reverse the decline, falling entry numbers predated these changes by some way, so it would not be fair to label them as the cause.

Perhaps closer to the truth would be that DT subjects are relatively expensive to teach, often requiring large, dedicated spaces and specialist equipment. Among the main school types, entry rates were lowest in sponsor-led academies and free schools (around 18 per cent of pupils in each).

The continued decline in GCSE entries is cause for great concern

Sponsor-led academies, which may have been struggling prior to conversion, may be more inclined to prioritise improving their core English, maths and science offer over subjects such as DT. And, if new free schools are set up without DT teaching in mind, the need for specialist facilities may make it difficult to introduce them retrospectively. However, even in other institution types, less than a quarter of students were entered in DT qualifications in 2020.

A lack of qualified teachers may also be an issue. The number of DT teachers has halved since 2011. Although it is difficult to assess to what extent falling teacher numbers is a cause or effect of declining GCSE entries, recruitment has been well below targets set by the DfE in recent years, and relative to other subject areas.

The government recognises this issue and offers bursaries to encourage adults to train to teach in DT subject areas. However, the bursary on offer in 2022/23 is £9,000 below that of other shortage subjects like mathematics and physics.

A focus on these subjects at school age is important for continued study. DT teaching during key stage 3 is likely to be influential on the number of pupils that enter these subjects at GCSE level at key stage 4. In turn, GCSE study is very important to spark an interest and incentivise continued study in related subjects in 16-19 education. Our research shows that in 2020, only 3.5 per cent of 16- to 19-year-old students had achieved a DT or vocational engineering qualification, continuing the low take-up of recent years.

However, a clear picture emerges when we examine the GCSE subjects that lead on to studying DT at level 3. Of those studying legacy DT GCSEs, around 10 per cent went on to take a DT A level or level 3 vocational engineering qualification, and for some syllabuses such as electronic products, this figure was nearer 20 per cent.

While these entry rates seem low, of those who hadn’t taken any DT-related GCSE, the figure was just 1.6 per cent. Put simply, not many students study DT-related subjects in the 16-19 phase, but if it weren’t for those that studied them at GCSE pursuing their interest, almost nobody would.

The continued decline in GCSE DT entries is therefore cause for great concern. The government is investing in boosting the number of young adults qualified in areas related to design, technology and engineering, but neglecting these subjects at GCSE and allowing entry numbers to keep falling to record levels will run counter to this ambition in the long term.

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  1. Stacey

    In recent years there has been a change towards more written work in DT. Many students who previously enjoyed this subject did so for the very reason it was ‘hands-on’, practical and was a break from writing. This change is having an impact.

    • Karen G

      Yes, this is exactly what my child found at GCSE. She managed to persevere but it ‘spoiled’ a subject she was really keen on to some extent and she did not get a good grade.

  2. Paul Andrew Carney

    How many current head teachers are from a Design Technology background ( or practical subject ) and you have your answer. If Covid and Brexit have taught us anything, it has shown we need a diverse economy, with our own design and manufacturing industries, and not to rely on the financial sector in London.