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Technology drive must maintain credibility

The new national curriculum announced this week was met by a mixture of cheers from those who praised its return to “rigorous standards” and jeers from those who claim it places too much emphasis on memorising a narrow selection of facts rather than understanding, in some ways the typical response we have come to expect to education measures announced by the current government.

But one area of the new study programme was met with near universal praise: design and technology. Under the new guidelines, children will be taught how to design and make products from a young age, learn how to use modern manufacturing tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers, and incorporate and program micro-processors into their creations.

This is a far cry from the previously “dumbed-down” attempt to redesign the curriculum that was scrapped earlier this year after criticisms of its focus on life skills such as bike maintenance rather than engineering-related disciplines.

After that debacle, the Department for Education turned to industry experts, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, for help drafting a new programme that would be more likely to engage children with the principles of designing and making, thereby better preparing them for an increasingly technology-dominated world and potentially for a related career.

Certainly, there is much to admire about the new D&T curriculum. Exposing children to the tools and processes that engineers use and encouraging young people to apply creativity to technology, rather than just teaching them how to press buttons, could help make engineering seem less mysterious, irrelevant or dirty and potentially lead to a greater take up of the profession. But it could also teach valuable skills that can be applied far outside designing and making: problem solving, practicality, and innovation.

However, this comes with several caveats. Firstly, the increasingly fragmented education system means that the new national curriculum won’t actually be compulsory in most secondary schools as most are now academies or free schools outside of local authority control. That doesn’t mean these schools won’t follow the guidelines anyway or do a good job developing their own, just that there’s a limit to what can be achieved with the government’s “national” curriculum.

Secondly, even the best study programme is useless without good teachers to implement it. Teachers need the correct training and support to ensure the principles laid out in the new curriculum aren’t lost in a scramble for exam results or due to lack of expertise and understanding. A 3D printer in every school could be a great thing if properly used but there is a great danger of them becoming fashionable toys or expensive doorstops. Perhaps worse would be if children started to think all goods could be made using 3D printers, further divorcing them from the realities and challenges of engineering.

With these issues in mind, industry needs to continue and expand its work engaging with schools and teachers directly to make sure all children (or as many as possible) are taught in a way that is useful to them personally and to society (including business) in general

This includes a balance between the need to equip young people with skills for future careers and enabling them to develop as individuals. It was heartening that the Royal Academy’s response to the curriculum was to praise its potential to ‘help young people interact more knowledgably with the world around them’, rather than focus on its ability to create engineers.

Schools aren’t work training centres and too often some employers appear to want young recruits to arrive with all the skills needed for specific jobs, rather than accepting the need to carry out some training themselves. But if we can inspire and educate with the right experiences then we can produce young people who are ready to mould, eager to learn, and full of new ideas.

Readers' comments (8)

  • It is good news that at last the politicians have realised that engineering is one of the major bases for development of products and wealth in this more technological age but it still important to train youngsters the engineering basics. I gained a lot of my hands-on experience while still at school by fiddling with bikes, motorbikes, cars and eventually farm machinery. There is no substitute for understanding the technique behind tightening up a nut and bolt until it is tight, getting a 'feel' for materials, fasteners, connections, assemblies, bearings and other engineering components. I have actually come across plant maintenance being done from a computer, it ticked the boxes and kept the paperwork up to date but it didn't get the actual job done. 3D printers are fine but a budding engineer needs to have some grasp of the strength of the different materials that they can use, the feel of it, the hardness, the smoothness that can be obtained. So much to learn, so little time to develop the skills. Unfortunately, and I don't want to be disrespectful but, I don't think that many teachers would have the depth of knowledge to put together a suitable training scheme of their own to develop the most important engineering skills and they should be provided with help from experienced engineers

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  • The syllabus changes are good, no question. But school work is not – never has been - enough. We need kids engaged in science and engineering activities at home too. Home activities can teach self-drive, encourage playfulness – something that is at the heart of invention and innovation. If every child could have a shed, Meccano and Lego Technic and did stuff at home, then we could build on and reinforce school learning hugely, with huge results for innovation and problem solving in engineering and beyond.

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  • It is a sad fact that teachers unions oppose ANY change as a matter of course regardless of the merits.

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  • The problem I had at school (not in the UK) was that maths and science were "for nothing." i.e. we were learning them without any idea of what we could use them for or any indication about how to do that in a practical way. We had to do experiments and I was terrible at them and never worked out how to become good. There was no time to work out the bugs. I used to try making all sorts of things from transistor radios to airboats and I failed so often and had no idea why or how to address the problems.

    The cost of materials made teachers cautious and there was no freedom to pursue any interest or practise and no guidance at all We were certainly not allowed to use any equipment outside of lessons.

    So instead we hung out in the computer lab where there was lots of freedom to do anything we could think of and now I'm a programmer.

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  • When I was at school we had metalwork and woodwork, my own kids had a technician do all the dangerous stuff like cutting MDF etc so I do not see the world changeing particularly when conkers are considered dangerous.

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  • My son who is 24 went to the Priory LSST at 11 (A Margaret Thatcher School of Science and Technology) that succeeded as it was out of LEA control and set its own rules. That school had a rapid prototyping unit even then. The school was also one of the first to offer material science at A level and GCE.

    I was a Neighbourhood Engineer and Science and Engineering Ambassador for over 20 years and my Employer (in Lincoln) at the time worked with local schools to get them Engineering (Ancaster School) and Manufacturing Engineering (City School) special status where we put money in to get extra state funding for the school speciality. The company did this because we could recruit our raduates from anywhere in the world but needed a mathematically and scientifically literate workforce below graduate level and they had to come from local schools - Hence the effort to get special status in the subjects we needed like manufacturing engineering and engineering - the workforce a UK engineering company exporting 95% of its turnover - mostly outside the EU.

    The Problem was the teachers and their for their pupils and this came to light when teachers preparing to teach manufacturing engineering came to my employer for the day. They needed classroom resources and visits to our workplace, placements in our workplace that we were prepared to give as well as teaching aid and projects supplied by us for their classrooms and classroom support with projects.

    The teachers divided into 2 groupings - One being Louth Grammar who saw Manufacturing Engineering as a rigourous academic subject as a real alternative to physics or chemistry as subject for people interested in engineering to study. The other was from one of our supported special status schools that regarded it as a an alternative subject for difficult to teach pupils (mainly tactile learners) who were disrupting other classes. In essence a 'dumping ground' for people the school was failing.

    Sadly - my SEA activities in school aimed at making STEM subjects fun involved 'hands on' activities and had most success among the disruptive pupils on report forms for both attendance and behaviour in class issues - forms I hasd to fill in for their attendance and behaviour during my activities. The tactile learning pupils failed by a teaching profession of 'audio-visual' learning experts.

    Engineering is an academic subject with lots of tactile activities and should appeal to both 'audio visual learners' and 'tactile learners with career progression both as Technician and Chartered Engineers but will need good teachers like those from Louth Grammar who wanted to teach Manufacturing Engineering.

    As a Metallurgist/Welding Engineer who has worked in a Manufacturing Engineering Environment in a world beating OEM I can say manufacturing industry needs youngsters trained to GCE and A-Level probably as much, if not more, than graduates to give us good technicians and help SME's as well as large companies because SME's are least likely to have graduates but still have a need for staff trained in techniques available and more receptive to innovation.

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  • It's all well and good to say enhance the DT curriculum, make it more appealing, more relevant, but it still makes it VERY difficult for young people to understand that what they are actually doing is the basis for engineering - so why can't the government scrap the title DT and just call it engineering - it will make it easier for young people, teachers and parents to understand the relevance of what they are doing and how it relates to real life ... does anyone actually call themselves a DTist?

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  • I am currently Head of Design and Technology at a grammar school on the south coast. We have a thriving department with staff recruited from an industrial background. We have 25 students each year taking dual award engineering and this year we have 45 students taking GCSE electronics. At A level we have almost 30 students in the upper 6th and many of the students from the school leave to study engineering of some sort at University.

    We have for years tried to keep up with modern technology with 40+ PCs in the department all running solidworks which we teach from year 8. I have always played "lip service" to national curriculum and have delivered a stretching course to bright boys that offers the rigour I feel is needed for bright students. We have excellent facilities with lasercutting and 3D printing technology within the department. We still carry out traditional work, e.g. milling, turning etc as well as working with electronics and the area of design. Our current problem is that to maintain this we need higher funding as government cutbacks are starting to hit. Our capitation for the coming year is approximately £6000, half that of the previous year. When you look at the costs of maintaining the equipment alone this hits hard into a very tight budget. Whilst I would like to maintain our current level of teaching and the enthusiasm of students, it will be difficult if all we can do is tell them," this is a 3D printer but we cant afford to print!" Last year we linked with a local company who helped with the cost of running the machine and in return we make the odd part for them.

    If any readers would like to contact me, to come in and see what we do I would be more than happy to show them around and if anyone would like to sponsor our department I would be pleased to hear from them.

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