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.