Design, Technology, and Education - Interview with Tony Ryan, CEO, Design and Technology Association

Friday May 20, 2022 at 9:32am
When we think if Design and Technology classes back in our school days, many of us will remember building a bird box or designing a clock, using tools such as saws and files, however, only a handful of us may have experienced using CAD, if any at all. As the world continues to innovate and enhance emerging technologies, is the UK’s education system keeping up? Or is at risk of falling behind, while failing to prepare or inspire the workforce and the innovators of the future. With this in mind, we took the opportunity to speak to Tony Ryan, CEO of The Design and Technology Association to understand his views on the matter and gain greater insight into the status of the subject within schools now.
Design, Technology, and Education
Q: Hi Tony, please can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role?

 A: I am very proud to be the CEO of the Design and  Technology Association, a role that I have now held for four and a half years. Prior to this, I was a secondary headteacher at two large London comprehensive schools. I have been in education for 33 years, eighteen of these within senior management. My current position is pretty much a case of heart ruling head initially; at least, I care deeply about this subject, and the opportunity to lead the professional association for D&T teachers nationally was not one that I could refuse.   

Q: What is the Design and Technology Association all about?

A: The Association has been in existence since 1989 and was created to assist and support subject teachers nationally alongside being a public voice for the subject. As the subject has changed and adapted over the years, the Association has followed a similar route. We have undergone something of a transformation over the last four years, with membership numbers moving from just under 9,000 to the current 31,000 and growing. We have also introduced an initiative to link business and education in an attempt to help schools, teachers and especially students to look beyond the examination to what could be possible thereafter. www.blueprint1000.org.uk 

Q: What is the current state of D&T education in the UK? Do you have any concerns? 

A: Just a few! We recently published some research with partners carried out by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) examining the current state of design and technology education across England. To be honest, this didn't tell us an awful lot that we didn't already know or couldn't have guessed, but we needed an absolute baseline to work from. Some of the data from this research are, quite frankly, shocking to read:

  • GCSE entry numbers have dropped to 136,150 (2020) from 280,670 in 2009. A reduction of 51.5%  Also, a large reduction in A-Level entries from 22,160 (2009) to 10,430 (2020), and A reduction of 53% Sponsored academies and free schools less likely to offer D&T at GCSE
  • GCSE is particularly low in London (one borough 4% only), The Northeast, Yorkshire, and The Humber (All around 18% National Av 22%)
  • GCSE Entries are higher in Southwest (25.5%), East Midlands, East of England, and Southeast (all-around 24%). Students not studying GCSE D&T are very unlikely to take A Level or Vocational courses (Implications for T Levels?).
  • The number of D&T teachers has been declining since 2011 such that in 2020 they only accounted for 3% of all teachers nationally.
  • We have less than half the number of teachers in the system now than we had in 2009.         

Without specific action to reverse the above trends, there is no indication that this decline will reverse. This document has shocked a lot of people who knew things were not brilliant but perhaps people had not quite recognised the scale of the crisis facing the subject. We are currently holding a series of roundtables to determine how we should respond as a community to stop this decline and put the subject back where it needs to be in schools.   

Q: What are the benefits of a strong and healthy D&T education programme in the UK? Why is it important?

A: Where the subject is strong, it is exceptional, and we are gathering examples of best-practice nationally to showcase the positive impact that D&T can provide to a rounded educational experience. There is a misconception that the subject is exclusively 'craft-based' and 'vocational'. I don't have any beef with either of these terms, but it no longer describes what D&T should be. We are about utilising iterative design and prototyping to create solutions to often complex human problems. Fewer birdboxes and clocks and more AI, coding, CAD, problem-solving and empathy. The design economy contributes almost £100 Billion to the UK's GDP; we cannot continue to ignore that fact. 

The UK needs better-informed consumers, people who can solve problems, have tenacity when a problem gets 'sticky', recognise good design from bad when they see it and can be a part of the solution to the climate crisis and not a part of the problem. We owe it to our young people to provide an education that prepares them to take an active role not just in work but in modern life.   

Q: Is there a recipe for a successful D&T programme? Do you see a differing approach between the best in class and the poorest?

A: The poorest examples are still stuck in a cycle of focusing on the end product and making. I don't entirely blame the teachers for this, many have had no subject training since the subject transitioned to a more 'design based' approach in 2017, and it is a fact that the subject has become a lot more 'academic' (I use that word although I think it is much maligned in education). We cannot berate teachers who are doing their very best for their students with no training and poor resources; instead, we need to find a way to help them onto the next step on the ladder.   

In the best examples, we are seeing schools that have completely transformed their curriculum offer to provide an environment in which their students are taught the knowledge, skills and character sets required to tackle quite complex design problems.   

Q: Can you give an example of a school/college which is a ‘leading example’? 

A: I am not going to name any individual school here (although many instantly spring to mind). We are working on collecting examples of best practices and will showcase these imminently. If I were to name just one now, I would have a large number of emails waiting for me as soon as you set this live! There is some great work going on out there and we will be pointing to it very soon.   

Q: What are the barriers stopping others from getting to this standard? 

A: A combination of factors including but not exclusive to lack of subject training, a serious lack of D&T trained and qualified teachers, pressure to perform at the highest levels with Progress 8 forcing teachers to make decisions based solely on expected outcomes in examinations (I can teach art & design and call this 'soft' D&T. There is a smaller core body of knowledge and assessment is 100% coursework). Budgets are also an issue, with some schools having just over £1.30 per student per year to deliver a D&T curriculum.   

Q: Is there still a gender bias within the subject? 

A: It depends on what you mean by that. Girls still outperform boys in the subject, but the number of girls taking the subject is still far less than the number of boys. That ratio has been turned on its head in several schools that are taking a design-based, empathetic approach to the subject. When taught well, there should be no gender bias.  

Q: How can we navigate around these barriers? 

 

A: In answering that, I am going to look at the whole picture and not any one aspect of the data. I think the subject has reached a critical point in its evolution. The EPI research is clear; if we do nothing, then the current trends will continue, the GCSE and A-Level numbers will continue to fall, and we will see departments closing because they cannot find the right staff to lead and teach the subject and D&T will quietly slip to the very periphery of the curriculum; as one Cabinet Minister called it a few years ago "a hobby subject". 

We need to come together as a community and make sure that this does not happen. Our subject matters, and we simply cannot let it slip into insignificance. At the Association, we are currently working with partners to look at actions that can be taken to turn the tide; we don't have time on our side, so we need to act big and act quickly.  

Q: What resources are available to help currently? 

A: We took the decision a few years ago to make almost all of our resources free with a membership, which has been well received by the community. We are constantly adding new resources and updating those that have been in existence for a while. We are also happy to signpost to other organisations producing resources and inspiration for D&T teachers; there are many.

Q: If I want to find out more, where should I go?

A: The Association's website is www.data.org.uk

The Blueprint website signposting our work bringing business and education together for mutual benefit can be found at www.blueprint1000.org.uk

I am on Twitter @DesTechRyan and can also be found on LinkedIn

We are on a mission to save something very precious that we believe really matters; come join us!

DesignRule Podcast
If podcasts are your thing and you would like to hear more about Tony's mission to save Design and Technology, our friends at DesignRule have recently recorded an excellent episode. Well worth a listen!


SOLIDWORKS Education Edition

SOLIDWORKS Education Edition gives students the power to realise their ideas by giving them access to a range of powerful engineering and design applications. A range of training material is available that can help teachers take their students from creating their first CAD model to achieving their SOLIDWORKS certifications and getting ready for the industries of tomorrow.

To find out more about the SOLIDWORKS Educational Edition and what resources are available to Educators and students, head to our SOLIDWORKS Education homepage.

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