Why has the number of teenagers taking design and technology GCSE dropped?

Fewer teenagers are choosing D&T. Dressmaking class via Goodluz/www.shutterstock.com

There has been a worrying decline in recent years in the number of teenagers opting to take design and technology (D&T) at GCSE. While the results of exams in maths, English and science lead the headlines, other, more practical subjects rarely get a mention – even though they are falling towards a crisis.

D&T GCSE entries are down yet again this year. Since 2000, when D&T stopped being a compulsory GCSE subject, there has been a steady decline in the number of pupils achieving a GCSE in the subject.

Once D&T was the most popular optional subject at GCSE, now it is less popular than religious studies, history and geography and with the ascendancy of computing and art and design (which is separate from D&T). Who knows where it might be in 2016?

Some D&T teachers have argued that entry numbers are falling because of the focus on the Ebacc – a performance measure that requires students to take five core GCSE subjects including maths and a science.

But that doesn’t stack up. The downward trend has been happening for more than ten years and other non-Ebacc subjects have not suffered a decline. This year religious studies has nearly 300,000 entries, its highest level since 2002 and music was up by 2.2% to nearly 50,000.

Another possible explanation is how well pupils do in D&T. Diana Choulerton, lead inspector for the subject, reported that typically higher ability pupils make less progress in D&T than most other subjects. As schools are now measured on a pupils’ progress in eight subjects, there is a pressure on school leaders to guide pupils to choose GCSE subjects where they will do well – and avoid D&T.

Not just cushion covers and bird boxes

One of the problems it that D&T has an image problem. Is it a practical subject, teaching life skills? A vocational subject? Or is it an academic subject?

It only became known as D&T in 1990 with the introduction of the National Curriculum. Before then it comprised several subjects including cooking, dressmaking, technical drawing, woodwork and metalwork, where children made bird boxes, cushion covers and scones. However, some schools made strides to change this by teaching home economics and craft, design and technology.

My recent research shows there continues to be significant confusion as to the purpose of the subject. Today many parents and adults still see D&T as this practical life-skills subject, and in some schools children are making the same things their parents made at school.

Parents see it as a non-academic subject that doesn’t belong alongside subjects such as science, history, and languages. And this is one the biggest challenges facing D&T: in some schools it hasn’t evolved into a modern subject, fit for the 21st century.

Does D&T matter?

Both the Royal Academy of Engineers and the Design Council consider D&T to be a vital subject for growth in their industries. The need for those with science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications is regularly in the news and high on the government’s agenda. Companies such as the James Dyson Foundation are trying to influence what is taught in D&T lessons.

Yet the current GCSE is still a disjointed subject made up of different GCSE strands which are described by the materials the pupils use in the lessons: such as food technology, textiles technology, electronic products or resistant materials.

But from 2017, there will be a new D&T GCSE taught in schools. In this reformed “single title” GCSE – which won’t be split up into the different strands – pupils will learn how to use a broader range of materials than they do currently, where they primarily use only their one chosen category of material, such as textiles.

There will also be a brand new food preparation and nutrition GCSE, taught as a life-skill and preparation for a career in the food industry. D&T will be a qualification that provides children with an understanding about how they can bring about change in the world through good design. It will also be an essential qualification for careers and work-related skills, not just life skills.

However, the reduction in school budgets could scupper this attempt to solve the subject’s image problem. D&T is an expensive subject, and the materials, machines and equipment schools need are comparable in cost to science subjects. For a headteacher who is between a rock (league tables) and a hard place (reduced budgets), D&T is an easy target for cuts.

In this context, D&T teachers need to radically rethink what they teach. The new GCSE means that children could be designing products that address modern issues related to health, developing communities and protecting people, using robotics and smart materials. A challenge – but D&T teachers are creative. Hopefully this means we will see an end to the bird box and cushion cover.

David Barlex, educational consultant, and director for design and technology at the Nuffield Foundation, provided advice for this article.