News / Opinion

Why British design education is thriving abroad but suffering back home


Andy Mitchell, deputy chief executive of the D&T Association, gives insight to how other countries are learning from the UK’s pioneering design education system, while back home it’s suffering.

I recently met with a number of government ministers and educators who were excited about the opportunities that design and technology (D&T) in education afforded their students. It was encouraging to be surrounded by people who recognised the economic value of D&T as a route to careers in sectors that thrive on innovation. More than that, they clearly recognised the value of the design thinking and problem solving skills, that practical application of maths, physics and coding foster from an early age – and, as we discussed approaches, teaching resources and programmes, they enthused about a future in which their students could practice innovation and entrepreneurship whilst still at school. After many years of championing the benefits of an increasingly marginalised subject, it was an incredibly refreshing and rewarding experience to be part of this group of ministers, government officials, university academics and teachers. Indeed, it validated my passionate belief in the value of the subject. Just a pity our own Department for Education were not present to witness this event. I was in Shanghai, in the Minhang District Ministry of Education offices, midway through running a five-day intensive D&T course for primary and secondary school teachers.

Only weeks before, my recently retired colleague and CEO Richard Green, enjoyed a similar experience under the blazing blue sky of Dubai, working with over 375 teachers representing every school in the United Arab Emirates.

“This represents a massive 56% drop in the number of students studying [design] beyond the age of 14 since the turn of the century.”

As we settle into 2017, it is inevitable that we look back on 2016’s achievements and disappointments. The year was extraordinary for the number of emerging economies that sought our advice and consultation about how best to implement design and technology in their countries, including China, South Korea, Japan and United Arab Emirates. The sense of excitement and commitment around the subject reminds me of the growth period for D&T in this country, when funding ensured investment in the curriculum, skilled teaching staff, well equipped workshop facilities and a strong and engaged network of educational advisers who supported teachers with training, CPD and resources. But above all, a belief in and valuing of the contribution that D&T education can make to all young people’s education. The forward-thinking attitude demonstrated by these countries affirms the D&T Association’s belief that equipping our young people with a practical experience across product design, technology, engineering, fashion and textile design, and food technology teaches real world problem solving skills, that endure whatever the discipline or field they later choose to work in.

The disappointment however emanates from the subject’s continuing decline in this country, coupled with its poor perception. This was demonstrated most dramatically last summer, with statistics showing a further 10% drop in GCSE D&T entries. This represents a massive 56% drop in the number of students studying the subject beyond the age of 14, since the turn of the century. This worrying trend that requires real commitment and investment from the Department of Education to turn around, stands in stark contrast to the interest in the British D&T curriculum that we see in our international consultancy work. Internationally, our work draws on the curriculum and resources developed for our own classrooms, and our consultancy fees, essential for a non-government funded charity, help to fund our forward thinking and self initiated school programmes and teacher professional development initiatives across the UK.

Looking forward, there are some encouraging developments. The newly reformed D&T GCSE and GCE A level qualifications, underpinned by a fit for purpose D&T National Curriculum programme of study, provide a good platform for schools to move their curriculum forward. And the Bacc To The Future and the STEAM campaign, so vigorously promoted by the Edge Foundation and supported by engineering and manufacturing associations, academics and educators alike, are both gaining some traction.

Hopefully, the recent comment made by Gary Shapiro, founder and organiser of the internationally influential Consumer Electronic Show, about the lack of British companies at the show this year, will prompt soul searching from government ministers and business leaders. As Shapiro noted, the lack of investment and government support in British startups is worrying in light of Brexit, as compared, for example, with the French turn out, which saw five times the number of companies exhibiting their innovative technologies. The connection between investing in young people’s education that will empower them to address this obvious shortfall is obvious. But it has to be recognised, promoted and supported at the highest level.

“The lack of investment and government support in British startups is worrying in light of Brexit”

Ultimately, as our international clients realise, the case for a strong and forward looking design and technology component to the curriculum lies in its potential for long term economic value generation. As pupils leave school to start their own companies or pursue careers in design, technology, engineering and manufacturing, the principles, experiences and possibilities that they have been introduced to at school, stand at the heart of bringing ideas to market.

As 2017 gains momentum, the Design & Technology Association will continue to champion and celebrate the relevance of our subject in education. Together with our partners in education and industry, we will work tirelessly to convince our own government to invest in a forward looking creative education that will ensure a strong and competitive workforce, that can sustain our growth sectors. We hope that designers and creatives will support us by affirming how influential design and technology has been to their career, and lives. If we work together and speak with one voice, we can make a difference.