Draft GCSE Specifications for D&T: Some Thoughts & Questions


Lots of people have asked about our thoughts on the draft GCSE D&T specifications so we have done a summary below, along with some questions that might help departments reflect on the changes. These comments are our opinion only and teachers are advised to visit the draft specs themselves (click on the exam board logos on the right). It’s important to remember the specs have yet to be agreed by Ofqual and could change significantly. Departments should therefore be careful about making decisions based on the draft specs and are advised to use the GCSE Subject Content released in November 2015 for planning as this won’t change. You can keep up to date on what is happening with the draft specs by visiting the Ofqual page on the DfE site.

 Download a PDF copy of this page 


General background information

  • Single GCSE qualification called Design & Technology that combines all material  reas. There will be no GCSE qualifications available that focuses
    on one material area (although a range of vocational awards such as AQA’s Tech Awards will be released soon & these are equivalent to a GCSE).
  • Starting date for teaching new specs is September 2017 with first examination in 2019.
  • Exam boards have to base their specs on the GCSE Subject Content released in November 2015
  • The KS3 curriculum combined with the GCSE Subject Content gives a clearer definition of what D&T is and distinguishes it more clearly from art and craft. These areas are equally as valid, with big cross overs with many elements of D&T, but it’s important D&T exists in its own right with a clear identity.
  • The DfE decided on much of the GCSE Subject Content that the specifications have to cover. Experts and industry were consulted, although many recommendations weren’t followed through. Whilst the exam boards are able to choose how they interpret the GCSE Subject Content there are a significant number of elements that are set in stone e.g. maths content, broader materials approach.
  • The GCSE Subject Content aims to reinforce and extend the KS3 curriculum so the specs should have links to KS3 and be a natural development, as well as using common language. This means some KS4 content can be taught at KS3, then revised and developed at KS4, rather than it being new content.
  • The GCSE Subject Content aims to help students understand that D&T is about materials no matter what category they are classified as. The change to specialising in one material area at A level rather than GCSE is based on students currently choosing a specialism in year 9 (and even in year 8) when they may not be fully informed, or mature enough, to make such a potentially life changing decision.
  • The GCSE Subject content restricts what the exam boards can do but generally the interpretation of things is up to them. They are businesses, and we are customers, so contact them with feedback.
  • The DfE focus is on a more rigorous academic curriculum across all subjects so both exam and coursework content is likely to feel more challenging for everyone. It’s important to remember this as whether we like it or not things are getting tougher. It’s also important to remember the exam has to cater for a range of ability levels so some elements are likely to be very challenging.  
  • The increased focus on science and maths in D&T was a requirement by the DfE and gives the exam paper in particular a different feel to what we are used to. The maths element is targeted at KS3 level and is something D&T teachers should discuss with the maths department to identify how this is already built into the curriculum and how it can be revised in D&T lessons.
  • The increased focus on maths and science could have a positive impact as it might help others recognise that these academic areas are a key part of D&T. D&T has always been on the outer edges of the STEM agenda but this could help us get more credit for the applied STEM subject D&T is. It also gives us a good argument against those who see D&T as just a subject for weaker students.
  • Specifications are split into technical principles (which are compulsory and focus on a broader understanding of materials – these are mostly tested by the exam) and designing and making principles (which focus on at least one material area and are tested by the NEA as well as the exam)
  • OCR’s specification is the most different to what we currently have. It’s based on research work by Cambridge University. They also list technical principles and designing and making principles together under question headings rather than laying them out separately. This could be useful to help students link the NEA and theory work. The questions might also be useful to embed into a KS3 curriculum.
  • Students are likely to continue to specialise in one material area, with similar course content and set up to what we currently have. They will require some broader knowledge that’s tested in the exam but much of this might already be taught at KS3. There is no reason why teachers have to learn and deliver a lot of new content outside of their specialism. Much will depend on how departments approach the changes with some opting for radical change whilst others follow a safer and more familiar path.
  • Some specs list content in detail which can give a clear indication of what has to be taught. This could also be misleading as some specs give poor examples of content (e.g. is it useful for students to know all countries where materials are grown/mined?). Also detailed content lists can give a false sense of security as it’s common for additional content to be in the exam even though it isn’t in the specs. 
  • It’s important to see things as part of a longer term plan – a department might choose a specification to meet the current restrictions of staffing, rooming etc. but work towards a different approach longer term.
  • It’s important to consider the range of specifications and not just to go with the board you have always used. It’s also important to bear in mind that decisions should be based not on what teachers like to teach but on what will be relevant to young people going out into an ever changing high tech world.
  • Some of the broader content may feel like it isn’t relevant to some material areas but much of this is more relevant than it might at first seem, particularly with the changing nature of materials and technologies and how these might develop in the future. It’s natural to compare what we currently teach to the new content, to flag up what we have never taught, or what seems of limited value but, unlike most other curriculum areas, D&T doesn’t stand still so we have to take on board new ideas. This doesn’t make traditional knowledge and skills less relevant.
  • There should be no one material area that’s seen as being less relevant as GCSE D&T is defined as being about materials in their broadest sense. Going by this definition if any material areas are not available to students this therefore isn’t a true D&T course. 
  • The A level qualifications are more familiar in their format than the GCSE so it’s natural to worry about progression from one to another when the GCSE feels so different. The A levels have been designed by exam boards to follow on from GCSE so this indicates their expectation that students will to a large degree specialise in selected material areas at KS4. This is reinforced by the fact that the AS one year qualification has a similar feel to the current GCSE rather than being a massive step change. The full A level will now be a 2 year course giving students longer to get their teeth into the specialist subject content without having to focus on a coursework project in both year 12 and 13 which currently takes up a lot of time. It is interesting to note that the OCR spec mentions textiles specifically saying that whilst there are links between art textiles and D&T textiles there are significant differences. It says that a ‘review of the progression to GCE Design & Technology Fashion & Textiles will support centres in understanding the available pathways’ which potentially has an underlying message that this A level is a D&T qualification with a clear route via D&T at GCSE.
  • There will be no one ‘best’ specification and each has advantages and disadvantages. The final decision will vary from school to school so be careful of making decisions based on what other schools are doing. Focus on what is right for your students and be careful of using your own preferences rather than considering what is right for students and what the world will be like in 5,10, & 20 years time. 

  • Which specification interprets the original Subject Content the best?
  • Which specification is best at modernising D&T?
  • What specification meets the current (and future) needs of your students the best?
  • Which specification gives you the most flexibility to teach your vision of what D&T is?
  • Is the content up to date with accurate and contemporary examples to illustrate the specification?
  • Which specification follows on the best from KS3? Which one contains content that could be covered by at KS3 to help reduce the amount of content at KS4?
  • How much content has to be taught and to what level of depth?
  • How much detail in the spec do you want as guidance? Does lots of detail aid teaching and learning or reduce your flexibility and ability to be creative? If content is listed in detail is all of it of real value?
  • Would a particular specification offer a good short term solution based on staffing, rooming etc. with potentially a department working towards offering something different in the longer term?
  • Which specification flows the best into to A level and other post 16 options? 


The Exam

  • Written exam is worth 100 marks & counts as 50% towards the whole qualification
  • 15% of the written exam has to be maths based questions (tested at KS3 level)
  • Science based questions are also compulsory e.g. broader materials focus, forces, levers etc.
  • All exams test ‘core’ technical principles which focus on broader materials and science content. All exams also have sections that focus on the student’s chosen specialist material area in some way.
  • Each exam board paper has its advantages and disadvantages and it’s important to consider the type of students you have and what will suit them best.
  • Designing has a lower profile than the current paper (& in no longer features in some sample papers).
  • OCR and Eduqas possibly have the most radical approach to the exam with a ‘long and thin’ approach (see details below). This change might feel daunting but has its advantages.
  • AQA and Edexcel are possibly the exams that are the most similar to what we currently have and for AQA in particular many questions follow a very similar format and layout. This could be considered the ‘safe’ option but it does make some content feel shoe horned in. These exams might also be considered ‘short and fat’ (see detail below) with potentially more content.
  • Consider the types of questions asked and the level and depth of knowledge required. Note the level of knowledge tested and the level of exam technique required is important. Knowledge, for example, could be at KS3 (and therefore could be taught at KS3) but could be tested at KS4 level in terms of wording, type of answer & analytical content (i.e. ‘knowing how’ rather than just ‘knowing that’). This could reduce the amount of overall content to be taught with more focus on developing analytical skills.
  • It’s important to remember that in the past the sample paper has not always been totally representative of the exam board’s approach to questions on the actual exam paper.
  • Do questions reflect a modern approach to D&T or are they just the old curriculum shoe horned in?
  • Which spec integrates NEA knowledge with core content so students see the link between the two ?
  • Are non stereotypical products names & images used (and in particular ones that avoid gender bias)?
  • Do questions default to an RM bias when they could be more inclusive of all material areas?
  • Do questions get students to regurgitate knowledge or do they focus on the application & analysis?
  • How much ‘in depth’ knowledge of any area do students need to have for the exam? Do they need in depth knowledge of their specialist area, as well as in-depth knowledge of the wider content (which can feel like a lot of content to cover)? Alternatively do they need a broader knowledge of the wider content but to a lower level (e.g. KS3) and less knowledge on their specialist area (which could reduce the amount that has to be taught potentially freeing up time for a more creative & analytical approach?)
  • Which paper layout will suit your students? Do some papers have more to read than others? Are questions laid out in a logical way? When there’s choice is it obvious what these are & how to respond?

Non Examined Assessment

  • NEA is worth 100 marks in total and 50% of the overall qualification
  • NEA is controlled assessment and can’t be taken home (although some specs allow research at home). The level of support allowed is tighter than we currently have. Look closely at the details of what the teacher is allowed to do for each spec e.g. AQA states that templates, model answers and writing frames can't be used. There are also tighter restrictions on the amount and type of feedback that can be given. This is in line with the increased rigour and challenge for all subjects. These changes are significant and require students to develop a more independent approach.
  • All specs focus on an iterative approach with constant evaluation and testing at the core of the process.
  • Contextual challenges are released on 1st June each year and NEA can’t be started before this. This is because all qualifications now have to be linear with things being tested at the end of the course.
  • The contextual challenges will not have a materials focus & can be interpreted in any way. Students have to investigate the challenge and write their own design brief.
  • There’s an emphasis on taking photos during the iterative & making process & of the finished product
  • Students produce a prototype which is a high quality end product similar to a final prototype in industry
  • OCR potentially has the NEA model that’s the most different to what we currently have with a more investigative and less linear approach that’s reflected in how the marks are broken down.
  • We are lucky to have retained coursework (now known as Non Examined Assessment) as the DfE wanted an exam only and most subjects have not been allowed a coursework element.
  • The broader content approach, and the ability to mix materials in one project, could help break down gender stereotypes surrounding materials and option choices
  • Which grading approach to the NEA suits your students best?
  • Which approach to the NEA helps students understand the grading criteria & how to get a high mark?
  • What wording of how the NEA can be supervised by teachers suits your students best?
  • What student feedback restrictions and criteria best suits your school’s approach to assessment, progression, target setting, use of data and reporting?
  • What questions do you need to ask the exam board about feedback you’re allowed to give students?
  • Which spec encourages a more investigative approach to NEA (and therefore a more natural one and one more in line with what D&T is) and a less linear model?


 Download a PDF copy of this page 


You can keep up to date on what is happening with the draft specs by visiting the Ofqual page on the DfE site 

Click here for information on my views on how textiles fits into the new curriculum 

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