Why Change the GCSE?

D&T together image

Return to the D&T GCSE page

This information was written when the D&T GCSE changed in 2017 to respond to many of the questions teachers had at the time. Some of the content may still be relevant even though the qualification is now established.

These views are our own and don’t represent any exam board or other organisation. Quotes are from key figures in D&T and most were taken from meetings, lectures or events where we heard each individual speak. 

Q1  Why has there been a change to a single D&T GCSE? 

There isn’t a simple answer to this question. The roots of the change lay in the wider changes in education and the focus on ‘rigour’ and so called ‘academic’ subjects. This led to significant changes in all subjects, including more challenging exams across all subjects, and the introduction of the EBacc and Progress 8. As part of this there was criticism of D&T as it was felt the knowledge base was unclear and that the wider understanding and impact of the subject was not fully understood by many. As a subject the reality is we need to change in order to survive, particularly with the current challenging educational landscape, and by having a single more cohesive subject we become stronger. 

Change is part of the core of what D&T is, and therefore what we signed up for when we chose to teach the subject. D&T is about new technologies, new ideas and moving forward so we should expect change to be constant. It is important our subject reflects what is happening in the real world of design, particularly in a high tech world where nothing stands still. The way materials and products are classified, defined and used is shifting and we need to reflect this in our schools ensuring young people have an understanding of the ever changing and technological world they live in whether it be as a consumer and user or from a career perspective. 

To enable education in England to keep pace with global technological change, new approaches are needed to teaching pupils how to apply electronics in combination with new materials and how to apply control systems in all aspects of the subject    

Diana Choulerton, Ofsted National Lead for Design & Technology

Q2  Does this change reflect what is happening in industry?

Manufacturing in one clearly defined material area will always be something that exists. With new technologies there are, however, blurred lines in many industries between materials. Many industries that have a strong focus on one material area, for example textiles, also uses other materials often without this being recognised, e.g. the use of buttons and other components made from woods, plastics and metals. Whilst the textiles designer probably won’t design and make these components which one they will use and the properties of the materials will be important decisions in the success of the product. 

In many industries industry there is also a recognition that there are benefits of bringing together different ways of thinking with people from different backgrounds when designing. G-Star Raw, best known for their luxury denim fashion items, for example, have a design philosophy where they have a series of ‘crossover’ products, from furniture to a camera, a bike, and a Land Rover Defender. Head of 3D Design, Pieter Kool, says that ‘the principle of cross-pollination, especially between people from different crafts and backgrounds, is what we're looking for. A product engineer and a knitwear designer discussing a project will, for sure, come up with ideas that push the boundaries of what we've been doing, because of this multidisciplinary approach.’ Whilst the demand for specialists working in one area will remain strong, young people also need to be prepared to sometimes work in environments where a different approach is needed. 

Q3  Why does there have to be change when previous systems worked so well?

Although the 2009 GCSE curriculum worked well, there were flaws, in particular the focus on separate material areas doesn’t reflect real world design and restricts student opportunities as it divides materials into separate categories that don’t really exist. Over the last few years, in some schools there has also been a gradual return to a more craft based D&T. Whilst these schools have introduced new technology and used new materials many have placed a heavy focus on making end products to take home rather than focusing on the wider place D&T plays in society.

There is also concern that students specialise too early especially as in some schools students choose their options in year 8 when their experience of materials is very limited. The broader approach means students are able to make more informed choices when specialising at post 16, and are therefore more able to consider career choices and the bigger picture. 

There are lots of cross overs between material areas, for example carbon fibre and polypropylene are both textiles fibres as well as being used as resistant materials. Materials are also being used in new and different ways, along with new materials being developed that don’t fit into the traditional classifications. The images below, for example, show the various uses for polypropylene both as a hard material and as a textiles fabric.

Career opportunities are also much more diverse across all material areas with lots of careers that combine the use of materials. 

It's important to focus energies on making things work the best they can rather than fighting something we have no influence over. This situation reminds me of the time early on in my career when computers were introduced. The change was resisted by many and I ended up with them in my classroom. I felt as wary of the new learning as everyone else but I quickly saw the benefits whilst other teachers held out for years before embracing IT. Now of course we all fight for more IT, and recognise it’s importance to the industry, and it reflects that sometimes change is not only inevitable but welcome in the longer term.

If Design and Technology is not or cannot become the subject it purports to be - what is our justification for it to be valued and promoted?

Diana Choulerton, Ofsted National Lead for Design & Technology

Q4  Is there still a place for material specialisms in the single D&T GCSE?

All individual material areas remain strong in the D&T GCSE and play an equal role. No one material area should be seen as more or less important or be excluded. The D&T GCSE should not be seen as a way of reducing staffing as departments will need to be careful to maintain specialists in all areas to ensure students are able to access strong subject specialist support and create high quality outcomes. Any negative impact on any individual material area will be because of how individual schools interpret and approach the D&T GCSE. Where departments are choosing to remove an individual material area from the curriculum this should be strongly challenged, indeed, the content of the new curriculum itself provides a tool for making this challenge. Strictly speaking a D&T curriculum that doesn’t focus on a wide breadth of materials in some way isn’t a D&T curriculum at all.

The D&T GCSE doesn’t mean we have to suddenly become experts in other material areas. We can still retain the individual personality of each area whilst becoming part of a wider group. Although we will have to embrace new content, and change some of our approach, there’s no reason why much of what we have traditionally done shouldn't remain and the changes should enhance our practice rather than restrict it.

….evolution not revolution…

Jonny Edge, Subject Specialist Design & Technology, OCR

Q5  Do we need to become experts in all material areas?

No, D&T teachers have always needed to be flexible and able to teach outside their specialism, but the status of experts in each material area will remain important. D&T teachers will need a broader understanding of materials but this will be a general knowledge of properties of materials and their uses rather than in depth expertise and ability to design and manufacture. Whilst this broader understanding will be new learning for many the depth of knowledge required is limited. Indeed a department that has a strong KS3 curriculum mapped against the 2014 KS3 curriculum is likely to already be covering the broader content. 

The broader materials content will be tested in the written exam and students will be able to specialise in one material area for the non exam assessment if they wish. The potential to use materials outside the student’s specialist area is an exciting bonus for students where schools are able to facilitate this.

Certainly in the short to medium term schools are likely to continue to divide student groups into specialisms with a specialist teacher simply because of the logistics of rooming, staff and resources. Some schools will choose to go down a more adventurous route, and others will follow over time as staffing, rooming and resources develop, but this still doesn’t necessarily mean teachers need to become experts in other material areas as long as systems are developed that support students e.g. technicians, a programme of post 16 mentors or other support mechanisms. 

Impactful research comes from interdisciplinary collaboration …..designers and technologists under one roof is critical to interdisciplinary work

Dr Goswami, lecturer in Textile Technology, Leeds University

Q6  Is the curriculum being watered down?

Just because the focus of some of the content for the GCSE is changing doesn’t necessarily mean it is being watered down. The broader content will enable students to develop a broader perspective about materials in D&T which in turn will help them understand D&T in the real world better. Whilst this knowledge isn’t deep, once it is combined with the student's specialist knowledge it will give them a real advantage as their studies and careers progress, as well as in the real world as consumers and users. 

Whilst the types of knowledge and skills students will develop may in some area be less detailed than in the past this doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing, particularly as this makes way for newer areas of learning that are more relevant to 21st Century D&T.

The exam boards are conscious of the need to build appropriate skills at KS4 ready for KS5, so progression is built into the specifications. The development of skills will depend on how a school chooses to approach the teaching of the new qualification and there is no reason why students can’t continue to develop strong specialist skills. 

Students are often doing the same project their parents did

Diana Choulerton, Ofsted National Lead for Design & Technology

Q7  How can we timetable the D&T GCSE ?

It is important to focus on where each department currently is and not try to do everything at once, instead seeing change as a long term journey. Each department will have a different approach because of the logistics of staffing, resources and rooming along with what their vision of D&T is for their students. 

Working and supporting each other as a team will be a key feature for D&T moving forward, with a focus on a coordinated approach that reflects more of what the materials areas have in common with each other than what their differences are.

Some departments will approach the new D&T GCSE as a discrete qualification in a particular material area, with students specialising in this area. Many will do the bare minimum in terms of considering broader knowledge of materials. It is also likely that many schools will use the KS3 curriculum as an important basis for delivering the broader content leaving the GCSE to focus more on specialist material areas, along with a good revision programme to embed KS3 learning. 

Other schools will see this as a chance to develop their curriculum giving students the opportunity to combine materials if they wish. This might require a more radical approach with staff learning new skills, reconfiguring of rooms and equipment or solutions such a rota system, or perhaps team teaching. 

One of the biggest issue with a broader approach is likely to be access to equipment as many D&T departments are positioned away from each other, often with food and textiles being in a different part of the building to other areas of D&T. This will restrict what the department can do in the short term and a longer term plan focusing on reconfiguring the department will need to be considered.

Departments should also see these changes as an opportunity to think creatively about timetabling. Vertical tutor groups, for example, are currently very popular, mixing different year groups, how might this approach benefit the teaching of D&T? 

We want creative design with technology….  
Jeremy Graham, Milliken Industrials Ltd

Q8  What do I say at option evenings?

It is important for teachers to be positive about the future of D&T as if our own worries and doubts are shown this will undermine the subject and make parents and others have doubts. Teachers need to be honest that things are changing but reassuringly confident about D&T still being the same great subject to study with significant benefits to students, both in terms of potential careers as well as the wider skills it offers from project management to being an informed consumer. Relating the changes to the real world will help parents see that the changes are a positive thing and will benefit their child.

Whilst there are changes to the curriculum students will still studying much of the same content as they always have, including a specialist material area. The broader materials focus can be played up as an advantage, or played down, depending on each schools intended approach. Many schools are likely to use the name Design and Technology whilst offering a specialist focus and this might be denoted by putting the specialism in brackets after the D&T name. This embraces the changes whilst still reflecting the terms students and parents are familiar with. 

Assessment projects will be similar to the previous GCSEs so departments can use this to showcase the subject and reassure parents. Where a department wants to showcase the exciting potential for students to combine materials if they wish this can be done by using shop bought products or images until a department has a range of student resources. 

Q9  Doesn’t an increase in the percentage for the written exam, along with the removal of the design element, make D&T less creative?

Any written exam automatically limits creativity and it could be argued that there are better methods of assessment for D&T. Rightly or wrongly, the government has decided that rigour can only be demonstrated through an exam. Given the current educational climate we are likely to be stronger if the academic side of our subject is recognised, so the exam does have a silver lining. In addition the science and maths helps add value as it flags up that D&T includes these key academic areas. 

Whilst the design element of the exam was popular with students it was a very subjective area to mark leading to potential inaccurate marking. The benefit of not having design elements in the exam is that hopefully marking with be fairer and more consistent.

Q10  Some of the content in the specification isn’t relevant to my material area so why do I have to teach it?

Just because we have never taught something before as part of a specification doesn’t mean it is not relevant. D&T has ever changing content and as such we should expect the content of what we teach to change and develop, and in some cases this will be out of our comfort zone. 

There is also a more complex side to the answer to this question as the way society has developed, and D&T within that, has meant that there are still many stereotypes around each of the material areas, both in terms of content and gender. 

Traditionally resistant materials is, for example, often perceived as ‘harder’, it attracts more boys and is associated with careers that are often perceived to have a higher value. Within this context textiles content is seen as irrelevant to resistant materials despite the reality that in our high tech world textiles materials often compete with traditional resistant materials in terms of strength and other high tech properties and resistant materials such as carbon fibre and glass fibre are actually textiles composite materials.

Content such as levers and mechanisms, electronics and forces are, for example, often seen as irrrelevant to textiles because they are not part of the traditional textiles curriculum. This is despite the fact that forces play a major role in textiles, from the construction of fabrics and products to the testing of materials, and that the use of electronics in textiles and fashion is now a massive growth area, including the development of e-textiles components specifically for this purpose. 

levers & mechanisms 2

In addition textiles students use their knowledge of levers and mechanisms when using textiles equipment without realising it. The Industrial Revolution was based on the development of textiles machinery and it is a very stereotyped view to consider learning in textiles as only relating to the end product that is produced. By understanding how a machine, tool or process works we are able to manipulate it and develop it further thereby developing the products and processes we can create and ultimately how creative we can be. Indeed a key skill of any designer is having at least some understanding of the manufacturing process and equipment in order to be able to understand the limitations of what can be done.

It will also be up to teachers to have a strong voice feeding back to the exam boards to make sure the broader knowledge content is pitched appropriately with questions asked in a way that is inclusive of all material areas. 

Whilst the broader content is more relevant to all teachers than it at first might seem, it is still possible for teachers to just specialise in their own material area if circumstances make this necessary. All of the concepts mentioned are, for example, included in the 2014 KS3 curriculum, so in theory these can be taught at KS3, and then embedded and revised at KS4, leaving GCSE time as a time to focus on specialism.

…it’s about what the students need to learn rather than about what I want to teach…

Dr Goswami, lecturer in Textile Technology, Leeds University

Find a course to support your D&T curriculum

Want to contact us?

© Boyd Education  2012   text, images & ideas on this website are the copyright of Julie Boyd & may not be copied or reproduced without permission.. All rights Reserved.