Design and Technology Association Written evidence (EDU0026)


  1.                             I am delighted to submit the following document in response to the call for evidence for the Committee on Education for 11- to 16-year-olds in England. I can confirm that I am responding professionally as Chief Executive Officer of the Design and Technology Association. 
  1. It is, I think, important to note that whilst my present role involves me daily in the work of schools across the UK and beyond, I have thirty-three years of experience as a teacher and senior leader (including almost twelve as a secondary headteacher), that helps to inform my response, and that of the Association. 
  1. Before attempting to respond directly to any of the questions posed within the inquiry, I feel it is essential to set out my understanding of the purpose of education. I have seen and heard many definitions of this in my years working in education, but none more precise than that of Professor Guy Claxton, who states that the purpose of education is "to prepare young people for the future, equipping students with the capacities they need to thrive in an increasingly fast passed and complex world".
  1. My understanding of this vision is that a successful education system should supply a body of knowledge that helps to support a sense of endless curiosity, directly prompting a desire for further inquiry. Young people should be helped and encouraged to see the uniqueness and value they bring to the world; any successful education system must assist young people to understand fully and like the person that looks back at them from the mirror. 
  1. Students should be encouraged to develop the confidence to talk to strangers, to try things out, to handle tricky situations, to stand up for themselves and what they believe in with confidence but without arrogance, to ask for help when required, and to be able to think new thoughts. Failure should be understood but not feared; it should be viewed as an inevitable part of stretching oneself and an essential part of a never-ending learning and growth process. The above should not be a gift presented to the entitled, but a basic educational entitlement enjoyed by all. 
  1. At the Design and Technology Association, we constantly refer to education as providing a combination of the knowledge, skills and personal attributes required to face the future confidently. We believe the current education system is failing to provide this tripartite to the bulk of our young people. A fixation on knowledge acquisition has left our young people with heads full of data committed to short-term memory, a diet perfect for examinations but wholly inadequate for life. 
  1. When we combine the above with an accountability system that directs headteachers and school governing bodies to give identified subjects priority and status over others (Ebacc against non-Ebacc), this, by default, squeezes creativity and breadth from the secondary curriculum specifically, student choice and individuality is actively discouraged, and schools are almost forced into becoming 'exam factories' with only the strongest, most maverick headteachers having the courage to buck the system. 
  1. The final nail in the coffin of the broad and rich curriculum offer is the shortage of teachers once suffered by 'specialist' subjects such as computer science, physics, mathematics and design and technology, but now widespread across the curriculum. It is a fact that students and their parents have become accustomed to an education system that is increasingly narrow in its nature and is often taught by non-specialists who are doing all they can to deliver a relevant curriculum but are too frequently only a couple of lessons ahead of their students at best. 
  1. It is our opinion that the system needs deep thought and radical reform if it is to adequately prepare our young people for work, life and the challenges set by an increasingly digitally led society and the need for a fast-paced green agenda that will require them to think and act differently. 
  1. For many years, the World Economic Forum has identified the skillsets required by our workforce and for young people to thrive personally in a fast-changing world. From a policy perspective, we have pretty much ignored this research as it fails to support the 'knowledge is all' direction that our government has set. Complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity have been at or near the top of this list for some time; at the same time, our education system has moved away from the transmission of what was once termed "soft skills", but in an age of automation and AI are increasing recognised as being "human skills", ones that computers still struggle to perform consistently. The forum predicts an increasing shift towards analytical and critical thinking, creative problem solving and the increased use of disruptive technologies, the metaverse, VR and AR, together with increased global awareness of the importance of design, manufacturing, and sustainability. 
  1. The current education system ignores these priorities and labels them as something that can be picked up by students post-sixteen; this is an assumption that we strongly challenge based on a series of research projects that indicate that young people make irreversible career and life decisions long before this age. Thoughts and habits of mind are harder to break later in life than they are to form if tackled from a young age. 


  1. In response to the specific questions posed by the Committee
  1. The range and breadth of subjects covered in the 11-16 curriculum.
  1. The school accountability system, Ebacc and a severe shortage of specialist teachers across STEM and increasingly across other subject areas, together with a shortage of subject specialist training and a squeeze on school funding, is resulting in an increasingly narrow curriculum offer being offered to young people in many schools across England. This is hitting the creative subjects harder than it is others as these are increasingly viewed by school leaders as 'nice to have' rather than being an essential part of a broad and rich curriculum offer. 


  1. Ofsted is heavily penalising primary schools that fail to offer a broad curriculum, but appears to be taking a far more lenient approach to the 11-16 curriculum.
  1. The effectiveness of the 11-16 curriculum in equipping young people with the skills they need to progress into post-16 education and employment in a future digital and green economy.
  1. I feel we have already answered this question within our response so far. The acquisition of "skills", be these personal or subject related, are almost frowned upon and, possibly because these are more difficult to assess, are ignored in many schools. Private education majors on acquiring knowledge, skills, and personal attributes (the ability to stick with gnarly problems, present confidently to an unfamiliar audience, and work in teams or independently). Only the very best state schools are majoring in these areas, as they are not judged here. The result is an education system with an equality gap that once showed narrowing indicators but is now wider than ever before. 


  1. The availability and attractiveness of technical and vocational options in the 11-16 phase
  1. Sadly "vocational" is still a dirty word within the current system. We, along with many others in the sector, are hugely concerned that if proposed changes go ahead in the coming years, further reducing both pre- and post-sixteen access to vocational qualifications, this will result in a binary system that leaves at least twenty per cent of students in the system without a foot on a ladder to further improvement. 
  1. T Levels are arguably the bravest educational move the current government has taken. The take up of this new qualification has been strong with the existing subjects released, but at the moment, most of this take up has been through UTC's and FE Colleges. There is no incentive for young people in the mainstream system to switch from the tried and tested A Level route to T Levels unless they are absolutely single-minded on the career path they wish to follow. 
  1. Not every student wants to go or should go to university. All students do not mature at the same pace chronologically; some need time to gain their confidence, and BTECs, Nationals and other vocational awards provide a logical pathway for these students. In our opinion, this pathway should not be removed. 
  1. It is a fact that schools are being decentivised from offering vocational qualifications that may be more appropriate for their young people by an accountability system that fails to reward the school for meeting the needs of all its students, and not just the most academic.  


  1. The impact of the 11-16 system on the motivation and confidence of pupils of all abilities
  1. I would not want to be fourteen years old again. We believe that students have it much harder now than when I was their age. Social media and the temptation to judge yourself and your worth against a perceived norm is greater now than it has ever been. 
  1. The current system's fixation on knowledge acquisition above all else does not allow for any degree of neurodiversity or for the fact that each student is an individual in their own right. The end examination at sixteen or/and eighteen has become the destination, the full stop when it should be no more than a comma in each student's journey. 
  1. The above places vast amounts of pressure on all students across the ability range to perform to an agreed set of standards; where they are unable to meet these standards, the sense of failure is often absolute. 


  1. It is widely recognised that we are experiencing a youth mental health epidemic. Whilst it would be wrong to blame this on the education system alone, there are strong indicators that the current pressure within the system is proving to be problematic for many students. research shows that:
  1. Creativity, music, and sport have been proven repeatedly to counteract mental health issues, yet these have been slowly but systematically marginalised within the eleven to sixteen curriculum. 


  1. The effectiveness of GCSEs as a means of assessing the achievements of all pupils at the end of the 11-16 phase
  1. GCSEs provide a statistically accurate method of assessing student progress at a given point in time. The question we need to ask is not so much what we are assessing, but more why we are assessing? There is a strong argument that the GCSE system exists more to measure school effectiveness than it does individual performance. 
  1. If we really trusted schools, students, and teachers, would we argue the need to put students through a minimum of twenty-seven hours of assessment spread across up to nine subjects taken in less than six weeks? Are GCSEs measuring what students really know and understand, or more what they can remember at a given moment in time but have not necessarily committed to long-term memory? 


  1. I am old enough to remember the Tomlinson Report and its recommendations. I cannot help but feel we were on the point of something very special before we got cold feet and watered down the proposals to form the 2005 Education and Skills White Paper. Given a blank sheet, a diploma system that checks progress at sixteen but leaves end point assessment to the age of eighteen would be the preference of many. I cannot see that happening in my time, as we do not trust the teaching profession enough to allow formative assessment to count. 


  1. The role technology can play in education in this phase including in assessment, the personalisation of learning and reducing teachers' workload.
  1. Since the early 2000s, I have worked to bring advanced technologies into schools where I have taught, and I have led in this area with mixed success. I believe that technology of any type can be used for good or bad. Schools are generally risk-averse and therefore are more heavily influenced by the negative connotations of introducing technology to educational delivery. 
  1. To me, it is a form of madness that schools forbid young people to use technologies that most carry daily with significantly more power than that which first got man to the moon because they may attempt to access an inappropriate website. We have an educational responsibility to prepare our young people to live, work and play responsibly in an increasingly technologically led world. There is too much that can be said to attempt to address this issue in full here other than to say we cannot consider preparing our young people for future employment opportunities and the digital and green economies without fully incorporating appropriate technologies into both teaching and assessment. 


  1. How the 11-16 system could be adapted to improve the attractiveness of the teaching profession and the recruitment, training, and retention of teachers.
  1. Teaching is a vocation. By its very nature, it is both empathetic and highly creative. Very few teachers take someone else's planning and lesson preparation and deliver it to their students without first making it their own by adapting, adding, and adjusting the content to suit the particular needs of their students. There is an element of acting to teaching; you are, in effect, delivering six-hour-long performances daily, and your audience will judge you on the quality of preparation, planning, delivery, and assessment. I always found joy in this challenge, but it is also mentally exhausting; over time, it is almost impossible to maintain the same energy levels expelled at the start of your career (luckily, as you get better at it, you don't need to). 
  1. We are currently asking highly creative people to work within a system where the end result is all that matters. The preparation, delivery and connection with the audience are all almost immaterial so long as everyone gets at least a grade six. 
  1. We are squeezing more and more out of professionals, offering them no or very little professional development, giving them little or no preparation, planning, and thinking time, and expecting them to do this at home in their own time. We pay them less than many could get working in business and industry, where their ability to work hard and multi-task is highly respected. We are placing unreasonable demands on people who want to deliver successfully because they care; many teachers find it impossible to drop work both physically and mentally at the end of a working day, and then we wonder why no one signs up to teach. 
  1. We need an urgent and radical review of how to change everything from ITT to engagement, pay and an agreed entitlement to professional development. Many countries, including Canada, allow teachers sabbaticals following a period in the classroom, giving them time to refresh and reset. Our national approach to recruitment and retention has been akin to patching small holes whilst the ship is quickly sinking. 
  1. On a far more positive note, when it goes well and with a headteacher and senior team that fully supports you as a valued professional, it is the best job in the world!


  1. How spending for this phase of education should be prioritised, in the context of the current fiscal climate
  1. I want to finish our response on this topic as it is critical. There isn't enough money in the system to meet every need, and possibly never will be. Without highly qualified and motivated teachers, our schools cannot meet Professor Guy Claxton's vision for education cited at the very start of this response. 
  1. As a headteacher, my mantra was simple and, in the main, highly effective. Find and employ the right people, then use what budget you can find to train them highly and free them up to allow them to build strong relationships with their students, research, plan and deliver effective and engaging lessons and provide formative structured feedback to students and the parents on the young person's progress. 
  1. Students only perform to their best when they feel safe, secure, valued, and respected. What budget I could spare once I had the right teachers in the rooms was spent on creating a welcoming environment within the school, one where students could drop their worldly worries at the door, let their shoulders drop, and feel fully supported. 
  1. I see no reason to change my priorities held within my schools when talking about the system as a whole. We need to once again make teaching a trusted profession, attract the right teachers, train them well and then give them time to do the job to the very best of their ability without asking them to sacrifice any semblance of work-life balance. 


27 April 2023