It was good to hear a government minister yesterday signaling a willingness to think again. In a Commons debate the education minister, Liz Truss, showed she was very open to a rewrite of a vital part of the National Curriculum.
A good design and technology curriculum can make a major contribution to addressing the science, technology, engineering and maths, STEM, skill shortages that we face in this country. The decisions that the government makes on this subject in the curriculum will be every bit as significant for our future competiveness as what the Chancellor announced yesterday in his budget.
Having said that, it is therefore very worrying that the draft D&T curriculum that is currently out for consultation is being met with criticism from academics and teachers. Industry - who are the end user of the skills provided to our children at school - are also very concerned.
That is not to say that the government is wrong to propose changes to the current curriculum. Education for Engineering say in their excellent report published recently that "the subject is in need of reform to bring it in line with current design thinking and modern technologies". Their report proposes "... a new model for the D&T curriculum that realigns the subject with the original progressive vision proposed when it was introduced in 1989 while making it relevant for the 21st century". Yet unfortunately this is not what we are seeing with the current draft.
What I and others were particularly surprised to see in this draft was that cooking has been given absolute primacy in the curriculum, with it stating, "the National Curriculum for design and technology aims to ensure that all pupils: understand food and nutrition and have opportunities to learn to cook". Work in the fields of materials (including textiles), electrical, electronics, construction, and mechanics are then listed as subsidiary objectives of the curriculum.
My principal concern, though, is that the whole draft curriculum is written in a way that retreats from the combination of rigour and inspiration that the Department for Education is rightly seeking in other areas of study.
The curriculum should be encouraging creativity in its students, offering them choice over how to approach problems and giving them as much autonomy as possible in their approach.
Students need to experience the reality of STEM in the modern world to understand it and for this they need real project work and real industry partners to bring it all to life. Design and technology needs to be made fun, relevant and stimulating. Instead the draft curriculum prepares its students for a low technology past, not a high technology present and future.
Although I agree that we should avoid prescription in the curriculum and leave schools to be as free as possible in what and how they teach, the words in these draft curriculums will direct what teachers do. The Design and Technology Association say that the language of the draft is utilitarian and uninspiring and uses non stimulating words like 'common', 'straightforward', 'everyday' and 'simple'. These words will not inspire teachers and in turn not motivate or engage pupils.
Getting the curriculum right is so important because the UK has a desperate shortage of engineers and technicians. Engineering UK estimates that we have to double our output of engineers from the education system and that means increasing engineering graduates from 20,000 to 40,000 each year. And the same is true of apprentices. If new technologies make new demands then the number we need will grow even more - the history of the human race suggests that is exactly what will happen. The D&T curriculum is one of the best long-term ways of addressing that shortage.
A good D&T curriculum helps students to appreciate the uses of maths and physics and will inspire many young people - and, I suspect, especially girls - to pursue careers in science, technology and engineering. Students who would otherwise never even have thought of it. D&T needs to make science relevant for students who otherwise never even would have thought of it or perhaps thought that the sciences were not for them.
Reading the government's draft, it seems as if we are equipping 'operatives' for middle-sector manual jobs, or empowering people to be able to make do and mend. In order to achieve sustainable growth we cannot reject the knowledge economy in favour of simply training up young people for manual jobs. We need more technology in schools- not less- to show the exciting reality of modern science, engineering and technology.
In the days when technical drawing, woodwork, metal work, electronics and engineering were all taught- and respected- in schools, then Britain produced some of the most successful inventors, designers and engineers on the planet. A modern D&T curriculum must be concerned with learning about today's world of design and technology and its economic and social value so that our country can produce the James Dysons' and Jonathan Ives' of tomorrow.
The prime minister rightly says we are in a global race - and he didn't mean a pancake race. To win that race we need to foster our creativity and innovation. To extend the metaphor, our young people must not just to learn how to cook pancakes but rather constantly to search for better pancake ingredients and recipes and design and build better stoves to cook them on.
This draft curriculum would stifle innovation and deter talented young people from careers in technology and engineering, but with the same vision that underpins other parts of the draft curriculum, our young people can help our country to win that global race.
So let's hope Liz Truss is as good as her word. We can't afford to get this wrong.