By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


Money, or a lack of it, is very much on everyone’s mind at the moment - including in the education sector.  

Schools are having to make decisions about how and where to spend insufficient budgets, which can impact teachers’ opportunities to teach effectively and students’ opportunities to learn.  

With news that schools could be forced to cut creative subjects including design and technology (D&T) as their bills climb, what could the ramifications be for the future, and why is D&T’s head on the chopping block? 

Why D&T matters 

report published by the Centre for Economic Performance found that women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and people who grew up in low-income households are underrepresented among innovators and inventors. This means that inventions and innovations that could improve their lives do not always happen because they aren’t afforded the opportunities to bring their ideas and experiences to the table. 

Two female students wearing goggles

Our recent blog exploring this study surmised that our society would be improved, with more people catered for and represented, if the STEM* workforce was a more accurate reflection of the UK’s diversity; that is the direction we need to move in. 

But for a more diverse STEM workforce, we first need to ensure that all young people have an equal opportunity to study the relevant subjects at school and college. This includes D&T, alongside maths and the more traditional science subjects.  

Decline in popularity

Unfortunately, these opportunities in D&T are at risk of being massively reduced. In an interview this month with The Observer, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the cost of living crisis is forcing schools to be very selective about how they spend their diminished budgets. Barton explained that some state schools may soon have to cut D&T from their curriculum entirely. 

An argument that could be made for sacrificing D&T is that it is increasingly unpopular; Ofqual reports that the number of students choosing to study D&T at GSCE and A level in England has been in serious decline over the last decade.  

In 2010, 270,400 candidates sat D&T GCSE exams. In 2022 it was just 77,530, falling by a staggering 71%. In this same period, A Level candidates dropped by 42% from 16,520 to 9,620. But why? 

The value of teachers 

Teacher standing up talking to several female students who are seated around a table

Declines like this don’t happen in a vacuum. One factor could be the significant decline in the number of D&T teachers. According to research published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), between 2011-2020 the number of D&T teachers in state schools halved from 14,800 to 7,300. 

In the 2021/22 academic year, the Department for Education sought to address this decline by setting a target of 1,475 new entrants to postgraduate Initial Teacher Training (included as an early part of a PGCE) for D&T. The actual number was 341 – a quarter of the target. 

The 2022 Report Card from the Fair Education Alliance, of which we are a member, discusses how pay and stressful working conditions could be putting-off potential new teachers. They determined that pay rises that don’t keep up with inflation mean “teachers saw their real terms pay decrease by a fifth since 2010”.  They added:

At the same time, increasing accountabilities have ratcheted up workload and stress for teachers and leaders, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and disincentivising teachers and leaders from working in the areas facing the greatest challenges. 

Encouragement from a young age pays off 

Expert teachers are of course essential for all subjects but D&T in particular is an umbrella subject with many sub-categories that students might not know about. It includes topics as wide-ranging as engineering and food technology.  

It’s also a subject that needs to be embraced from a young age if students are to study it at a higher education level; the EPI found that just 2% of those studying a D&T subject at the 16-19 education phase hadn’t taken it at GCSE. We need passionate, encouraging, fairly paid expert D&T teachers, and enough of them. 

Jim Smith, a D&T teacher at Meden School in Nottinghamshire, wrote an article for Teachwire expanding on this issue: 

[D&T] should be allowing students to experience cutting edge digital technology and disruptive thinking. The skills developed through D&T subjects can help with overall learning across the rest of the curriculum.

Smith carried on to explain how studying D&T can also set students up for the future: 

We know that there is now a skills shortage [in the design and manufacturing workforce], and therefore it makes perfect sense for an investment to be made to encourage more students to take up the subject. The breadth of skills they can learn through D&T can potentially help bolster this important economic contribution to industry in the future… It reminds me that my job as a teacher is to bring on those designers, engineers and technologists and unlock their potential.

The funding crisis 

To promote a more diverse future workforce, where people from all backgrounds work in design and innovation fields, state schools need the opportunity to hire more D&T teachers who can encourage more students to take up the subject and see the value in it, rather than being potentially forced to cut the subject altogether because the budget does not allow it.  

The government is failing to reach teacher training targets, whist at the same time not providing sufficient help to schools in the midst of the energy crisis. A report this month from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) opens with the sobering line: 

The government had promised to restore school funding to 2009/10 levels in real terms, but analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that school spending per pupil will remain 3% below 2010 levels in real terms.

The report offers results from a survey of 11,000 school leaders in England, including that 50% schools surveyed said they will have to reduce the number of teachers or teaching hours and 79% said they will try to reduce their schools' energy consumption.  

This lack of investment in education is short-sighted; it will have severe knock-on effects for a society where D&T-related careers are already lacking diversity.  

How we can help 

Boy looking at computer screen from behind

We know that teachers are stretched to their limits, doing the best for their pupils and students in incredibly challenging circumstances, and we want to offer as much support as possible. 

Our CREST Awards flagship education programme is designed to inspire a scientific mindset and allow young people to take the lead. We offer a wealth of student-led D&T projects that can be run in lessons or as part of a STEM club.

We know that finding the budget to fund such activities is not always there, which is why we offer a grant of up to £600 to eligible schools 

The grant will open to applications on Thursday 1 December

If you want to find out how a CREST Awards grant can make a difference in your school, check out our video case study with Andrea Simms of Northgate High School, who ran inspiring projects at her after-school STEM club. 

Find out more about our CREST Awards grant application and eligibility criteria

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*STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and maths