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New EPI report reveals decline in students taking up D&T

Sam Tuckett, EPI

New report finds D&T take up in schools has fallen significantly over the last decade – researchers warn of a continued decline without government intervention  

  • Student entries into Design and Technology (D&T) at GCSE have halved over the last decade, new research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) shows.
  • 44% of students took D&T GCSE in 2009, but this fell to just 22% of students in 2020. Far fewer students are also taking D&T at A level.
  • Pupils in independent schools are far more likely to take up D&T at A level than those in state schools.
  • A large fall in D&T teachers has coincided with the decline in the take up, with the government meeting less than a quarter of its recruitment target for D&T teachers.  
  • Studying D&T at GCSE is critical to continuing the subject at age 16-19: only a fraction of students who did not take D&T GCSE took it up in the next stage of education.
  • Researchers call on the government to consider the impact of the substantial decline in entries, including whether it could harm plans to boost vocational education and tackle skill shortages.  

A new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) finds that student entries into Design and Technology (D&T) at GCSE have fallen by a half over the last decade. 

The research, which is the first study to comprehensively examine trends in the subject over the last ten years, shows that just over 1 in 5 students take D&T as a subject at GCSE today, compared to over 2 in 5 a decade ago.

Entries for students at A level have also declined over the same period, as more students now opt for vocational engineering qualifications.

The EPI analysis finds that GCSE students attending free schools and sponsored academies are less likely to enter D&T, while at A level, students in independent schools are most likely to enter the subject.

The report also uncovers significant local and regional variation in D&T take up, with entries in local authorities ranging from nearly 40% of pupils taking D&T at GCSE in Herefordshire, to just 4% of pupils taking the subject at GCSE in Middlesbrough.

Choosing D&T as a subject at GCSE level is shown to be particularly critical to continuing study in the subject at 16-19 level. Of those who did not study D&T at GCSE, less than 2% opted to take up the subject at the next stage of education.

This shows that without the option or encouragement to begin studying D&T an early age, students are far less inclined to pursue D&T subjects at a higher level of education.

The study’s authors identify several developments that have coincided with the considerable decline in take up. Between 2011 and 2020, the number of D&T teachers fell by half from 14,800 to 7,300, with the government failing to meet its D&T teacher recruitment targets.

Significant school accountability reforms such as the EBacc and Progress 8, and qualifications reforms, such as the introduction of new GCSEs, also occurred during this period.

The new findings on the state of D&T come as the government continues to roll out a series of major reforms to vocational education in England, including the introduction of T levels, apprenticeship reforms, and Institutes of Technology.

Researchers call on the government to consider whether the decline in D&T entries at GCSE may adversely affect plans to boost take up in vocational education, and as well as plans to ensure that young people are equipped with the right skills to succeed in careers such as engineering and design.

Key findings

Design and Technology entries: headline trends

  • The number of students entering D&T qualifications has declined considerably in recent years: just 22% of GCSE students had at least one D&T entry in 2020, compared to 44% in 2009.
  • In 2009, there were 280,000 total GCSE D&T subject entries – but by 2020 this had fallen to 136,000.
  • Entries at 16-19 study have also declined by 2020 – around 2% of students entered a Design and Technology A level or a level 3 vocational engineering qualification.

There is significant variation in D&T take up by pupil group, schools and regions

  • Student background: students are most likely to take up D&T at GCSE if they are from White British (24%) and Chinese (22%) backgrounds, while Gypsy/Roma (16%) and Black African (16%) students are least likely.
  • Schools: At GCSE level, free schools and sponsored academies have the lowest entry rates (18% of students) of common of providers, while academy converter schools had the highest (25%). At A level, entries in independent schools were highest (4%), while those in sixth form colleges (1%) and general FE colleges (0.1%) were very low.
  • Local authorities: the areas with the highest rates of D&T take up at GCSE include Herefordshire, (39%) Dorset (34%) and South Gloucestershire (33%), while the lowest include Kingston upon Hull (8%), Barnsley (7%), and Middlesbrough (4%).
  • Regions: D&T GCSE entries are particularly low in London, the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber (all around 18%), while rates are higher in the South West the East Midlands, the East of England and the South East (24-26%).

Taking up D&T at a younger age is crucial to continuing the subject at 16-19

  • Pupils who did not enter D&T GCSE were highly unlikely to continue studying the subject in the 16-19 education phase – just 2% did. This compares to 17% of those that entered an Electronic Products GCSE and 16% of those that had entered a systems and control GCSE.
  • These findings indicate that without the option or incentive to begin studying D&T at an early stage, pupils are unlikely to develop sufficient interest or be inclined to pursue D&T subjects at a higher level.
  • This important link may also mean that the decline seen at GCSE level signals a further decline in entries at 16-19 level in the future.  

Potential factors driving the fall in D&T entries

  • The large decline in D&T teachers seen over the last decade could be contributing to the decline in entries, though this link is unclear. Between 2011 and 2020, the number of D&T teachers in schools fell significantly from 14,800 (6% of all teachers) to 7,300 (3%).
  • Teacher recruitment for D&T met just 23% of its overall target in 2021/22. There are currently fewer financial incentives on offer for D&T teachers, compared to other subjects such as maths and physics.
  • School accountability reforms such as the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2010 and Progress 8 in 2016, and qualification reforms such as the introduction of reformed 9-1 grade GCSEs, have all coincided with the decline. Capital restraints faced by some schools may have contributed to the fall.
  • While there has been a significant decline over the last ten years, a decline in D&T has occurred for nearly 20 years, indicating that there are other, wider factors at play. In 2001, DfE statistics show that almost 70% of pupils were entered for a D&T GCSE.  

Recommendations for government

  1. The government should consider the risks of a continued decline in student entries into D&T, including whether the long-term decline could hinder efforts to reduce skills shortages in areas such as engineering and product design.
  2. The government should consider whether supporting D&T at GCSE could be beneficial to its post-16 reform agenda, including the roll out of T levels.
  3. If the government intends to reverse the considerable decline in D&T entries, specific policies that encourage pupil take up will be required, particularly at GCSE level.  

Commenting on the new study, Sam Tuckett, report author and Senior Researcher at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

“Our research shows that there has been a considerable decline in entries into Design and Technology over the last ten years at both GCSE and A level.

“It is clear that, without specific policy changes from the government to encourage pupil take up, the future of D&T as a subject will remain highly uncertain. If the government intends to support D&T and arrest the decline in student entries, supporting take up of the subject by younger students at GCSE level will be particularly critical.”  

Sir James Dyson, Founder and Chief Engineer at Dyson and Trustee of The James Dyson Foundation, said:

‘Design and Technology plays a fundamental role in combining the academic rigour of science and maths with creative problem solving to equip young people with the skills they need to solve big problems. Over half of our undergraduates at the Dyson Institute studied the subject at GCSE and apply the practical skills learnt to live Dyson projects and technology. There is great potential in this subject, for education and the global economy, and it should not be left untapped.

“When taught the right way Design and Technology can be a strong factor in reversing the decline of engineers so urgently needed in the UK. We have demonstrated this through a six-year project my Foundation ran with schools in Bath, working to improve their provision of the subject. The project saw one and a half times as many students interested in pursuing engineering careers as a result of more challenging and relevant Design and Technology classes”  

Tony Ryan, CEO of the Design and Technology Association, said:

“This report paints a very realistic picture of Design and Technology’s current position nationally and the many challenges that the subject faces. We also believe that it points to the need for the skills agenda pre-sixteen to take precedence as we seek to prepare, inform, and inspire a workforce motivated and able to face the opportunities raised by the fourth industrial revolution. We believe that the subject is more relevant than it has arguably ever been, and we will continue to work to secure its future.

“We would like to thank all partners who supported this important work with the EPI.”  

David Lakin, Head of Education, Safeguarding and Education Policy at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), said:

“This report highlights a worrying trend that we have been concerned about for some time. The fall in the number of D&T students at GCSE and A level stages during the last decade is a sign that the severe skills gap, already faced by our STEM industries, such as engineering and technology, will only get worse unless something urgent is done to reverse the trend.

“It is critical that young children understand and are inspired about the world of STEM and its impact on every part of our lives and this needs to start in the classroom at a young age. Access to D&T learning must be accessible to all children, regardless of where they live in the UK. The IET and our partners are working together with government to look at how we can encourage more people into the teaching profession to educate and inspire the next generation of engineers, designers, innovators and

Andrew Everett, CEO and Executive Secretary of the ERA Foundation, said:

“The ERA Foundation is pleased to have supported this report. We acknowledge the concern related to the decline in young people undertaking Design and Technology qualifications and in particular the decline in D&T teachers, as teachers are known to be key influencers in young people’s career pathway decision making.

“D&T is a key subject that provides young people with skills and techniques useful for careers in engineering. As the report states, England has a strong reputation in engineering and design and the study of relevant subjects such as D&T is critical if young people are to progress into engineering and manufacturing career pathways necessary to support these sectors and to bridge the growing skills gap.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“The government talks a lot about its plans for a ‘skills revolution’ but has unfathomably not only neglected the importance of Design and Technology, but actively devalued the subject.

“As this report highlights, there are a number of factors which have contributed to the decline in students entering these qualifications.

“However, it did not help that the government decided to prioritise a set of traditional academic subjects in its English Baccalaureate suite of subjects – which underpin school performance tables – at the expense of other subjects such as Design and Technology and the creative arts. This has had the inevitable effect of driving non-EBacc subjects to the fringes of the curriculum.

“While schools strive to provide their students with a full and rounded curriculum, they have to do this under the glare of intense accountability pressures, squeezed budgets, and a government which has made it clear that certain subjects are more important than others.

“It would be the most obvious thing in the world for the government to support and promote Design and Technology as part of its skills revolution and we are sure it would be welcomed too by many employers.”

Full report: ‘A spotlight on Design and Technology study in England: trends in subject take up and the teacher workforce’ can be accessed here.  

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