Powered by ZigaForm version

What a turbulent few years it has been for schools, Design and Technology (D&T) departments and its teachers…

The D&T national curriculum was overhauled in 2015, with new D&T GCSE specifications following shortly thereafter. Further reform was made to technical and vocational qualifications in England with more than half no longer eligible for Department for Education performance points.

This article looks at what lay behind these drastic changes to the curriculum in general and to D&T in particular.

More importantly why more changes are likely to come…

A lot has been written about Michael Gove’s time as Secretary of Education. Gove spearheaded a change in English schools. ‘Core subjects’ such as English, Maths and Science were put under greater scrutiny. Schools’ performance and that of teachers are measured by pupils’ progress in these subjects.

With greater scrutiny in these core subjects, non-core subjects like Art, Music and Design and Technology have found themselves increasingly marginalised as options in schools.

This has led to many Design and Technology departments shrinking, merging with departments like Art, and in some cases closing down altogether.

At the same time as this has been happening, D&T has faced another challenge.

It is this other challenge which I will focus on in this article, and which I believe will continue to drive change for D&T in the years to come.


The current government set out in 2017 an Industrial Strategy, a broad long term plan to boost the UK economy. With Brexit the Industrial Strategy has taken on additional importance. The strategy is seen by some in government as a vision for the UK, post-Brexit.

The government’s Industrial Strategy talks about businesses creating high-paid jobs for high-skilled people. The Strategy recognises that skills are vital to ensuring businesses and the economy can grow.

At around the same time as publication of its industrial strategy, the government undertook a comprehensive review of technical and vocational education in England. The Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, also known as the Sainsbury’s Report, compared technical education systems from around the world and made a series of recommendations for the reform of technical education in England.

Published in 2016 the Sainsbury’s Report recommended a “labour market-oriented system” where:

  • industry experts must lay down the knowledge and skills, and methods of assessment, for each qualification
  • clear educational routes which lead to employment in specific occupations
  • short, flexible bridging provisions should be developed to enable individuals who come to believe they have made the wrong decision to move between the academic and technical education options in either direction
  • these clear education routes to be called T Levels, and represent a serious and respected technical qualification route equivalent in rigour to A Levels

The government of the time accepted the Sainsbury’s Report’s recommendations in full. And what we have seen in recent years is the translation of the report recommendations into practice.

I believe the Sainsbury’s Report’s recommendations alongside the government’s Industrial Strategy will continue to be a dominant driver in D&T and Engineering curriculum in years to come.*


Why and how are the Sainsbury’s Report and Industrial Strategy driving changes to D&T?

First, let’s take a deeper look at how some of Sainsbury’s Report’s recommendations have been implemented in practice.

The first and one of the key implementations has been on how apprenticeships are designed and funded.

Large employers are now expected to pay an apprenticeship levy which goes towards the cost of training an apprentice.

And when designing a new apprenticeship, instead of the government or perhaps an exam board (also known as an awarding body) being in charge of designing the learning outcomes, apprenticeships are now designed by industry.

A raft of new apprenticeship “Standards” have been commissioned which set the learning outcomes and behaviours that an apprentice is expected to gain or display by the end of an apprenticeship. These Standards have been, and continue to be, developed with businesses and industry, coordinated by the Institute of Apprenticeships – a body created to deliver apprenticeships in England.

In many cases industry or professional bodies, rather than traditional exam boards, will be assessing apprentices at their end of their programme.


How does this affect me I hear you say? My school doesn’t offer apprenticeships, we only teach GCSEs and A-Levels.

Well, here is the thing…

One of the recommendations of the Sainsbury’s Report has been to make the education route for students more clear. And that there should be the possibility for pupils to move between academic and technical routes, for example through short bridging courses.

As the apprenticeship framework gets under way, work has now begun on T Levels, one of the other cornerstone recommendations from the Sainsbury’s Report. T Levels are explicitly designed for teaching and delivery in mainstream schools and will sit alongside A-Levels.

And because there is this drive to simply and clarify routes between different types of qualifications, there will likely be close alignment between apprenticeships and T Levels… and eventually any qualifications that could feed into these.

Looking at the work carried out by the Department for Education to date on T Levels, we can see they are taking a similar path to apprenticeships in a number of ways:

  • Like apprenticeships, the T Levels are being steered by industry. Each T Levels has a steering group made up of mostly industry representatives.
  • Although it is not yet clear how, T Levels will likely have ‘bridging’ points for those that want to move back to an academic route, or vice versa.
  • More contentiously, T Levels will contain practical work placement as part of the qualification.


How will the current work on apprenticeships and T-levels filter down to D&T qualifications in future?

If we look at the Engineering T Level for example, one that many D&T departments who offer technical or vocational options at KS5 will want to keep an eye on…

The advisory panel in charge of setting out the learning outcomes for that route is made up of companies like ARM (which BCA have worked with to design a Level 3 embedded systems unit), Rolls Royce Electronics, Autodesk, CADCOE, amongst others. We can safely expect that microcontrollers, CAD/CAM will feature large in the new specifications.

Looking at the list of proposed T Level routes, we can also see that there is a separate route for Design under a “Creative and Design” umbrella which will take Design into a more craft-based path.

Whilst awarding bodies have not yet explicitly written new T Level specifications for D&T – the current government proposal is to award only one AO a license to assess and award each T Level – we can already start to see the trends described above filter into technical qualifications at level 2 and 3 that are available now.

For example, the new RQF BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Engineering has a mandatory unit in Microcontrollers, and at 120 guided learning hours, is twice the teaching hours of its RQF predecessor.


What is our overall conclusion?

Both macro-economic trends like the government’s industrial strategy, as well as industry-specific changes set in motion by the Sainsbury’s Report, are driving an increasingly industry-led and industry-designed curricula in the technical qualifications sector.

Changes implemented on apprenticeships are now being followed with the introduction of T Levels.

In turn the government has recently announced it will be reviewing funding for qualifications up to level 3 across the board to reduce overlaps with these programmes. This means that we will likely see further refinements to qualifications at KS4 and KS5 that tie ever closer to T Levels in progression.

In summary, we believe technical qualifications and D&T in schools in the coming years will include:

  • A move towards a “labour market-led” framework of technical qualifications
  • Technical qualifications being increasingly designed by industry
  • Filtering down of industry skills into all parts of the school curriculum, especially in KS5 but also very likely into KS4 and KS3 (for technical routes)
  • Bridging courses for students wanting to move between academic and technical routes
  • A possible diversion of Design and Technology as one subject to two distinct and specialist subject areas: Engineering as a technical subject, and Design under a Creative and Craft umbrella


(* While the Sainsbury’s Report was commissioned under the Conservative government, Labour’s education manifesto as it stands in 2019 broadly supports the Sainsbury’s Report. We would expect that much of the work that has already begun in this area would broadly continue.)


Fill in the below to join our mailing list and be notified when the “How to navigate the changing D&T curriculum – a practical guide ”  article is published.