Reinforcing gender stereotypes, or are we all just showing our ignorance with respect to design and technology education

Published 10th June 2019

Written by: Andy Mitchell

If there was ever an example of journalists, fabricating and fanning the flames of an education ‘story’, in pursuit of a salacious report, then this was it. It all started as parent (or someone representing a child), questioned the school ‘taster’ experience that a class of year 4 primary children would receive when visiting one of two single sex local secondary school, Spalding High School and Spalding Grammar School.  A letter was sent home to parents in the normal fashion, explaining that children would take part in two, hour-long lessons.

"The girls will be attending Spalding High School where they will take part in a Food Technology and Drama lesson, whilst the boys will be taking part in a double Design and Technology lesson at Spalding Grammar School."

A parent Tweeted the letter on social media along with the text, incurring the wrath of many, having implied that the decision was reinforcing gender stereotypes.

‘I think this letter, that came home with an upset 9 year old girl today. Shows that as a country/society, we have not progressed one cm in 30 years. #quaterpenny lives and breathes design & technology and can’t understand why she has to do cooking and drama’

Picked up by not just the local press, it even reached national news, being featured in The Telegraph.

There are several depressing aspects to the story but none of them are to do with gender or indeed the status of ‘cooking’ as a worthwhile activity in which to engage boys and girls!  No this says much more about the country’s lack of understanding of educational terminology, the content of the National Curriculum set out in Parliamentary Statute and the Government’s, woeful neglect of design and technology (D&T) education.

I am appalled by the way professionalism of teachers and schools has been questioned so openly by lay people, having clearly little understanding of the curriculum, how schools operate and in this case, any particular local circumstances. What is particularly galling is how a past Minister for Education Elizabeth Truss who really should know better, has waded in exposing her continued ignorance of what the subject design and technology actually is all about.

For those not from the world of education I will explain. The letter addressed to parents states quite clearly ‘Food Technology’.  The planned lesson in question possibly did but equally may not have involved cooking. We don’t know. In just the same way, the ‘Design and technology’ lesson might or might not have involved making things from materials. But that is unimportant here.  Design and technology and its component part involving food are about much more than that and are equally the prerogative of both males and females. The fact is, food technology is still part of the 2014 National Curriculum in England: design and technology programmes of study. It states:

 At Key Stage 3, When designing and making, pupils should be taught to: […] select from and use a wider, more complex range of materials, components and ingredients, taking into account their properties

Since 1989, food technology has always been a significant component of D&T but for the first time in 2014, the subject knowledge relating to food was listed separately in the programme of study, under the title Cooking and nutrition. This was a direct result of an instruction from Elizabeth Truss, against the advice of The Design and Technology Association and others, who were advising DfE on the rewrite of the D&T programmes of study. In meetings with her at the time, as an officer of the Association, I was unable to get her to understand the technological nature of the subject and the value of food technology.  It was not merely practical cooking, understanding about ingredients and preparing meals that she insisted.  She saw that teaching cooking was paramount and studying the technological and scientific aspects of food production and preparation and using it as a medium to develop and express creativity was unimportant – hence the separate list.  It is with some irony, that some five years down the track, a school is being criticised for providing what has been interpreted by those outside as cooking, whilst the schools itself seems to continue to recognise the value as ‘Food Technology’!

It gets worse.  Not only would it appear I failed to educate the minister as to the nature of food technology, it would seem that even though she signed off the DfE programme of study for D&T, she has no more clue as to what it consists of now than she did then!

In a message on social media site Twitter, Ms Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said: "Leeds in the 1980s was more advanced than this.

"Both girls and boys doing woodwork, metalwork and cooking, as it should be."

The use of the words woodwork and metal work in schools bring back recollections of way back in the previous century and are guaranteed to raise the hackles of educationalist around the world who understand the nature and value of D&T which subsumed those craft practices. Considerably inhibited by the government she represents, battling against lack of support and resources, the ‘high tech’ subject of D&T including the use of food up to and including Key Stage 3 has moved on.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by this. The involvement of the D&T Association was in order to bale her out, after she had been ridiculed in the education press for publishing her earlier draft D&T Programmes of Study. This concentrated on ‘make do and mend’ and making reference to horticulture, mending one’s bicycle and repairing clothes!

To be fair to the Lincolnshire schools in question, in a joint statement, headmistress Michele Anderson (Spalding High School) and headmaster Steven Wilkinson (Spalding Grammar School) said: "As part of a broad Primary Liaison programme, helping primary school pupils to transition confidently to secondary school, Spalding Grammar School (for boys) and Spalding High School (for girls) work together to provide a range of experiences. "These include an opportunity for local pupils to spend part of a day with us.

"Across the last ten days, we have welcomed over 700 pupils from 24 schools to experience the full range of subjects available at both of our schools.

Anyone like me, who has been involved in scheduling visits from many hundred primary school children to secondary schools, to provide them with a taste of what secondary school life is like, will know what a challenging and disruptive process it can be. As they went on to say:

"The actual subjects offered on any given day is simply dependent on the availability of staffing and resources”.

It is good to note, that Spalding High School does provides for its girls, the specialist facilities to work in a range of design and technology activity including work with food, textiles and materials used in product design up to A level! From their website, it is less clear whether Spalding Grammar School’s D&T curriculum and specialist provision is as broad. But how they meet the National Curriculum requirement to teach the cooking and nutrition element is not at issue here.

What is also deeply worrying to me, is that quite clearly, ‘we have not progressed one cm in 30 years’ as the parent stated. Even though the D&T National Curriculum has been in place since 1989, there still resides uncertainty and misunderstanding as to what the subject is actually about. Part of this is due to its historical roots – its origins being in the teaching of craft.  But part of the responsibility has to be shouldered by the educational community itself for not universally embracing the changes it has required and ensuring these are more widely understood and valued by the wider community.  This includes the emphasis on practical designing and problem solving, the use of new technologies and the value studying the subject brings to all young people, beyond making products – whether they be from wood, metal or using food ingredients.

We should all be congratulating both schools, as they both continue to teach D&T! A growing number now don’t. Under the current pressures faced by schools, prioritising the government’s performance measures, lack of funding for resources and the closing of university initial teacher education courses to train sufficient D&T teachers, many schools are now abandoning the subject. Workshops and food rooms are being closed down, equipment sold off and young people keen to develop their ability to excel in these areas, are being denied any opportunity.  Instead they are being forced down a narrow, traditional curriculum seemingly favoured by successor of Truss, Nick Gibb. Things in schools are not always what they seem.

Author Andy Mitchell

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