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Britain's industrial skills and the school-teaching of practical subjects: comparisons with Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

But at secondary school 'the original thrust of the AT has been retained'; and 'identifying ... human needs' continues as an essential element of the revised proposals.(66) Brainstorming, and the formulation of pupils' individual designs in response to broad problems, will thus continue on the curriculum.

Secondly, and more substantially, it is proposed that the revised Attainment Target of Making is to be given greater weight, and is to account for 60 per cent of the total marks for assessment purposes. However, this too cannot be taken at face value; the Attainment Target Making is to be divided into three 'strands', only one of which (strand b) is strictly 1. Technology teaching under the National Curriculum

A series of reforms of Britain's schooling system, going back at least to the introduction of the Certificate of Secondary Education in 1965, has aimed to raise standards of achievement of pupils throughout the attainment-range. An obligatory National Curriculum covering ten subjects was introduced in the Education Act of 1988, and is still in the process of development; it is the Government's most far-reaching attempt to ensure that pupils are educated to standards that compare favourably with other economically successful countries.

It is particularly important for British school-leavers to be educated to high standards in vocationally-relevant subjects during the period of compulsory schooling, because so many leave school at the age of 16 and enter employment without any further substantial vocational training and general education--whereas in Britain's competitor countries on the Continent the majority of those who leave school at 15-16 take up apprenticeships with accompanying part-time education till at least the age of 18. When compared with the Continent it is the lack of training to craftsman-level--rather than a lack of university graduates--that forms the principal deficiency in Britain's education and training system; this has emerged clearly from previous studies by the National Institute based on statistical surveys of workforce skills. Other studies by the National Institute based on visits to matched samples of manufacturing plants in Britain and the Continent have provided evidence of the links between lower manufacturing productivity in Britain and the shortage of personnel with intermediate-level craft skills.(2) It is the foundation laid in the final years of secondary schooling for vocational training via the teaching of practical subjects that forms the subject of the present article.

As part of the National Curriculum, obligatory provisions for the teaching of 'Technology' to all 5-16 year-olds were introduced in 1990; 'Technology' became the new official term for that part of the school curriculum covering practical studies.(3) Since then the Statutory Order on Technology teaching has become an object of controversy. Several reports have concluded that its provisions led to highly unsatisfactory classroom practice and outcomes: following a series of visits by National Institute teams to Continental schools to look at the teaching of practical subjects, an initial report on these problems was issued by the Institute in October 1991; this was supported by a critical report from the Engineering Council in May 1992 (it began: 'Technology in the national curriculum is a mess'); in June 1992 Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools also issued a critical report. The Government then, in July 1992, called for a review of the National Curriculum provisions for Technology.(4)

The present paper is intended as a contribution to the continuing debate on the reform of the National Curriculum for Technology. Our first objective is to describe the way practical subjects are taught to 14-16 year-olds at secondary schools in three European countries with highly successful manufacturing economies--Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland--and contrast the findings with the British approach. It seems clear that little regard had been given to the way these subjects are taught on the Continent before fixing on the British National Curriculum; that deficiency needs to be made good in considering how the Statutory Order should be revised.

The teaching of practical subjects in two of the Continental countries--Germany and Switzerland--is close to British practice in two respects: (a) it is not career-specific, and (b) it is allocated roughly the same time in the school curriculum as in Britain; in what follows, these two countries can usually be considered together. The Netherlands will mostly be described separately since the teaching of practical subjects for Dutch pupils from the age of 14 has a more specialised occupational character, and is given a larger fraction of school-time. The Dutch rely much less on subsequent apprenticeship than Germany or Switzerland; their approach to schooling should therefore also convey lessons for Britain. Switzerland was included here--for the first time in the Institute's comparisons--because of its outstandingly successful engineering industry. That success is based not on natural resources, but on skills; it is of the greatest interest to understand how the foundations for those skills are laid at school.

France was originally thought suitable for inclusion in the present comparisons, but was excluded following initial visits in 1991. These indicated such a rapid flux in the teaching of practical subjects that it would be difficult to draw firm conclusions as to what is considered sound and established teaching practice in secondary schools in that country.(5) It seems likely that some years still need to elapse before lessons for Britain can be drawn from these French reforms in schooling.

Our first main objective in this paper, as said, is to contrast current British and Continental school-teaching of practical subjects. Our second main objective is to summarise the background-ideas that have motivated--and continue to motivate--the very substantial changes that have taken place in Britain in the past generation in the teaching of those subjects. This should permit a better judgement as to the next steps needed to reform the present unsatisfactory and unmanageable National Curriculum requirements in this area of study.

As indicated, the teaching of practical subjects differs somewhat amongst the three Continental countries surveyed here; nevertheless, their approach shares a central characteristic which distinguishes it from Britain. The essence of the Continental approach in secondary schools is the emphasis on learning to master 'making-processes' leading to practical outcomes of the highest quality--even if only in restricted fields. The emphasis is on high quality; it involves attaching high value to such characteristics as accuracy, clean working, reliability, and perseverance. These are regarded by teachers and employers as qualities which are important for pupils' future careers, and are to be acquired with the help of instruction in practical subjects while at school. The British approach attaches greater emphasis to developing their imaginative 'design' and 'problem-solving' capabilities and instilling 'confidence' in them. In comparing below the teaching of practical subjects at school, we shall see how the different countries give expression to what can be regarded as these central differences in educational aims.

The present report is based on visits in 1990-92 to a total of some fifty schools, half on the Continent and half in England and Wales. Our latest round of visits in 1992 included--for the first time in our researches in this field--visits to engineering employers recruiting leavers from the schools visited, and to career guidance centres, to ascertain their priorities in improving the school-curriculum. The need to improve schooling standards in Britain particularly for school-leavers who are broadly in the lower half of the attainment-range (a central conclusion from previous National Institute comparisons), and the need to understand why the motivation of such pupils in Continental schools was significantly higher than in British schools, led us to concentrate on schools catering for this section of the attainment-range.(6) In Britain we visited Comprehensive schools and inspected classes covering the whole range of ability, but paying particular attention to lower attaining pupils corresponding to those observed in the Continental schools we visited. Visits usually took between a half and a whole school-day, and included observations of lessons, inspection of pupils' work and textbooks, and discussions with teachers.(7)

Just as there is considerable variation in schooling attainments within Britain, so within the Continental countries visited there are variations from one region to another, and amongst schools within each region; we accordingly asked local education authorities that the schools to be visited should not be 'model' schools, but that some should be above average and others below average in their attainments or catchment areas.(8) Our discussions with employers and local education authorities enabled us to ensure that the observations reported here can be considered as reasonably representative, that is to say, our generalisations are based not simply on the actual sample of schools visited abroad, but on what is considered normal practice.

The order of discussion in the remainder of this report is as follows. The next section details the contrasts between Britain and the Continent in the teaching of the main practical subjects based on our observations and discussions in each country. The central Continental aim of instilling good working habits is then considered further in section 3. The development of British teaching in practical subjects, with the prominence given to 'design' since the 1970s, is outlined in section 4; the subsequent further contraction of practical work in the National Curriculum is described in section 5. In section 6 the latest official proposals for revising the National Curriculum in Technology, published at the end of 1992, are critically assessed in the light of the Continental approach. A final section summarises the discussion and considers propsects.

2. The teaching of practical subjects on the Continent and in Britain

Until some twenty years ago the teaching of practical subjects in Britain and on the Continent was recognisably similar: courses were offered in a variety of fields, such as woodwork, metalwork, home economics, textiles, office practice; pupils were taught practical skills in these subject-areas, and the standards aimed at in Britain were broadly comparable with those on the Continent.(9) These courses were intended more particularly for pupils leaving school soon after the end of compulsory schooling. Together with a core of general subjects, practical subjects provided less academically-inclined pupils with a valuable and motivating alternative to a purely academic school curriculum. These courses were undoubtedly capable of being improved: but the important point is that they provided an opportunity for these pupils to be instructed and excel in areas closer to their particular aptitudes and interests, and to look ahead more purposefully to a skilled career.

The position today on the Continent remains much the same; but it has changed dramatically in the UK. We now describe in some detail the way practical subjects are today taught on the Continent, and the standards reached compared with Britain.(10) In Germany and Switzerland (we describe the Netherlands later) practical subjects generally include woodwork, metalwork, sewing, home economics, and technical drawing. One or more of these subjects is compulsory for 12-16 year-old pupils at schools catering for roughly the bottom third of the academic attainment-range (Oberschulen and Realschulen in Switzerland, Hauptschulen in Germany). They are also often available, but on a more variable basis, to the middle attainment-range of pupils (at Sekundarschulen in Switzerland and Realschulen in Germany);(11) but they are not usually provided in grammar schools (Gymnasien).

Woodwork and metalwork

On visiting a practical class on the Continent, it is usually found that all pupils work on the same project. The emphasis is on making something to pre-determined specifications suitable for pupils of those ages and capabilities, and on making it well. The projects are chosen in a graded order to teach specific skills (e.g. how to use a range of tools), as well as more general skills (e.g. marking-out, accuracy of measurement). These skills are taught systematically and thoroughly: they are first demonstrated by the teacher to the class as a whole; pupils then apply and practice them by working on their projects based on specifications or drawings provided by the teacher (during this phase the teacher is available for individual consultation by pupils). The teacher checks pupils' progress at intervals to ensure that the new skills have been absorbed properly, and he corrects any malpractice he observes.

In Britain, by contrast, pupils on 'Design and Realisation' courses(12) choose their individual projects within very broad 'parameters' set by the teacher--e.g. 'make something using cams and wheels', 'design a game involving money'; or within broad 'themes'--e.g. display, zoo, conservation, weather. Each pupil then develops his own individual ideas and designs of what to make. As a result, only rarely are all pupils in a single class involved in making something to the same design. Even if a group of pupils within the class all work to broadly similar designs, they 'work at their own pace' throughout the term or the year; while there is much variation amongst classes, pupils are typically found to be at very different stages in their projects. This scenario makes it virtually impossible for all but the most gifted of teachers to teach the class as a whole: almost anything said to one pupil would be irrelevant to most other pupils, or not immediately relevant to them (which, in terms of most pupils' learning capabilities, amounts to much the same). Teachers can help pupils only on an individual basis; each pupil thus gets very little teacher contact, and pupils are largely left to their own resources. For average and below-average pupils, our comparisons indicate that they achieve much lower standards in their practical work; more generally, their motivation dwindles as a result of their inadequately structured learning-experience, much time spent in Waiting for Teacher, and the consequent poor rate of progress.(13)

In classes observed in Britain, skills and quality of finish play a subordinate role: 'identification of needs', investigations, and written 'evaluations' are given overriding importance. Skills are often taught only on (what is called) a 'need-to-know basis'; that is, only those skills are taught to a particular pupil for which the need arises in the course of that pupil's project. If a pupil has been shown a particular skill by the teacher in such a classroom setting, there is usually no time for the teacher to check that pupil's progress a little later, and possibly correct bad practice; too many other pupils--all, as said, working at different stages and on different projects--need his help. In addition, because the 'identification of needs', 'design' and the associated paperwork are given such paramount attention there is too little time for pupils to become adept at a particular skill till the outcome is of a good standard of finish--the first attempt is often also the last.

On the Continent some decorative design may be involved, that is to say, design is restricted to non-functional parts (e.g. decorating the bell-cover of a wooden doorbell, adding ornamental interest to a metal keyring). Care is taken that design work does not impede the making of the functional essentials of the object. Decoration or ornamentation may be set as homework, or scheduled to take place at school after the functionally essential parts of the artefact have been completed.(14) Unlike Britain, design in Germany and Switzerland is not accompanied by the extensive paperwork (known as a pupil's 'Design Folder') to which great importance is attached in Britain, especially at GCSE--but most of which seems exaggerated in relation to the articles British pupils actually make.(15)

Pupils on the Continent generally make fairly small objects which they can use themselves or give away as presents, e.g. kitchen bread boards, decorated metal key rings, bottle racks, wooden boxes (with a sliding top) filled with assorted biscuits made in the home economics class, wooden blanket boxes (with metal hinges, carrying handles and locks); or tools that they may use later in their working life, such as a drill box or tool tray. These contrast with the 'model' or toy objects which are almost invariably now seen in British classrooms, e.g. model boats, model conservatories, model aeroplanes. Knowing that the objects are going to be used by the pupils themselves, or by their families, provides Continental pupils with an incentive to achieve a good quality of finish. British pupils rarely have this incentive: their model artefacts are often a thing of the past as soon as they are finished.

The woodwork workshops seen in the German and Swiss schools were well equipped with hand tools. In terms of power-driven machinery, on the other hand, workshops for woodworking in Germany and Switzerland were not well resourced by British standards: e.g. they did not usually contain power-driven lathes or milling machines. Metal workshops were better equipped with machinery, since working only with hand-tools in metalwork would be too slow. Despite the lower level of machinery resourcing, the quality of finish and complexity of objects produced by 14-15 year-old pupils on the Continent were judged by English teachers accompanying the visits to be generally comparable to higher grades (A-C) in former GCSEs in woodwork and metalwork. It should be remembered that these Continental pupils were in the 'vocational stream', while British pupils who attain higher GCSE grades are 1-2 years older and usually come from the middle or upper end of the attainment-range. Both in the standards of the finished products and in pupils' way of working, great importance was attached by Continental teachers and pupils to achieving high quality; emphasis on clean working and accuracy were in evidence throughout.

Excellent applied work was sometimes on display at British schools--but this had been carried out by top-attaining pupils. The standard of typical practical work, observed by us during lesson time, invariably fell far short of the quality of work done by corresponding pupils on the Continent. Examples of such work shown to us included: crudely decorated cardboard boxes--which were about to fall apart; a rough wooden train which fell to pieces when moved; a 'completed' electric table lamp--but not wired up. Nothing like this was seen at schools on the Continent.

In Swiss schools pupils worked with a range of soft- and hard-woods, some of which would not be available to pupils at British schools because of cost; one might therefore think that the higher standard of finish observed on the Continent is essentially related to the quality of material used. To some extent this is true; however, in all schools visited in Germany soft-wood was used of the kind usually seen in British schools, yet significantly higher standards of finish were reached than in Britain. Similarly, the soft-wood projects of Swiss pupils typically had a much higher standard of finish than at British schools. The quality of pupils' work therefore does not hinge simply upon the quality of the materials used--though there are undoubtedly important advantages in allowing pupils to work with, and learn to understand the properties of, different commonly-available qualities of a raw material.

The Dutch variant

We have so far concentrated on Switzerland and Germany in describing how woodwork and metalwork are taught. The approach in the Netherlands differs in giving a clearer occupational emphasis from the age of 14.

The framework of Dutch secondary schooling needs first to be outlined. For pupils aged 12-14, in their first two years at Dutch LBO schools (catering for roughly the bottom third of the academic attainment-range), the curriculum is much as just described for Germany and Switzerland. General education subjects include sciences and a foreign language (usually English); there are four periods per week of general practical subjects--usually woodwork and metalwork, home economics, plus other practical components which vary from school to school, e.g. basic plumbing, textiles, electronics or IT. To help pupils identify their aptitudes and interests, they are introduced to a variety of basic skills and principles, such as cutting metal, making simple wooden joints using hand tools, mechanisms, cooking.

It is at ages 14-16 (in their third and fourth years at LBO schools) that Dutch pupils specialise to a greater extent than pupils in Switzerland and Germany in particular vocational fields--such as metalwork, electronics, building, motor vehicle studies, electrical engineering, office skills, catering; they spend about 60 per cent of their time on their chosen vocational fields, covering both theoretical studies and practical work in workshops (about 20 per cent on theory, and 40 per cent on practical work).

The theoretical part of the vocational courses is linked to pupils' practical work. Pupils work through questions in their textbooks after an exposition or demonstration by the teacher, followed by (sometimes accompanied by) a question-and-answer session with interaction between teacher and pupils. The emphasis in LBOs is on mutual reinforcement between acquisition of the theoretical background and the practice of skills. In contrast to Britain, Dutch pupils are not required--as part of their practical subjects--to demonstrate extensive paperwork skills and write about 'design', 'research', 'evaluation'.

Some general education subjects are taught so as to relate to their chosen vocational fields, in that examples from pupils' particular vocational contexts are used for illustration in general subjects (for example, in mathematics). The object is to make it easier for pupils to recognise a purpose in what they are learning, and to make the learning of general subjects more obviously worthwhile.

Textbooks are hardly ever used by pupils in practical classes in British schools; and only rarely do pupils have textbooks to take home for further study. This is not so in the Netherlands. For vocational subjects pupils followed prescribed schemes of work using textbooks and workshop manuals.(16) In the practical part of the course pupils worked from written instructions and drawings. Better pupils frequently helped others with their work; this was possible because the whole class worked through the same programme.

The workshops at LBO schools are equipped to standards usually superior to those of British FE colleges--that is to say, well above secondary schools in Britain. Machinery observed in these Dutch schools was of industrial standard; for example, training garages for motor vehicle studies were equipped with hydraulic ramps, tyre bays, crypton tuners, and working cars. LBO pupils thus learn in very realistic work environments.

Standards in vocational subjects in the final year at Dutch schools were higher than in Swiss and German schools; but it must be remembered that compulsory schooling in the latter countries finishes a year earlier, at 15, and that the Dutch curriculum is more focused on vocational subjects. The standard of complexity and finish of Dutch pupils' artefacts produced at the end of the fourth year (i.e. at age 16) was judged equivalent to end of first-year apprenticeship standard in England. A greater part of the burden on employers of basic vocational education and training is thus borne by Dutch secondary schools. The transition from school to work is relatively smoother for young people, because they are familiarised at school with what will be expected of them in the world of training and work.

Technical drawing

While there is a general trend to reduce the time and importance given to technical drawing, this subject continues to be given greater emphasis at secondary schools on the Continent than in Britain. Employers and teachers on the Continent agree that apart from the 'language of technical drawing' (i.e. the conventions and symbols), which will be of direct use in the working lives of some pupils, pupils also acquire other highly valuable general skills. First, their three-dimensional conceptualisation is systematically developed, that is, how solid objects are seen from different aspects, what happens when a lever is moved, etc. This is clearly important for a wide range of engineering and construction occupations; standard tests on three-dimensional conceptualisation are widely administered by engineering employers in all countries.

Secondly, from the point of view of general education and the acquisition of good working habits, technical drawing is regarded by Continental school-teachers as a subject that lends itself well to developing characteristics such as precision and clean working (the importance attached to these qualities on the Continent is discussed further in the next section). The British approach to education in practical subjects, on the other hand, accepts rough sketching as adequate.

Impressive standards in technical drawing were observed in Swiss and German secondary schools. Pupils aged 13 in Switzerland were engaged on work comparable to good GCSE standard in technical drawing by 16-year-olds in Britain. This is the more remarkable since, as previously said, the Swiss pupils observed were in schools catering for the lowest third of the academic attainment-range; pupils of comparable attainment in Britain--even when three years older--usually obtain barely satisfactory GCSE grades.

Some technical drawing projects set to 14-15 year-old German Hauptschule pupils were judged to be too complex to be set to pupils of comparable ability in Britain even at higher ages. For example, exercises set to Hauptschule pupils observed in Munich included redrawing a given two-dimensional drawing to a different scale and adding isometric projections; in the judgement of our English teachers, such an exercise would not usually be set today even to high-attaining British 16 year-old pupils.(17) Exercises in technical drawing set to such 14-15 year-old German pupils also included mathematical calculations which would be taught only to high-attaining 15-16 year-olds in Britain, for example, calculating the volume of a bottle (a cylinder plus a hemisphere).(18)

In Britain some elements of technical drawing nominally form part of CDT Design and Communication--but, typically, rough sketching has replaced the systematic teaching of techniques and conventions characteristic of technical drawing. On our visits to British schools we sometimes saw drawing boards and other equipment apparently intended to be used for technical drawing; but the actual work was almost always freehand, differing little from work in art lessons (for example, pencil drawings of a candle in a candle-holder).

Technical drawing in the traditional sense is now thus almost extinct as a secondary-school subject in Britain. One reason for this extinction (given in a Schools Council publication of as long ago as 1967) is that it was 'illogical to teach students the language of drawing before they had anything to say'.(19) That judgement stemmed from the view that all there is to technical drawing is the 'language', i.e. the particular accepted drawing conventions. This view is not shared by teachers and employers on the Continent; even in the age of computer-aided design (CAD), technical drawing--using drawing boards and drawing instruments--is valued as a component of the school curriculum for 13-16 year-olds for the reasons given above.(20) The use of CAD computer software is taught at a later stage--building on the conceptualisation skills acquired by pupils in traditional technical drawing lessons.

Craft trainees in engineering occupations in Switzerland, interviewed as part of this enquiry, were convinced that having been taught technical drawing at school was of great help to them in their subsequent vocational education and training. German engineering employers regretted recent falls in standards of technical drawing; this had made it more difficult for engineering trainees to cope with their training courses and work. For the sake of clarity it needs perhaps to be added that training for craft engineering occupations on the Continent contains a higher theoretical content than in Britain; this provides Continental trainees for such occupations with a level of 'diagnostic skills' closer to that expected of technicians in Britain.

Home economics

The differences observed between Britain and the Continent in other practical subjects are similar in principle to those just described for woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing. We focus on the contrasts in home economics and textiles, and the details need be described only briefly (the reader not interested in these subjects may move at once to section 3).

In Continental home economics classes, the approach remains skills-oriented: pupils prepare meals following recipes with the help of the teacher. They learn about properties of food and how to set a table; at the end of the lesson they serve and eat the meal they have cooked. Kitchens are well equipped with utensils and machines. Though not usually used during practical classes, pupils all have their own printed textbooks--whereas in Britain pupils hardly ever have textbooks to refer to at home.

As part of the move towards the CDT approach in Britain, lessons associated with food preparation in recent years have lost a substantial proportion of their practical content; less complex recipes are attempted, and a lower standard is reached in practical work. Some classes we observed were engaged on basic practical skills, such as baking buns, preparing a fruit salad, etc., sometimes combined with theoretical knowledge about nutritional values of the ingredients; but more often pupils were sitting at desks dealing with 'creative', investigative', and 'evaluative' paperwork. Sometimes pupils' written projects were only distantly related to cooking, or even to food; for example, drawing maps of the world showing where rice and wheat grow, writing essays on 'the environment' or 'convenience food'.

Some teachers in British schools--inspired by the 'problem-solving' approach--thought it appropriate not to give a firm lead in guiding pupils' activities. As a result, at a British school we visited pupils spent a whole term designing and making a Christmas cake. Some pupils had to bake several cakes, because pupils were left to discover for themselves that dough burns if left in the oven too long.

British teachers experienced in teaching skills-oriented home economics courses often expressed similar views to Continental teachers as to how this subject should be taught. They recognised that some pupils who were 'excellent cooks' found it difficult to cope with the intellectualised aspects of the new approach; these pupils were thus disadvantaged by the emphasis on written projects and lost interest. Some teachers had initially resisted the pressures to decrease the teaching of practical skills, but eventually were forced to accommodate themselves to the pressures towards intellectualisation exerted by HMI and LEA inspectors.

The Dutch catering variant

In Dutch LBO schools visited the emphasis at 14-16 was on commercial catering (these courses are often attended as much by boys as by girls).(21) In the theoretical part of their course pupils learn about properties of various qualities of food, the correct use of kitchen utensils, diet and health, etc. The standard reached by Dutch 16-year-old pupils was judged by English observers to be close to that reached in England on vocational catering courses when pupils are 3-4 years older (City and Guilds Part II).

Workshop facilities for catering courses in Dutch secondary schools were as realistic as for other practical subjects: kitchens were equipped as in large restaurants or hotels; classrooms were converted into model restaurants to practice restaurant skills (including 'silver service'); workshops for trainee bakers were equipped as small 'corner shop' bakeries. The facilities were used as far as possible as in a real work-environment; for example in a 'hotel kitchen' pupils worked together as they would in a large hotel: the whole class first worked together preparing a meal, sharing the same facilities as a cooking team, and then part of the class acted as restaurant waiters and served the meal to the others.


In textile classes observed at German and Swiss schools, pupils acquired practical skills in sewing, knitting and embroidery, rather than spending time theorising about the need for clothing (contrast the suggested question in the National Curriculum for English pupils: 'Explain why certain types of clothing have developed in different parts of the world').(22) In Continental sewing classes pupils used electronically-controlled sewing machines as an essential part of their studies. Pupils made fashionable pieces of clothing (e.g. blousons, evening-wear jackets, leggings); they were well motivated and worked to a good standard of finish. Classes for 15-year-olds worked from commercially-produced paper-patterns.

Textiles classes in Britain follow principles similar to those for CDT lessons. Neither the level of complexity nor the quality of textile projects undertaken by British pupils that we saw on such courses compared satisfactorily with textile classes on the Continent. Examples of practical working by 14-year-olds seen in English classes included: weaving a small piece of cloth (approx. 10 cm wide, 15 cm long), plaiting bits of string, crude fabric-printing; some 'textile' projects did not involve working with textile at all--sticking dried leaves on to a flat surface, or studying the work of an artist for his mix of colours in relation to possible textile patterns. Projects of this sort all involved a large amount of 'investigation' and written work, and illustrate the intellectualisation ('depracticalisation') of practical subjects in Britain.

In contrast to the 6-12 sewing machines usually seen in Continental classes, we hardly ever saw more than one machine in a British classroom. British pupils rarely made clothes for themselves to wear; rather, they were engaged in projects which required neither precision nor quality of finish, for example, dolls' clothes.

As in other contexts, the 'problem-solving' approach in textile classes tends to take up much of pupils' learning-time--at the expense of acquiring skills and knowledge associated with their subjects (and the ensuing indirect benefits discussed in the next section). For example, the pupil who had woven a small piece of cloth had to go through the whole process again--the teacher had thought it right to leave her to discover for herself that the whole thing would disintegrate if she did not tie up the loose ends after removing it from the frame.

3. The Continental emphasis on 'good work habits' ('Arbeitscharakter')

It will be clear from the above that Making-skills and Making-processes form the central elements of Continental teaching of practical subjects. That emphasis is motivated by certain general educational aims which may now be considered in more detail (the British approach is discussed historically in sections 4 and 5 below). In Switzerland these aims are referred to explicitly by both educationists and employers; in Germany and the Netherlands they are more often simply taken for granted, and manifested implicitly in the way practical (as well as academic) subjects are taught. They may be summarised under three heads: (1) work-habits, (2) general learning-skills and (3) motivation and preparation for career-choice.

Good work-habits

First, both teachers and employers on the Continent were clear that an emphasis on practical subjects--as taught in Continental schools--is highly important in raising the standard of what is called Arbeitscharakter--which might broadly be translated into English as 'good work-habits'.(23)

Swiss teachers explicitly aim to promote pupils' work habits in respect of:-

* reliability (Zuverlassigkeit)

* care (Sorgfalt)

* fulfilment of duty (Pflichterfullung)

* diligence (Fleiss).(24)

On our visits to Swiss engineering employers' training centres, the following analogous characteristics--which they expected secondary schooling to promote--were emphasised:-

* patience (Geduld)

* perseverance (Ausdauer, Durchhaltevermogen)

* accuracy (Genauigkeit).

These qualities were thought essential for their workforce if Swiss firms were to maintain the high quality of the specialised engineering products they manufacture and export throughout the world.

Similarly, German secondary school syllabuses list the following personality-characteristics when describing the objectives that practical courses are intended to provide:-

* perseverance (Ausdauer)

* care (Sorgfalt)

* accuracy, precision (Genauigkeit)

* responsibility (Verantwortung).(25)

The Dutch approach, as observed on our visits to LBO schools and employers, is essentially similar to that of Switzerland and Germany. An assessment of trainees' Arbeitscharakter forms an explicit criterion when Continental employers recruit school-leavers, and is regarded as no less essential than competence in mathematics.

Similar qualities used to be accorded prime recognition in British schooling in relation to vocational subjects, but have become demoted in recent decades in response to a need for more autonomous working in employment, and in reaction to what egalitarian thinkers regard as the 'existing hierarchical ordering of social relations in the workplace'.(26) Two of the qualities regarded as of prime importance on the Continent--perseverance and reliability--remain on the larger list of ten 'personal qualities and attitudes essential for later life' in the British National Curriculum for Technology; they come (as a result of alphabetical happenstance?) at the bottom of that list of ten aims, following qualities such as 'creativity', 'enterprise', 'imagination'--which were not mentioned to us as relevant by employers on the Continent.(27)

General learning-skills

A second group of benefits highly regarded on the Continent is that pupils acquire certain general learning-skills from practical subjects: they learn how to respond responsibility to instructions in applied contexts, to take account of corrections and put them into practice correctly, and to work at a pace generally considered appropriate to the task in hand. Employers on the Continent emphasised to us the importance of trainees' having learnt at school to follow guidance competently and reliably. At British secondary schools, on the other hand, pupils are more often expected to 'find out for themselves' and 'work at their own pace'; the difficulty is that employers cannot afford to use such time-consuming discovery-methods in their training schemes. By learning to acquire craft skills in specific contexts while at school, Continental pupils are equipped with general learning-skills which prepare them for specialised vocational training after leaving school; as some of the British employers we visited told us, school-leavers who go into training often find it difficult to adapt to a way of learning and to a pace of activity for which they have not been prepared.

Motivation and career choice

Thirdly, as a result of making real finished products of which they can be proud (not models as so often seen in British schools), Continental pupils have a greater sense of achievement which motivates their performance in other subjects. Pupils gain a better understanding of the kind of activities in which they succeed; as Continental employers confirmed to us, this helps pupils in taking correct decisions as to the type of career for which they are suited. Focusing pupils' minds on their career aspirations at an early age provides them with stronger goals towards which to study while at school; this helps to improve their attainments in general educational subjects as well as in vocational subjects--to the benefit of both pupils and their future employers. Demotivation of 14-16 year-old pupils--which seems to be a characteristic of British schools--was virtually unknown in the Continental schools we visited; on the contrary, an improvement in motivation at these ages was typically noticed (and remarked upon with surprise) by British teachers who accompanied us on these visits.

4. Emphasis on 'design' in practical subjects in Britain

Practical subjects in British secondary schools have changed in the past generation to include increasing proportions of intellectualised elements. The origins of that change go back much further and cannot be treated fully within the scope of this paper; but it is necessary to outline the reasons advanced for the increased swing in recent years if we are to consider in what direction the next steps are best taken in Britain.(28)

When comprehensive schools spread in Britain in the 1960s they were at first mainly of the multi-lateral kind, with separate but permeable streams for pupils of different aptitudes and interests. Thereafter (especially in the 1970s) the spirit of egalitarianism was increasingly interpreted to mean that all pupils should be provided with the same educational diet--even though pupils' aptitudes and interests vary, especially in the upper years of secondary schooling. Before comprehensivisation, practical subjects were taught at all ages in secondary modern schools, as also in the small number of technical schools;(29) practical subjects were usually dropped by pupils in the top quarter (approximately) of the academic attainment-range, those in grammar schools, after the age of 13-14. Under comprehensivisation it was increasingly thought desirable that practical subjects in some from should be taken by all pupils till the end of compulsory schooling. This raised the question whether practical subjects as traditionally taught could provide 'a sufficient intellectual challenge for the gifted pupil'.(30) The solution was to introduce substantial, and ultimately predominant, 'intellectual' elements into these subjects in the form of 'design', 'problem-solving', and 'investigations'.(31)

Pupils who have 'mechanical inquisitiveness' and a desire to 'invent' rather than to make, it was argued in 1959 by the influential Crowther Committee, would be compelled by the new approach to 'discover how things work', and to see the need for acquiring 'considerable theoretical knowledge'. Although educationists recognised that this 'is not every boy's road to knowledge, let alone every girl's', the assumption that some pupils might benefit from it was apparently considered adequate justification for adopting it as the method appropriate for teaching whole generations of pupils.(32) The Crowther Committee also argued that 'some pride in workmanship ... |was~ an important part of general education, and one that is not finished by 13 or 14'.(33)

If 'pride in workmanship' had truly been the main concern, there would however have been no reason to intellectualise practical subjects to the extent they subsequently were. In fact the process of intellectualisation ultimately achieved the precise opposite: workmanship on its own, or 'just making' (i.e. without a substantial input of 'design', 'research', and 'evaluation'), subsequently acquired low repute. Consequently, courses with a predominantly practical content (such as woodwork, metalwork, engineering workshop theory and practice), which were previously taken by large numbers of pupils till the age of 16, have become almost extinct in the past generation and have been replaced by design-oriented courses. As well as failing to cater adequately for the less academic type of pupil, the new approach generally failed to introduce adequate practical elements into the curriculum of the top academic attainers. Extensive machining installations in many school workshops were gutted, and sold to dealers of second-hand machinery who came to specialise in school disposals.(34) Other formerly practical subjects, such as textiles and home economics, also largely lost their practical nature in this period.

Support for promoting design education in secondary schools came from the side of industry. There had been long-standing concern in Britain as to the adequacy of training in design techniques in view of Britain's manufacturing industry's unsatisfactory exports and the growth of imported manufactures. In response to these concerns an official Design Council was established in 1956 to encourage better industrial design (the Council employed 220 in 1990/91, at a cost to the taxpayer of |pounds~6.5 mn). The Council's priorities subsequently came under criticism as giving undue priority to aesthetic aspects rather than to the technology and economics of mass-production processes, that is, it did not concern itself adequately with design aimed at devising the optimal (most economical) way of combining materials, modern machinery and styling to serve the demands of the market.(35)

The Design Council's views on secondary education were set out in a Working Party report in 1980, revised in 1991. Secondary school pupils should concern themselves with 'building images of things and systems in the mind's eye' and, at most, with 'constructing models'; practical Making was not considered as of more than minor importance in the various 'criteria' they proposed for secondary school courses.(36)

On the Continent, as indicated, design is not taught as a distinct curriculum component at primary or secondary schools. In industry, the emphasis for those preparing for engineering design is on acquiring a solid foundation of competence, know-how and experience, and on adopting a systematic and analytic, rather than an intuitive, approach. For example, in the German company Braun--internationally renowned for the design of its products--graduate engineers do not embark on designing before they have at least 18 months' general engineering (i.e. non-designing and non-creative) experience. This is not to say that the British trial-and-error approach does not yield the occasional important success; but whereas the German and Swiss engineering industries have acquired reputations for designing and producing reliable high-quality products, the British engineering industry has acquired an unfortunate reputation--not always justified--for designing grand ingenious devices that do not succeed when put into full-scale production.(37)

The gradual decrease in British secondary schools in the practical content of 'practical' subjects happened even though it was recognised that the teaching of practical subjects raised the motivation and academic attainments of average and below-average pupils.(38) It seems that British educationists accepted too readily that craft skills had become so much less important in the days of modern technology that they should no longer be taught at school.(39) The Continental view remains that practical skills need to be taught at school. Four reasons can be identified: (i) these skills remain of direct use in related occupations, even if not to the previous extent; (ii) they provide an essential foundation for the understanding and efficient working of modern automated machinery, (iii) they are of direct use in an ever-increasing range of DIY and household activities; (iv) they are of important indirect use in promoting motivation, general learning skills and good work habits (as explained in the previous section).

Craft, Design and Technology

The result of British educationists' thinking was the introduction in the late 1970s of a 'new' subject called 'Craft, Design and Technology' (CDT) into secondary schools for public examination at age 16; it was gradually introduced in the decade or so before the introduction of another 'new' subject--Technology as prescribed in the National Curriculum. There were three examined variants of CDT, with varying intellectual demands: Design and Communication, Design and Realisation, and Technology. Under the influence of CDT, practical work of the level previously undertaken in British secondary schools was gradually phased out.

All three variants of the GCSE syllabuses for CDT set out the same general 'aims' and 'assessment objectives'. They are in sweeping terms: to 'foster awareness, understanding, and expertise in ... areas of creative thinking', 'promote the development of curiosity', 'develop abilities to enhance the quality of the environment'. Only one out of eight 'aims', and one out of seventeen 'assessment objectives', are concerned with practical making-skills.(40)

The proportion of GCSE marks in these practical subjects awarded for paperwork--that is, for 'investigation', 'design', 'evaluation', etc.--has become so great that most pupils are well advised to concentrate their efforts on these aspects, rather than on exercising their limited making-skills. We have met many British teachers who value practical skills, and try to accommodate the teaching of such skills in their courses; they deplore the emphasis required by GCSE on 'design' for many reasons, not least because it leaves insufficient time to develop practical skills. It also limits the complexity of pupils' practical projects to those they are able to devise by themselves. Those who are not good at 'designing' (often academically below-average pupils) have thus been particularly disadvantaged by these reforms. Such pupils may be able to cope well with the practical aspects of highly complex projects, provided they are given a design to work to; and they would benefit from being provided with a solid introduction to such work at school. But under the CDT approach they are not given adequate opportunity to develop and demonstrate those practical skills.

5. Further reforms: the 1990 National Curriculum in Technology

Despite the changes in British schooling described above, some teachers still made an effort to teach practical skills--and succeeded in doing so in a limited way. We now describe how moves at the end of the 1980s towards a National Curriculum (NC) in Technology brought about further reductions in the teaching of practical skills in British schools. In drawing comparisons with the Continent, the main areas with which we need to concern ourselves are: prescribed breadth of subject matter (and, by implication, its depth), time devoted to practical Making, adequacy of guidance for pupils in 'identifying needs' for their projects, levels of difficulty of pupils' projects, and progression in their course of studies. We shall need to consider whether the difficulties that arose in the teaching of National Curriculum Technology are 'teething' problems which could be remedied by experience, or by minor alterations to the current NC Statutory Order, or by additional training and support for teachers, etc.--as subsequent official reactions suggest; or whether improvements can be achieved only through a fundamental re-thinking of underlying objectives.

Increased breadth

The NC Working Group virtually put an end to any remaining teachers' efforts to teach practical skills to a high level by requiring a substantial broadening of the subject-area: CDT, home economics, business education and design were amalgamated into a single new subject.(41) The subject was intended to absorb about a tenth of total school-time, just as other single subjects in the NC (such as English, mathematics, or a foreign language). Breadth was required in four dimensions--materials, products, targets and contexts. Thus, under the National Curriculum at each age (or 'Key Stage') pupils are:-

(a) to work with at least three out of four(42) categories of specified materials: textiles, graphic media, construction materials, food;

(b) to make three types of product: artefacts, systems, and environments;(43)

(c) to work to four Attainment Targets: 'identifying needs and opportunities', 'generating a design proposal', 'planning and making', 'evaluating';(44)

(d) to 'identify needs and opportunities' within five contexts: the home, school, recreation, community, business and industry.

Given such great breadth in the prescribed curriculum, most pupils clearly do not have sufficient time to acquire knowledge and skills in any particular material or single subject-area to the depth observed on our visits to Continental secondary schools.

'Identifying needs'

'Identifying needs and opportunities' was set as the first Attainment Target of NC Technology; it is the aspect that has led to most difficulty in the classroom. National Curriculum advocates claimed that their new approach would give pupils the opportunity to choose projects which relate to their everyday lives; pupils were to be freed from their old 'straight-jackets' of doing what their teacher told them.(45) Some examples given in the NC Programmes of Study are however quite out of scale with the vast majority of pupils' everyday lives and capabilities: pupils are to design 'buildings for earthquake zones', to justify 'the choice of site for a factory', to convert 'a wind-powered pump into a generator', to consider 'the effects of a new motorway, intensive rearing, space shuttles'.(46)

The grandiose strategic objective behind the National Curriculum's emphasis on 'creativity' and on 'identifying needs' was subsequently identified by one of its chief proponents, Professor John Eggleston: it was to 'rekindle the huge creative power that characterised the first British industrial revolution ... all children |should~ be given the opportunity' even though this endeavour 'may not be universally successful'.(47) But few are destined to be largescale innovators; based on English teachers' comments and our own observations in England and abroad, our judgement is that most pupils here are prevented by the new approach from acquiring both general and specific skills needed in their actual careers.

Under the NC, pupils spend many weeks--that might otherwise be used for systematic teaching--in trying to decide on a project within the very broad theme characteristically given to them, such as 'marina', or 'celebration'. An infinite number of options seems open: it is possible to find a justification for choosing anything under such broad themes, as a pupil on one of our visits told us. Consequently, as HMI reported, 'pupils often spent too much unproductive time trying to identify needs; the outcomes were rarely satisfactory, and pupils sometimes became despondent about their lack of progress'.(48) Pupils were observed who 'spent three weeks trying to identify a need associated with the theme of communication, but several became disillusioned and on week four brought in their own ingredients and made a pizza--a task which was quite unrelated to their earlier work'.(49) 'Pupils frequently spent too long recording a specified number of ideas on paper, irrespective of the quality and nature of the responses. Pupils often produced poor and ill-conceived drawings which were irrelevant to the task'.(50) On our own visits we observed pupils who, after weeks of intensive brain-storming and research, ended in 'designing' and making some rather unoriginal model boats and Christmas cakes, as embodiments of the two themes mentioned above, 'marina' and 'celebration'.

Time for practical work

In the original NC Order the four Attainment Targets were to be given equal weight; broadly speaking, this allowed a quarter of the total time for this subject to be spent on the combined elements of the third Target, 'planning and making'. Thus (by forgivable and uncontradicted implication) teachers drew the conclusion that about an eighth of the time available for this subject was to be devoted to Making. The weighting of the Attainment Targets was changed in July 1992 to allow 40 per cent of pupils' time to be spent on 'planning and making'; again, if that were spread equally between planning and making, then pupils were to spend only about one-fifth of their time on making.(51)

It is clear that the NC Working Group did not intend their newly created subject to be concerned with making as ordinarily understood. They explained: 'our view of realisation is not a narrow one, such as is sometimes equated with the term making ... we identify under the heading of making a range of skills including selecting, matching, estimating, manipulating and controlling'.(52) A development of this view was adopted by the Department of Education in a report on assessing pupils' attainment in this subject: they did not include a 'domain' for making in their assessment framework, but regarded the main features of the subject as 'identifying,' 'investigating', 'planning', 'generating and developing', and 'appraising'. The reason derives from their greater breadth of perspective: they 'see "making" not in a passive representational sense but in a formative modelling sense'.(53) Further insight into this approach was provided by Professor Layton: 'the resolution of conflicting value positions is at the heart of D & T activity'.(54) What were originally straight-forward practical subjects have thus been transformed in Britain into remarkable forms of intellectualised exercises.

These NC provisions have been implemented only too successfully (as HMI subsequently adjudicated): 'In many schools insufficient time was allocated to manufacturing activities. For many pupils practical work was limited to activities involving light card and paper for model-making'.(55) Our own observations were even more depressing in terms of a poor average standard of attainment--from poor design to even poorer finish.

Level of difficulty of pupils' projects

The requirement that pupils themselves 'identify needs and opportunities' for their projects raises the fundamental pedagogical question as to how the appropriate level of difficulty of pupils' projects is to be settled. The NC Working Group and the NCC simply advised teachers that 'pupils need to select tasks which are within their competence'.(56) But how are teachers to ensure appropriate levels of difficulty if pupils decide what they do? Even where teachers took the initiative (contrary to the rules) of setting tasks, 'in some schools the tasks given to pupils were quite beyond their experience and ability, and were unlikely to lead to outcomes other than models. Pupils in one school were expected to redesign a major airport, while in another they were asked to design a shopping precinct after carrying out a brief survey of local shopping patterns'.(57)

An important aspect of this issue is that of organising systematic progression in the level of difficulty of the syllabus.(58) This proved even more of a problem; HMI observed that 'technology rarely formed part of a planned, coherent, progressive pattern of experiences'.(59)

Even if teachers, rather than pupils, were to be allowed to 'identify needs' in order to specify pupils' projects, it is difficult to see how courses can be structured in a systematic way so that pupils can make progress, given the great diversity of 'activities' that each pupil is required to undertake in the limited time available (producing three types of products, using a number of different materials, working in a number of different contexts, meeting four attainment targets).

If a common element can be identified in the approach of the National Curriculum in Technology, it is perhaps simply this: pupils should be confronted with some Great Unknown, and then be required to come to terms with it.

6. Revision of the National Curriculum 1992-93

Concern about the way this 'new subject' was delivered in schools became sufficiently pressing by June 1992 for the Government to institute an official review of the statutory order. In doing so the then-new Secretary of State for Education, Mr John Patten, said--and, as will be seen, this is highly significant--that he 'attached importance to the preservation of the conceptual approach underpinning National Curriculum technology, as reflected in the attainment targets'.(60) The review was placed in the hands of four members of HMI plus 'professional officers from the National Curriculum Council'--in short, into hands close to those who had played central roles in designing the present curriculum. The HMI report was published in December 1992 together with proposals for the revision of the curriculum to come into effect, subject to consultation, in the autumn of 1994 and 1995.(61) A month later, important regulations were published by SEAC affecting technology courses for 14-16 year-olds as from September 1993.(62) The HMI and the SEAC documents need to be considered together to understand current official thinking.

The main issues from the point of view of this paper can be considered under six heads. First, the subject is to be divided into only two--instead of the previous four--Attainment Targets: (1) Designing and (2) Making; 'identifying needs' and 'evaluating' are the two previous targets that were ostensibly demoted. However, this change amounts to little more than a re-classification of the previous underlying detail: 'All the essential elements present in ATs 1-4 |the previous Attainment Targets~ were retained'.(63) The 'identification of needs' (Attainment Target 1 in the previous NC) together with 'Generating a design' (previous Attainment Target 2)--in our view, the source of much of the problem experienced in teaching this subject--are toned down to 'investigating, clarifying and specifying the design task'.(64) But the toning down is slight: at primary school the target is reduced to 'investigating and clarifying the task' (not specifying it) so as to 'improve practice and make this aspect of the work more manageable'.(65)
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Author:Bierhoff, Helvia; Prais, S.J.
Publication:National Institute Economic Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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