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Is the UK economy being damaged by our design education policy?

Is the UK economy being damaged by our design education policy?

1 May 2019

In the UK, the design economy is booming. It generated £85.2bn in gross value added to the UK in 2016. However, continuing success looks shaky. A shortage of talent afflicts the industry, and its roots are in education policy. Faced with an ongoing battle convincing policymakers to prioritise design skills, some companies are taking matters into their own hands.

Multinational engineering company JCB has its roots in innovation and design. Nearly seventy-five years after its birth during the first stirrings of the post-war economic boom, it supplies machines across the world and employs over 15,000 people. The company needs a substantial number of those people to have a good grasp of design skills like problem-solving and critical thinking.

In 2010 JCB became the lead sponsor of new Academy in Staffordshire. The JCB Academy provides an education focused on engineering and business, and uses teaching methods that combine theory and practise. JCB work together with the school to shape a unique curriculum. Their commitment to the academy comes in response to an increasing struggle to find students with the right skills in the UK.

“Engineering design requires science and math skills, but the glue that holds them together has to be creativity.”

Ben Watson, Head of Industrial Design, JCB

“It’s fair to say that finding great Industrial Designers takes effort,” says Ben Watson, Head of Industrial Design at JCB. Ben directs a small, central team supporting industrial design activities across the whole business. “We are actively looking for people most of the time because we want fresh talent and ideas flowing into the business. We work with universities and colleges to develop students. But even though we have some of the best design education in the world in this country, those students are getting harder to find.”

Many of the UK students that JCB sees have a great understanding of the theory and process. But they are missing core practical skills, such as drawing, sketching and translating form into 3D. Ben Watson who is Head of Industrial Design at JCB, believes that the lack of good, formal design education at a young age causes this. “Engineering design requires science and math skills, but the glue that holds them together is creativity,” he says. “Creative practice contextualises the knowledge from those other disciplines, students learn by doing. Without that, you don’t have a designer. We must make sure that schools have the opportunity and resources to teach these skills so that by the time young people reach the workforce it is natural to them.”

The introduction of the English Baccalaureate qualification (Ebacc) to schools came at the cost of art and design subjects. The qualification aims to ensure students study GCSE subjects which keep their options open for future study and careers. But the Ebacc’s core subjects do not include art or design. Schools, who are measured on their students’ performance in the qualification, are dropping the teaching of non-core subjects in droves.

Design Council’s Designing a future economy research found that the pipeline of future designers had nosedived since 2000. The research found that the number of students holding design and technology at GCSE-level was down 60%. Even more tellingly 50% of schools had closed their Art or Design and Technology departments altogether since the subjects ceased to be core to the curriculum.

The JCB Academy is one attempt to counter this trend, and there are many others. A cursory glance over the programme for a trade show like BETT demonstrates the significant number of Edtech providers focussing on creativity. There is no shortage of companies providing creative teaching solutions and tools for educators, from specialists like Kiwico to big players in the toy market like Lego and Meccano. Design Council also provides a template for the design thinking process that educators can use, in the form of its “double-diamond.”

But the academy is only one school. And no matter how many tools they have at their disposal, schools can only take advantage of them if the curriculum, and the methods used to judge schools, acknowledge the importance of design and the arts.

“It’s not about teaching design in a silo. Students should be learning how to apply it in other subjects.”

Stuart Harper, Engineering Excellence Manager, JCB

“Policymakers have to stop penalising schools that focus on design and technology or the arts,” says Stuart. “Design should be integrated into the mainstream curriculum and given equal weighting in the EBacc qualification as other core subjects. Students should be able to study arts and sciences at higher levels. At the moment they must choose between the two.”

Stuart goes further. “It’s not about teaching design in a silo,” he says. “Students should be learning how to apply it in other subjects, like Maths and Sciences. That is what we are doing at the JCB Academy. It allows students to test the theoretical knowledge they get from those subjects, by solving problems and being creative in the real world.”

At Design Council we believe that threading design through the curriculum, as JCB have at the Academy, is vital. “Of the top ten skills you’ll need in 2020 identified by the World Economic Forum, five are design competencies,” says Dr Ambreen Shah, Director of Policy and Research at Design Council. “Complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, and cognitive flexibility are hard to automate skills that will equip our children to tackle the big challenges of tomorrow. A curriculum that omits design and the arts does not help our teachers teach the scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and communicators of the future. And in the long run that will hinder our economy, our ability to solve global challenges, and our ability to design our own future.”

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