Interview: Tony Ryan, D&T Association CEO

For the 2018 New Design Yearbook

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Tony Ryan, the newly appointed chief executive of the Design and Technology Association (D&TA), had not planned on becoming a teacher.

After leaving school he took an engineering apprenticeship in the motor industry. Success as a vehicle engineer saw him rise to management level in the automotive world. When the opportunity arose to complete a B.Ed. degree course he saw a great chance to develop his skills as a manager.

However, Ryan never did return to the automotive industry. He re-discovered a love of learning and decided on a career change to education. “The first time I was in a classroom it frightened the life out of me, but it was also one of the most exciting experiences of my life to that point,” he says. “I knew that I would never go back. Teaching was a thrill and has stayed that way.”

Ryan qualified as a teacher of design and technology (D&T). In only his second year of teaching he was made head of department; a flying start to an illustrious 32-year career in education that included 11 years as headteacher of two diverse secondary academies (The Leigh Technology Academy, Dartford and Chiswick School, West London). Ryan added an Education MA specialising in information technology and was instrumental in incorporating the use of IT across the departments of the schools which he led.

One might forgive Ryan if he had one eye on retirement. However, when the chief executive’s role at the D&TA became available after his predecessor Dr Julie Nugent (who had only been in the post since January 2017) moved to a fresh challenge at the West Midlands Combined Authority, Ryan realised the job offered the perfect opportunity to deploy his experience of industry and the classroom.

“The subject is very close to my heart,” he adds. “I have always supported the subject in my leadership and tried to promote it within my schools. I feel that the subject offers so much to young people, especially now, and it deserves to thrive.”

The D&TA is a membership organisation that provides advice, support and training for those involved in the teaching of design, engineering, and technology. The D&TA publishes a range of resources and organises a programme of training events to help teachers both in the classroom and in their professional development. As well as working with teachers, the Association engages with government, the examination bodies, and a network of corporate partners to advocate for the significance of D&T as a subject to ensure it remains a valued part of the school curriculum.

Addressing the status of D&T is one of the most pressing challenges facing Ryan. For a number of years now concerns have been voiced that the study of D&T is being marginalised in the country’s schools. Raw numbers, at least, would appear to bear out this thesis. Since 2004 there has been a steady but consistent decline in the number of students taking D&T GCSE. In 2017, as an example, 26,800 fewer students sat the subject against the previous year.

What is the cause of this fall in enthusiasm for what, fifteen years ago, was one of the most popular non-compulsory (D&T stopped being mandatory at GCSE in 2000) subjects? Ryan believes there is what he calls “a perfect storm” of factors that have together have contributed to D&T’s difficulties.

There is the influence of the EBacc, the performance measure that rates schools according to student performance in five core GCSE subjects in which D&T is not included. Schools’ focus on achieving good Ebacc results has squeezed a range of other subjects, often ‘non-traditional’ or ‘creative’ disciplines such as music, art, drama and D&T. Schools are reticent to encourage students to take D&T or there is simply no longer room in the timetable for the subject to be offered.

Furthermore, there is a view that D&T is an expensive subject to run. It is well documented that schools face ever-tightening budgets and side-lining a D&T department with its large workshops full of equipment, demand for materials, and health and safety requirements is an understandably tempting cost-saving option. Add to that a skills shortage that means many schools are struggling to recruit subject specialists to teach D&T and one can appreciate a clear context for D&T’s recent struggles.

This leads us to two fundamental questions. Why should we care? And what might be done to improve the situation?

It is likely that readers of this magazine will need little convincing as to the first question. As a design community we understand the value of problem solving and see D&T education through primary and secondary school as fundamental in nurturing not only the next generation of design professionals but also young adults who can think inquisitively and innovatively in all aspects of life. D&T is that rare subject that takes academic knowledge – from maths, science, geography amongst others – and applies that learning in a practical context.

Ryan agrees. “D&T allows students to utilise skills that they have picked up in other subjects and allows them to put them into practice,” he says. “I’ve seen kids use maths, which they’ve learned within a maths department but didn’t really understand until they had to use it in context to solve a problem in DT.”

“As a subject we are turning out designers, advanced problem solvers and people that can work in teams, or on their own using their own initiative,” Ryan continues. “Our subject is giving students the opportunity to practise these key employability skills. And that’s why the subject is so important.”

The challenge is to make the case for the importance of D&T to schools, the educational establishment, and more broadly the general public. For Ryan this journey starts with ensuring people have a proper understanding of the subject. Yes, the subject has its roots in the traditional classes of woodwork, metalwork, and technical drawing. And whilst those skills remain important, D&T as a subject has evolved to reflect the modern world.

Recently revised GCSE and A-level specifications are helping the task. The overhauled GCSE course, on which the first cohort embarked in 2017, seeks to replace ‘closed briefs’ such as ‘design a wooden bird table’ with ‘contexts’ such as ‘extending human capacity’ or ‘future living’ which invite students to respond to broader social and environmental issues. The courses, provided by a range of exam boards, will also encourage students to engage with digital product development technologies such as CAD, 3D printing, and robotics.

“I really like the new examinations,” comments Ryan. “I think the new GCSE specification in particular gives students an opportunity to work on bigger concepts. Rather than working on the old stereotypes of making something for the home that is within their comfort zone, we need to ask students to start problem solving with a much bigger scope. The end product might not be an artefact that they can take away – a table, jewellery box, clock, TV stand and so on – we are trying to get students to think more widely than that and perhaps model a solution that could be for a wider issue.”

To encourage this inquisitive innovation, the revised courses will place greater emphasis on an iterative design process over a polished end product. Like any design process there needs to be room for constructive failure and for students to develop skills by responding to feedback. “Failure in design is part of the process,” adds Ryan. “You try, you learn, you redesign. Apple didn’t get the iPhone right first time, it takes evolution and development for things to happen. Getting stuff wrong is one part of getting stuff right eventually.”

Ryan acknowledges that D&T teachers can sometimes feel that their work, like the subject, is not as appreciated as it ought to be. He promises that in his tenure as chief executive he will endeavour to get out to schools frequently to learn first-hand the issues affecting both management and the classroom. “You can feel a sense of isolation that what you’re doing is not particularly being valued,” he says. “I also believe that parents don’t understand the subject especially well. Even if you’ve got a D&T department that’s flying and kids are getting great results, I can recall incidences of parents deterring their child from continuing the subject, preferring them to do an Ebacc subject because it is ‘safer’.”

“When you see students in a workshop solving a problem, collaborating, really putting their heads together and trying to work out a big solution – you understand what the subject is all about. Parents don’t always see that, employers don’t always see that, and,  within schools, teachers outside of D&T don’t see that. We’ve got to share that more.”

The D&TA has expanded its corporate membership – an important step in Ryan achieving another of his goals: to increase the level of collaboration between schools and industry around D&T education. Whilst the Association already has a number of industry engagement programmes up and running, Ryan is eager to make it easier still for schools to work with external companies and organisations in an effort to show students how the skills they are leaning in D&T lessons are being applied by professionals in the real world. “We will continue to reach out and find key partners for projects that we can then offer to schools,” he says. “I appreciate from my many years as a head of department that it can be very difficult as a school teacher to make such contacts. Therefore we need to help schools find those opportunities.”

Ryan describes himself as a “lifelong learner” and explains that often his greatest pleasure derives from the practical implementation of what he has learnt (whether that was in the automotive industry of the world of education). One of the reasons he is so passionate about championing D&T is that the subject gives students the opportunity to experience that same enjoyment of the application of knowledge.

Having only recently left his last headship, Ryan understands the concerns and anxieties of teachers and school leaders. As such, he appreciates the demands on a teacher’s time and a school’s budget can be constraining but hopes that the D&TA can, in the first instance, act as a facilitator. “I think as an Association we need to help people have conversations to see the join-ups with industry and within schools to see where skills taught in one subject can feed into D&T and be utilised. We’re not going to leap into every school in the country and get to a position where every school is going to be well funded.”

Perhaps the most significant challenge is that of perception. For whatever reason there is a tendency in this country to look down on what is deemed a ‘vocational education’ – the rights and wrongs, whys and wherefores of that view are another debate entirely. For the moment it is important that D&T gets its messaging right and pitches itself as a subject that develops problem solving skills and promotes applied higher-order thinking.

“I would like people to see the subject for what it really is and what it really can do,” concludes Ryan. “Yes, this is a wish but it is up to myself, the Association and its members to make that happen.”