Fighting the case for art, design and technology

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Engaged: Ceramicist James Rigler with students from Alperton School as part of the V&A’s DesignLab project (Image: Victoria and Albert Museum)

During the summer, the V&A Museum hosted an art, design and technology symposium for teachers. Emma Lee-Potter went along to find out more about the museum’s education work

Did you know that you can take photographs without using a camera? Where can you find a dress that is more than two metres wide? What could a bicycle inspire you to design?

These are some of the intriguing challenges that the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) sets for pupils taking part in its schools programmes.

From its foundation in the mid-19th century the museum has played an important role in encouraging young people to learn about art, creativity, design and performance.

Sir Henry Cole, the V&A’s first director, believed that the museum should be “a schoolroom for everyone” and today it runs a plethora of activities for schools, including practical workshops, tours, gallery days and CPD events for art, design and technology, drama and performing arts teachers.

More than 100,000 children took part in the V&A’s education programmes in 2016. Some learned about art techniques and materials while others tried their hand at experimental drawing, had a go at graphics, ceramics and digital animation or discovered how the energy of London’s 1970s punk scene inspired Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren to create their iconic designs.

Former shadow education secretary Dr Tristram Hunt, who became director of the V&A in February this year, is passionate about the museum’s wide-reaching schools programme – and is keen to see more pupils studying creative subjects at GCSE.

As part of its work with schools, the V&A hosted a design and technology symposium for secondary school art and design teachers during the summer break.

Speaking at the symposium, Dr Hunt told the audience: “At a moment when Britain is forging a new place in the world, we need brilliant art, design and technology education to help young people develop skills for the future economy. However, the current curriculum focus on attainment in EBacc subjects, funding cuts and reduction of teacher training are damaging the already precarious skills crisis facing our country.

“Since 2010, there has been an average 27 per cent drop in creative subjects at GCSE, but this has been unevenly distributed, with only a four per cent drop in art and design, but a 42 per cent drop in design and technology and a 36 per cent drop in performing arts subjects.”

Dr Hunt pointed out that there is an economic argument for young people studying creative subjects: “The creative industries are now worth £84.1 billion to the UK economy,” he said. “Recent government figures show that the sector is growing at almost twice the rate of the wider UK economy.”

He said that the V&A had a responsibility to support schools and teachers in delivering design and technology teaching “in the most exciting manner possible”.

Dr Hunt continued: “We believe that exposure to a wide range of school subjects is essential for equipping the next generation with the necessary skills and knowledge to study at higher education level and to be prepared for the world of work. A creative education gives young people the opportunity to explore ways of making meaning, forming opinions and expressing ideas.”

Teachers from schools across the country attended the symposium, which included a series of workshops with artists in residence and an introduction to 20th and 21st century design at the V&A given by museum curators.

Corinna Gardner, acting keeper of the design, architecture and digital department at the V&A, said that studying design and technology at school had inspired her to turn it into her career. “I am only here because of my inspirational DT teacher,” she added.

The teachers then took part in a lively discussion about the future of creative education in schools and the new design and technology GCSE, which is being taught in schools from this month.

The new AQA specification, for example, says that the new GCSE will place “greater emphasis on understanding and applying iterative design processes”, with students encouraged to use their creativity and imagination to design and make prototypes that solve “real and relevant” problems.

Teachers were broadly supportive although one expressed concern that students were “risk-averse” and another suggested the setting up of a database of designers who could work with local schools.

The V&A is also using its Art Fund Museum of the Year 2016 prize money to fund DesignLab Nation, a national schools programme to revive art and design education in schools.

DesignLab Nation is being launched this month and will target 11 to 16-year-olds in predominantly industrial areas. Secondary schools will partner with local museums and regional creative industries to inspire the next generation of young designers, train teachers and highlight the essential role that art, design and technology play in young people’s education. The programme will support the new design and technology GCSE.

The first areas to be involved in the programme are Coventry and Blackburn, with Sheffield and two additional locations following suit during the next academic year.

Each DesignLab Nation partnership will be delivered by specialists from local design practices, who will work closely with a local museum. The V&A will lend its collections to museums, help to recruit schools and designers and provide training and professional development for teachers.

Other V&A initiatives include Graphic Gathering, an annual design competition for secondary schools that gives GCSE and A level students a taste of working in the creative industries by responding to a live brief from a high-profile client.

Previous participants include Radio 1 and Art on the Underground and this year’s brief is to design an icon conveying the message “Refugees welcome” for Amnesty International UK.

Meanwhile Creative Quarter offers 13 to 19-year-olds the chance to get advice from leading artists, designers, performers and theatre practitioners about career opportunities. This year’s event will be held on November 17.

The V&A has also produced a range of teaching resources, from fashion for key stage 3 and 4 pupils to 20th century design for students in key stages 3, 4 and 5.

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.

Further information

To find out more about the V&A’s schools programme and resources, email or visit


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