The most inventive period in our history was from 1700 to 1850, when the Industrial Revolution changed the economy of the world and made Britain, for a time, its richest country.
However, few of the inventions that changed the world emerged from schools or universities. To be a well-educated man in the 18th century – and it was mostly men who were formally educated – you had to master Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Tacitus. Instead, the revolution was driven by many hundreds and thousands of unschooled technicians and skilled operatives, whose genius lay in understanding, adapting and improving machines.
The patents registered from 1710 were little more than a succession of small adjustments. Weaving looms were made faster and more productive. Seed drills became larger and more reliable. Engines originally designed to draw water from wells were adapted to drive other machines. Eventually they became mobile, creating cheaper and faster ways of moving people and goods across the surface of the earth.
All this came from the people who made and used machines. It is not so different today. Games, gadgets and apps – many invented and developed by UK companies – now make up a global business. Many of those behind it taught themselves to write code, to develop ideas and to mesh design and knowhow to create world-beating products. They mastered the skill of three-dimensional imaging and added to it the skills of graphic art, motion and sound engineering.
The practical skills needed to make and invent things are barely taught in schools today. I put design and technology into the national curriculum in the 1980s because I saw it as one of the most creative and valuable of all subjects. After attempts to drop it, the subject has come through a review stronger than ever, and must be taught in every school up to the age of 14.
Sadly, although DT remains part of the national curriculum, some schools no longer teach it to GCSE or beyond. Furthermore, the teaching of DT is often about instilling facts rather than making and doing; food and textiles rather than computer-aided design. In the summer of 2013, less than 30 per cent of English 16-year-olds sat GCSEs in DT. Of these, only a tiny number learnt about electronics or systems and control.
I welcome the decision by Michael Gove to include computer science in the national curriculum from five to 16. The education secretary clearly understands the pressing need to enthuse a new generation of programmers, games designers and app writers. I came across a company recently that employs computer experts with salaries of £60,000-£100,000: it now recruits from Estonia. It is not surprising to find that every Estonian primary school teaches computer coding so that youngsters become familiar with technology. It is right that we are – at last – following in their footsteps.
The test of schools’ commitment to practical education is to ask: “How many 3D printers do you have?” Most have none, partly for budgetary reasons but also because teachers have been slow to realise the potential of 3D printing to inspire. By building up layers of plastic, 3D printers produce models from what students have designed on computers. Few teachers have the skills to teach this. This is not the case in university technical colleges – academies for pupils aged 14-18, specialising in science, engineering and technology. Some UTCs have as many as eight 3D printers. We have found their use by students releases a surge of creative energy.
Furthermore, 3D printing sparks creativity and enterprise. The Bristol UTC designs and makes products, including a digital clock, which they sell in a Saturday market. The Royal Greenwich UTC will follow this year.
The Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which promotes and supports UTCs, is working on a scheme to place a British-made 3D printer in a primary school local to each UTC, whose teaching staff will show the children and fellow teachers how to use them. This is the way to stimulate the technically savvy generation we need for a new Industrial Revolution.
The writer, a former education secretary, is chairman of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust and of the Edge Foundation
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