Why don’t students from private schools study design?

Since design and technology stopped being a compulsory GCSE subject in 2000, there has been a decline in the number of students taking D&T at GSCE and A level, now making it one of the most unpopular subjects in secondary schools. Many schools have been cutting back provisions or removing the subject from the curriculum entirely [1].

Between 2003 and 2013 there was a 50% drop in the GCSE numbers for design and technology [2] which begs the question as to why exactly have people stopped taking design?

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc), a performance measure for schools to increase the core five academic subjects – English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language was introduced in 2010 as a result of rising numbers in creative, non-academic subjects. The government argued ” that many of these qualifications do not carry real weight for entry to higher education or for getting a job” [3].

According to an MP, students attending comprehensive schools are “studying low quality subjects that will prevent them gaining a place at top universities, unlike their peers at private and grammar schools” [4]. Statistically, students in private and grammar schools are less likely to take up creative subjects.

Wellington College, a private boarding school in Berkshire is one of the many schools with low design and technology numbers. In 2016, only 26 out of 179 students took design and technology at GCSE which was on a par with the number taking Greek and less than a quarter of the number taking Latin. This then drops even further in A-Level to 4 which was less than the number taking art history or Mandarin [5]. Similar numbers can be found at other independent schools with 6 A-Level entrants at Sedbergh School (out of 103) [6], 5 at Eton College [7]and none at all at Westminster School and Cheltenham Ladies College. So why are students at independent schools not studying design?

You would expect schools which charge students up to £13,000 a term to have top of the range equipment for their design department. Many of the most well known and successful independent schools state on their websites that they have well equipped workshops with facilities such as 3D printing, CNC machining and laser cutting. These are facilities that would be the envy of many schools. The quality of the teaching is also often recognised in the schools inspection reports such as the one for Oakham School – “work in art and design is exceptional” and for Eton College – “quality of product design is exceptional”. [8] [9]

I spoke to two members of the Design & Technology department at a leading independent school to see what they thought about the decline in numbers. Being a private school, they do not follow the EBacc and therefore do not have to limit students from doing creative subjects and so I was interested to see if they had seen a significant change in the number of students taking up design and technology. “Numbers taking A-level have reduced in recent years; it has been a similar pattern with a number of other schools. GCSE has been mostly stable”. [10]

I wanted to explore the possible reasons as to why their students might not be taking up D&T. As an outsider I asked whether it was viewed as academic enough but the response was that this was just “amongst a small minority who would be unlikely to take the subject in any case”. I also questioned if studying D&T would not be as impressive on university applications as other subjects and whether potential career options related to design are not seen as interesting, useful or lucrative. They agreed with my point about design not looking impressive saying that “unfortunately there is some truth in this since a small selection of universities are dismissive of design. It depends on the institution and course being applied for – a message we try to get across to our students”. However they did not completely agree that potential career options related to design are not seen as interesting or useful, suggesting that this was “not a commonly held view”. When considering the financial rewards they felt this was not a major concern “perhaps compared to a career in Law or the City/finance, but not a deciding factor to most students”.

The websites for many, if not all, of the leading independent schools highlight the large proportion of students who go on to Oxford and Cambridge University, the Russel Group of universities or to Ivy League institutions in the US. I wanted to know the extent to which students are influenced by their parents, staff, news and university requirements on the subjects they choose to study at GCSE. “Understandably, parents influence decisions to a great extent, as do tutors, house masters etc. Raising awareness of the subject in the media and national conscious can only help to realign perceptions of the subject.”

It seemed that university was always something which the students and parents potentially thought about, influencing their decisions in which GCSE options to take. For students that are rejecting design as a GCSE option, to what extent have they even begun to think about university or career options? The response was that “career choice is not the foremost issue for pupils choosing GCSEs due to the number of GCSEs they can take. Most take design because they enjoy it!”

I wanted their opinion on how design and technology could be made more attractive to students and how more students could be influenced to choose it as a subject. They suggested “there needs to be greater recognition of what the subject has to offer at all levels of society. The relevance of DT needs to be acknowledged by politicians and universities need to recognise the personal qualities evidenced through the pursuit of a thorough design exercise”.

They also referred to an article that highlighted how the nature of education has changed in recent years. There has been greater emphasis on academic achievements whereas traditionally education has been about “passing on core notions of humanity and civilisation”, “equip students to live independently” and to “participate in the life of their community”. [11]

With such a change in emphasis, it is perhaps not surprising that the number of students taking design and technology have fallen over recent years. The experience of the independent schools shows that they have not been immune from this even though they can provide the finest teaching facilities and equipment; inspection results indicate that high quality results are achieved and the evidence that those who take design are happy to have done so.

The independent schools do not follow the EBacc so this cannot be used as a reason for the low numbers enrolled in GCSE and A-Level courses. However many of the schools have very strong traditions of their students following certain career paths. Eton students have often ended up in politics [12] and many schools have strong military links such as Wellington College that still has a field gun team [13]. Many schools are proud of the contribution that their past pupils have made in the fields of sport and performing arts. It is likely that pupils and parents are aware of this and that this has an unconscious influence on their choice of GCSE and A-Level subjects, leading them to focus on subjects that are more suited to potential career paths. Whilst it may be difficult for individual schools to influence national educational policies and university recruitment procedures, a potential route towards increasing enrolment in GCSEs and A-Levels is to highlight to parents and students as early as possible what can be achieved in the department and that studying design is a route to innovation that can benefit the country economically and improve people’s lives.

Written by Emma Kennedy-Flanagan  (LinkedIn/Email)


[1] Hardy, A. (2015). Why has the number of teenagers taking design and technology GCSE dropped?. Available: https://www.data.org.uk/blog/2015/september/30/why-has-the-number-of-teenagers-taking-design-and-technology-gcse-dropped/. Last accessed 1/11/16.

[2] Brown, M. (2015). https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/feb/17/arts-and-culture-systematically-removed-from-uk-education-system. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/jun/15/a-level-subjects-preferred-by-universities-by-private-school-and-comprehensive. Last accessed 5/11/16.

[3]Cape UK. (2016). What’s All This About The EBACC?. Available: http://www.capeuk.org/capeuk-bridge-news/whats-all-this-about-the-ebacc.html#. Last accessed 5/11/16.

[4] The Guardian. (2011). A-level choices: the sharp contrast between private schools and comprehensives – get the data. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/jun/15/a-level-subjects-preferred-by-universities-by-private-school-and-comprehensive. Last accessed 5/11/16.

[5] Wellington College. (2017). College History. Available: https://www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/about/college-history/. Last accessed 22/02/17.

[6] Sedbergh School. (2017). Available: http://www.sedberghschool.org. Last accessed 22/02/17.

[7] Eton College . (2017). A2 Statistics- Summer 2016. Available: http://www.etoncollege.com/userfiles/files/Final%20Summer%20A2%20Statistics.pdf. Last accessed 22/02/17.

[8] Independent Schools Inspection. (2016). Independent Schools Inspection- Eton College. Available: http://www.etoncollege.com/userfiles/files/Eton%20Inspection%20Report%202016.pdf. Last accessed 12/11/16.


[9] Independent Schools Inspection. (2013). Independent Schools Inspectorate- Oakham School. Available: http://www.isi.net/school/oakham-school-6753. Last accessed 12/11/16.


[10] Anonymous, Personal Communications. (2016).


[11] Hattie, J et al. (2016). Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model. Available: http://www.nature.com/articles/npjscilearn201613#abstract. Last accessed 10/11/16.

[12] Cowley, J. (2013). Eton Eternal: How one school came to dominate public Life. Available: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/2013/05/eton-eternal-how-one-school-came-dominate-public-life. Last accessed 9/11/16.


[13] Maritime Cadets. (2016). The Field Gun. Available: http://www.maritimecadets.co.uk/Field%20Gun/field_gun.html. Last accessed 22/02/17.

[14] Rod Purcell. (2014). [Image]. Dressing for the occasion: Speech Day Harrow School. Available: (http://www.beautifuldaze.org/2014/05/dressing-for-occaision-speech-day.html#!/2014/05/dressing-for-occaision-speech-day.html. Last accessed 22/02/17.

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