The RSA Pupil Design Awards is a competition for secondary school children that focuses on using design to solve real life problems. In the second year of its running, Selina Nwulu discusses the power of social design within schools and how the project connects to the RSA's ongoing commitment to encouraging high quality D&T in schools.
Over the past two school terms, the RSA has been working with students from five of our RSA academies for the second year of the RSA Pupil Design Awards. In a similar fashion to its more established relation the RSA Student Design Awards, central to the competition is the role of social design and how it can be used to improve the lives of others. The pupils, ranging from ages 12-17, had to respond to one of the three design briefs provided, which called for students to think about topics such as designing a classroom for the future, overcoming ways to resolve difficult conflicts and developing sustainable toy packaging. Students, working in groups of up to five, had to then define a problem within their chosen brief and use their design skills to try and solve it.
The RSA Pupil Design Awards comes as part of our ongoing commitment to looking at the role and purpose of design education. As the RSA and others have previously argued, Design and Technology (D&T) is a crucial tenet of a child’s education and yet in both primary and secondary schools its role is dwindling. The focus on ‘core’ subjects in primary schools and Ebacc subjects in secondary is leading to the marginalisation of D&T in many schools and, in some cases, its removal from the curriculum. As such, GCSE entries have fallen by 50% over the last 10 years.
A large part of the issue is the perception of design. If you speak to a certain generation of people, D&T means classrooms filled with sawdust and a wonky keyring to show for their design troubles. What was apparent in working within our academies was the initial disconnect between design and the everyday products we often take for granted. After various interactions and discussions with the students about the wider lens of design, the shape of a chair, the grip of a pen or the heel of a trainer all took on a deeper and more interesting meaning which triggered their imagination.
And so in a time where there is a decline in pupil provision and GCSE participation and growing challenges facing D&T teacher recruitment, we offer the RSA Pupil Design Awards as a reintroduction of what design could look like in schools. We offer it as a possibility to connect design in schools with the wider world and a chance for students to channel their boundless creativity into solving real life problems. Our experience with RSA Pupil Design Awards so far tells us that it is in considering design in this way that pupils have been able to relate to design far more readily and to see themselves in it.
The growing limitations of design within schools stem from the perceived limitations of what it offers in transforming a student’s learning. However what has been clear in our engagement in this area is that design offers a whole array of learning possibilities, combining the theory of design with real life application. The RSA Pupil Design Awards in particular is about more than design. Its beginnings stem from following a curiosity about of situation or a problem. Students then must develop their design thinking skills to delve deeper into the issue as well as their faculties in critical thinking. The competition also calls for pupils to develop and research their ideas, learn how delegate and work a team, as well as pitch and present their work to others. The challenge for pupils to work in this way is evident and for many students, new, but the benefits and growth in their learning and confidence have been threefold.
The RSA Pupil Design Awards are centrally about the power of social design, but it is ultimately about helping pupils realise that they have the power look at the world and make things better. What better education to give to a pupil?
Find out more about the RSA Pupil Design Awards