Nick Birch, Affinity - Delivering a design education when budgets are tight

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Spanning the revolutionary to the quirky, British ingenuity has brought the world a range of innovations, from the first locomotive and telephone, to recent inventions like the Dyson, and Trunki suitcases. 

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Beyond these iconic names, pioneering new products – both physical and digital – are being developed all the time. They include life-saving medical devices and a growing number of solutions designed to tackle climate change, as well as existing products reimagined to be more sustainable, efficient or user-friendly.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that the UK is ranked fourth in the world for innovation among high-income countries, according to the Global Innovation Index, behind Switzerland, the US and Sweden. Successive governments have implemented policies and earmarked funding to support design and manufacturing innovation, rightly seeing it as a way to drive growth.

Yet this spirit of inventiveness – and the economic benefits it brings – could be under threat because of the decline in design subjects in schools.

Between 2021 and 2022, the number of pupils taking design and technology (D&T) at GCSE dropped by 5% (from 82,505 to 78,405), while art and design saw a decline of 1.8% (from 197,595 to 194,040). Since 2010, uptake of D&T at GCSE has fallen by over 70%, according to the Education Policy Institute.

There are a number of factors at play here. Budgetary constraints are making it increasingly difficult for state secondary schools to invest in the resources required to teach D&T today. Certainly when we visit schools in deprived areas, we’re always struck by how limited IT resources are in design subjects. You often see pupils working with free or out-of-date software, or having minimal access to it because schools don’t have enough licences.

Lack of teachers is another issue for schools. More than two-thirds of art and design teachers are thinking about quitting the profession, with many citing increased workloads and lack of subject-specific training. The loss of these teachers will only compound existing skills shortages and make it even more challenging to deliver a design education.

Value of design

Resource shortages are symptomatic of a bigger problem. Compared to arts and design subjects, STEM and business-related subjects might be perceived to be more valuable, so they receive more focus and investment. It’s perhaps no coincidence that while uptake of design subjects at GCSE dropped in the last academic year, the number of pupils taking business studies grew by 5.6%, while economics and statistics rose by 4.6% and 26% respectively.

A focus on STEM means pupils miss out on developing the creative skills and conceptual thinking that will help them come up with new ideas. As far back as 2014, a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report underlined a growing consensus that ‘the crucial role of arts subjects in a modern education should be recognised and that art subjects should be added to the STEM subjects, changing STEM to STEAM’.

As Pearson's ambitious call to action makes clear, a reform of the design education curriculum is needed – one towards responsible design and innovation in schools.
Responsible design and innovation (RD&I) would develop the human capabilities needed to create solutions to the most important problems facing society now and in the future.

With a new future-proofed curriculum, there’s a real opportunity to demonstrate the value of design education to school leaders, parents, pupils and employers.

Democratising design

You only have to look at the winners of Young Enterprise each year to see the calibre of ideas coming from the next generation. But we believe there is so much more potential ready to be unlocked if more pupils have the opportunity to learn design skills. There are always factors outside of a school’s control, like budgets and a shortage of teachers, but there are ways to develop design skills within these constraints.

As well as lending their voice to the discussions around future-proofing the design curriculum, it’s important to think creatively about creativity.

Si Beales, a former university lecturer and now a skills trainer, suggests reframing it as an interdisciplinary activity that cuts across every subject including STEM rather than pigeon-holing young people. Writing in our recent report, Democratising Design, he said:

“It’s a shame … that young people are boxed off very early and told that ‘you’re a scientist’ or ‘you’re a designer’ – creativity isn’t seen as being an interdisciplinary skill.”

He goes on to say that if we want young people to solve the problems we face today, they need to be encouraged to experiment and have the freedom to ‘fail, learn and persevere’.

Our creative software is developed with this ethos in mind: non-destructive editing that allows users to experiment and take risks, or revert back to the original designs if necessary. Moreover, we don’t want pupils to be restricted by a lack of computers in their school or limited licences. The technology must be accessible to as many pupils as possible, on their preferred device, at a low cost.

By democratising design tools, future product creators can be more ambitious in their prototyping and achieve a professional standard not possible previously. They can consider wider questions around the sustainability and commerciality of their products, and experiment with their designs. Moving away from physical products could also reduce the financial burden on schools to kit out D&T suites with state-of-the-art equipment.

Why it matters

It’s not only the economy that suffers if pupils don’t receive a rounded education that includes design and creative thinking.

According to our own research, nearly a quarter of secondary school teachers believe that pupils’ enjoyment of school is negatively impacted, and almost a fifth (18%) think it will harm their mental health. It could push those with a natural aptitude or love of design towards subjects and careers that don’t align with their skills and passion, and make school considerably more boring – certainly not a place where they are free to come up with ideas.

Serif’s report, Democratising Design: How to deliver a creative education when budgets are tight, explores how schools can deliver a creative education despite funding challenges. Download your free copy here.


Nick Birch is head of educational licensing at UK-based Serif, which creates Affinity – a suite of photo editing, graphic design and page layout software for Windows PC, Mac and iPad.

With a career in software spanning 23 years, Nick supports schools, colleges and universities by empowering staff and students to use Affinity to develop their design skills. He has an unwavering commitment to education, and firmly believes in the transformative power of both creativity and technology to help more people to learn skills for employability and enjoyment.

Read more article in the series and find out about our vision for the future of design education here.