The aims of the present technology curriculum were ambitious. From being solely about making things, it was to be elevated into a system of practical problem-solving. Craft, design and technology, home economics, business studies and information technology were all drawn under the technology umbrella. Pupils are expected to work in a wide range of contexts - home, school, recreation, community, business and industry. They have to use textiles, graphic media, construction materials and food. They must investigate a need, then design, make and evaluate things, systems and environments.
But Her Majesty's Inspectorate, reporting on the first two years of compulsory technology for five- to 14-year-olds, delivered heavy criticism earlier this year. In secondary schools, inspectors said nearly half of the technology lessons were unsatisfactory. Insufficient time was given to making things; scant attention was paid to systematic teaching and the development of knowledge and skills.
Sig Prais, senior research fellow at the Institute of Economic and Social Research, has loudly lamented the loss of craft skills. He cited systems in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland where less able children are given the chance to excel in high-quality making. British educationists, he said, accepted too readily that craft skills were no longer needed in the technological age.
David Pascall, former chairman of the National Curriculum Council, decried the subject's lack of a clear knowledge base. In a talk to the Royal Society, he said: 'There is no clear development of practical and technological skills. It is too theoretical, and a lot of it is, frankly, largely unintelligible.' In response to this and other attacks, John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, issued proposals for a revised technology order last December, which underwent consultation in the first three months of this year.
The subject's lack of definition has led to different versions of technology in virtually every school. Some have abandoned heavy- duty workshops, concentrating largely on paper and card modelling and logo-technics. Others have hung on to their engineering workshops, realising that the subject is likely to turn and turn again.
Hayfield School, a mixed comprehensive for 11- to 18-year-olds near Doncaster, now teaches craft skills, home economics, textiles, information technology, industrial studies, business technology and media studies as discrete subjects. As much as 12.5 per cent of the timetable is given to it, and a large proportion of pupils go on to study engineering, business studies and design at university.
Andrew MacIntyre, Hayfield's head of technology, believes the design process can be as important as the making. One project set for a first-year group was to present a critique of the interior design of a car based on a ride to the supermarket. 'One boy realised there was nowhere to stand a drink without danger of spillage,' Mr MacIntyre said. 'Another discovered that the front seats were difficult to manoeuvre. This helps them to learn about the importance of products being fit for purpose. They found it very exciting.'
At Barlby High School, a mixed comprehensive near Selby, pupils are divided into companies for project work. In a recent project, first-year pupils looked at waste disposal, so that in art and design pupils made recycled paper and designed posters for an anti-litter campaign. In textiles they converted an old pair of jeans or curtains into something else; in home economics they studied preserving and using left-overs, paying special attention to hygiene and safety.
James Pitt, head of technology at Mount School in York, an independent Quaker school for girls, believes that worthwhile products arise from an exploration of human need and cultural values and that skills are best taught according to what pupils need to know. One project he conducted with 14- year-olds looked at deforestation in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans are dependent on wood for cooking, so pupils were asked to design something more efficient than the basic three-stone fire, using clay.
They followed this with a 'product analysis' of the three-stone fire, and produced a specification of what a decent stove should do, learning about combustion and energy efficiency along the way. They tried out the stoves in the school grounds, evaluating their performance against other kinds of stove. Finally, they designed a fuel-efficient Sri Lankan meal. 'We linked up with chemistry, geography and home economics, and met most of the technology attainment targets,' said Mr Pitt.
Other schools, however, such as Ripley St Thomas, in Lancaster, have hung on to their metalwork and woodwork workshops, and rotate pupils between those classrooms, and home economics, business studies and information technology. Teachers there regret the passing of days when pupils made cabinets and clocks. Julian Lailey, the head, said: 'We are no longer given the time to do it.'
That variety of interpretations of the curriculum is only one problem. Its ambiguity has also made it hard to construct the tests for 14-year-olds that were supposed to be taken in all schools on Monday this week. Practical tasks - making a clamp, an electronic circuit for a flashing tent peg, and a snack bar to replace a meal - proved time-consuming and difficult to staff and resource. One head of technology said she spent weeks overseeing 220 children making variations on a flapjack. Many technology teachers felt the tests were uninspiring.
Revised proposals will be clearer and concentrate on manufacturing skills. But food, textiles and business and industrial practices - although included - appear to be marginalised. Indeed, the future of food as a technological material remains in the balance.
The National Curriculum Council seems determined to reduce technology to the bare 'essentials of what every child should know'. In an interim report about to be published, it says it has not yet resolved the food issue, but that 'increased flexibility in the curriculum should allow life skills, such as cooking, to be taught alongside national curriculum subjects'. It will also propose that the content of business and industrial practices be reduced.
Information technology has a similarly uncertain future. The council 'noted' that many respondents considered design and technology and information technology as different in nature, and that the two should not be brought together 'arbitrarily'.
Teachers seem to support the council's view that the content of technology should be further reduced. Most believe the proposals still lack clarity. But a final report will have to wait until Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, completes his review of the national curriculum in the summer.
The Engineering Council, one of the lobbyists most influential in bringing about the present revision, says that technology 'as it is commonly understood' must be narrowed to the 'knowledge areas' of materials, electronics, instrumentation, fluids, structures and the skills of control, measurement, assembly, construction and project management, drawing on science and mathematics.
This view is based on a critique the Engineering Council commissioned from Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Manchester University and a member of the National Curriculum Council's technology review committee. Professor Smithers also believes that a hard core of practical knowledge and skills should be accompanied by a theoretical canon - the studying of products that have been market leaders.
Home economics teachers are infuriated by the council's narrowing approach. They think technology will not appeal to girls if it is confined to 'hard' materials. But Professor Smithers argues that the technology element of food study is about machine processes, not food itself. 'If food becomes part of technology, then an important part of the curriculum - teaching young people how to look after themselves - is lost. I believe we are reinforcing sexual stereotypes by throwing in food to interest girls. A rigorous subject in its own right will attract both sexes.'
The only certainty, therefore, is that any attempt by Sir Ron to define 'the essentials' will provoke passionate debate - fuelling all the wider arguments about the basic purpose of the national curriculum.