Switching GCSE with SE21
By Simon Herbert

Schools must now prepare students for jobs that do not exist, using technology not created, to solve problems not yet imagined. Last year, for example, the engineering, design and creative industries contributed £500 billion to the UK economy, and the UK alone will need a further 1.8 million engineering graduates in the next five years to fill the emerging skills gap.


These developments, along with a decline in interest for GCSE Design and Technology, led us to critically review our curricular offering. 


Preparing students well

The Key Stage 4 course at Dulwich College Beijing (DCB) did not provide the skills needed for cutting-edge design companies, pioneering industries, and high-growth jobs. These require more educated designers and engineers with the skills to respond adaptively to complex problems, communicate effectively, handle high volumes of information, collaborate, and produce innovative ideas. We asked the question: are students at DCB equipped with the skills needed to thrive in the future? 


As a result of this review, we took a dramatic step with our Design and Technology course, replacing GCSE with a new project-based, transdisciplinary course focusing on global competitions and real-world problem solving. This initiative was fully supported by the Chairman of Dulwich College International, Mr Fraser White, from the outset. Known as SE21, the new course stands for STEAM, Entrepreneurship and 21st Century Skills. SE21 is also the Dulwich College London postcode, which has engaged others across the Dulwich group!


Given the exam-focused, conservative nature of much of our parental body, this initiative was high-risk, but the creative change to the curriculum has been incredibly well received. 

Our SE21 programme sits within the KS4 curriculum and involves new teaching, learning and assessment initiatives as well as a purpose-built technology space, simulating real-world technological and entrepreneurial environments. The course is offered as an additional option to support IGCSE choices, whilst building the competences needed by young people in the digital era.


Students have the flexibility to choose projects from a wide range of disciplines and are then mentored by subject specialists. They are challenged to reflect on their performance to improve their cognitive flexibility, negotiation skills, collaboration, leadership, logical reasoning and empathy, leading students more smoothly into the IBDP curriculum and beyond.


A new learning environment

To support the new course, the school invested heavily to create a bespoke design centre that responded to the needs of students and teachers, and allowed for simultaneous learning and lesson sharing through the Dulwich group.


Traditional school buildings constructed throughout the 20th century are often inflexible, resulting in disconnected learning through the design of the infrastructure in which they inhabit. The new design centre has enabled us to continue to expand and develop the SE21 curriculum to different Key Stages, into the Junior School and for staff professional development. The teaching space truly reflects that of the best universities and industry leaders. It creates a more focused, functional and flexible design and engineering space.


Within the space, students have access to industry-standard equipment, tools, machinery and software to develop their ideas and to support projects. Ongoing feedback is provided through a custom-designed assessment matrix, which incorporates problem solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, originality and flexibility. The course utilises team-teaching methodologies to allow different practitioners with different specialisms to mentor pupils. It also offers the opportunity for students to engage with real clients, actual design briefs and global competitions. As an example of a recent project, our GCSE students asked Early Years children to draw teddy bears, then Junior School children created them in the SE21 design centre and the GCSE students then marketed this concept and sold the bears to raise funds for a migrant school charity.


Personalising SE21

The transdisciplinary approach and the tailored, personalised course allow students to take ownership of their own learning. The project options are varied and centred on different skills or career paths, and include F1 in Schools, Kickstarter, Botball and Google Science Fair. Problem-solving and design are at the core of the curriculum. There are options built around graphics, CADCAM, engineering, sustainably, robotics and more.


Our first SE21 cohort of students are embracing a wide range of projects and are not afraid to challenge themselves and each other. The freedom created both in the physical space and with the course provides a new outlet for those students who would otherwise lack a medium for their talents.


There has been a significant shift in the perception of design and technology at DCB. It is no longer seen as a pedestrian GCSE which fails to inspire real creativity.  Numbers have increased across the department by 50% at Key Stage 4 and IB numbers at Key Stage 5 have spiked by 150% since the restructure and rebranding of the design space.


Feedback from learners at the end of the first year reported 100% enjoyment of the course, and 100% of students agreed the course provided them with the opportunity to collaborate with peers and take ownership of their own learning. With these numbers increasing year on year, DCB has already been able to expand the project offer for our second cohort. SE21 is now seen as a central tenet of our curriculum offering; it is a hub for innovation and change through the whole college.


SE21 now forms an integral part of our whole DCB aim: ‘From local to global’. It provides a network of opportunities for students to explore real-world contexts, such as writing business plans, pitching for a real start-up loan, running their own business, and manufacturing and selling their designs. Students have worked with briefs set by local companies and businesses, and industry collaborations continue to evolve. Projects and competitions, such as Hackathon, Code Camp, Red Dot, JAWS and the KS4 Enterprise Fair, are being embedded into the SE21 curriculum. To reinforce the ‘A’ in STEAM, Senior School art classrooms have this year been moved adjacent to the SE21 space.


Within the school we have begun to build opportunities for SE21 students to work with others of all ages across the College, offering STEAM lessons and events to pupils from younger year groups, including robotics and the basics of coding. SE21 also hosts a staff professional development research team that focuses on how to embed STEM-thinking alongside educational technology throughout the school’s curriculum, and SE21 teachers support other subjects in the delivery of cross-curricular projects.


Sharing the initiative

Beyond the school, we know that SE21 can be tailored to suit the needs of different schools and contexts and we have grown our directory of real-world projects to attract schools from across the Dulwich group and more broadly. We have also collaborated with local Chinese schools and universities where there is a huge interest in STEAM, particularly the integration of the arts and creativity. This year a Hackathon took place in the SE21 zone, involving three international schools and four local schools, including the Affiliated High School of Peking University.


SE21 has become the benchmark for how STEAM is rolled out across the Dulwich Group of international schools.

Simon Herbert is the Headmaster of Dulwich College Beijing. You can connect directly with him on LinkedIn or at simon.herbert@dulwich-beijing.cn 

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