Engineering is suffering in schools because it is not visible enough – or at least that is a view shared by many of the UK’s engineering institutions.
What, therefore, is being done to help ‘put engineering back on the map’ in schools?
For many, the honest answer is very little.
Ofqual, the examination regulator for England and Northern Ireland, set out proposals in June to reform GCSE and A level qualifications through public consultation.
People are not going to choose engineering unless they actually know what it is
IMechE head of education Peter Finegold
Interested parties had until the end of July to respond, with results likely to be announced before the end of the year, an Ofqual spokesman says.
If the proposals go through, students will no longer be able to sit GCSEs or A Levels in engineering, as more than 40 qualifications, including manufacturing, face being discontinued.
As part of the reforms, engineering would be repackaged as part of the ‘Design & Technology: systems and control technology’ qualification.
Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey says: “We think it important exams skills that subject content is reviewed and updated as qualifications change, and we set out proposals for how we think that is best done for the remaining subjects.
“At the same time, there are subjects which we think would not meet the principles we have put forward, and which we propose should be discontinued.”
Unfortunately, discontinuing engineering qualifications in schools will do nothing but decrease engineering visibility even further, says Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) chief executive David Brown.
“We are moving to remove this qualification, which I think is a move in the wrong direction,” he says.
“Rest assured, as a country and as an economy, we will not let engineering fall off the radar.”
For Brown, engineering does not have a high enough profile within schools, and he says there is an image issue that needs addressing.
This may also account for the low participation figures that have led Ofqual to consider scrapping engineering qualifications.
According to figures published by Ofqual’s ‘Completing GCSE, AS and A Level Reform’ guide, a little over 1,800 students in the UK sat an engineering GCSE in 2012, while only 225 sat A levels.
Compare those figures to GCSE mathematics – 942,400 exams taken in 2012 – and the outlook is rather bleak.
Brown says that an effective, well-subscribed engineering qualification needs to be demanding, but must also offer an alternative to the current maths and physics-based route.
“We need to make sure that engineering is seen as respectable and demanding and as professional as any other discipline,” Brown says.
To effect this change, Brown suggests expanding the network of young professional ambassadors.
“Young engineers in the first years of their careers [should] go into schools and tell kids what engineering is really like,” Brown says.
“Companies such as Rolls Royce already do this, but I would like to see many more following suit.”
Perhaps fundamental to engineering’s plight in our schools, is the lack of rigorous careers advice for young learners, adds Brown.
He says that for too long across the UK careers advice has had little impact in effecting the choices students make when carving out both their academic and career paths.
To counter this trend, Brown suggests a change of tactics. “I think what actually matters is not careers advisors per se, but what the individual STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) teachers know,” he says.
“They should have access to good web material and [know] where to find it. Moreover, I think every secondary school should convene a panel of local and regional employers, including STEM employers.”
Brown says that the panel should be tasked with sending their young professionals into the schools as ambassadors, providing good examples of the diversity that a career in engineering offers.
He is not alone in wanting to bring about educational reform through better careers advice.
“What we need to do is to come up with a structure and improve careers and the careers experience for young people,” says Peter Finegold, head of education at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).
“That doesn’t just mean improving the careers advice from a counsellor either.”
Fineghold says the IMechE has joined forces with both the Institution of Engineering & Technology and the National Science Learning Centre to fund up to 60 teacher placements in industry so that teachers, especially STEM teachers, have greater insight into modern engineering employment.
“We are building the foundations for the future,” Finegold says.
However, the advantages that come from such upskilling of teachers may count for little if the engineering exams no longer exist.
We are moving to remove this qualification, which I think is a move in the wrong direction
IChemE chief executive David Brown
The government’s attitude to engineering certainly seems muddled, to say the least: over the past year, it has pumped millions of pounds into initiatives such as the Your Life and Tomorrow’s Engineers campaigns, which are designed to make engineering more attractive to young people.
Yet for Finegold, removing the term ‘engineering’ from the qualifications syllabus will hamper any possibility of making the subject more explicit in schools.
“People are not going to choose engineering unless they actually know what it is,” Finegold says.
“I think we need to move forward and look to a stage where we have engineering courses that are highly valued and where vocational courses have parity with academic courses in terms of value prescribed by teachers, parents and the learners themselves. Engineering [qualifications] need to capture the imagination.”
However, Brown does concede that “all qualifications need to be updated from time to time” and that “at the moment engineering is one of them”.
But rather than a wholesale scrapping of engineering qualificcations, Brown suggests that the most appropriate action to take it is to replace the existing provision with a new fit-for-purpose qualification, such as the A level currently being prepared by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE).
Though yet to be finalised, the qualification is designed to sit alongside the current A levels in maths and physics.
“The message needs to be that engineering skills and talent at all levels are absolutely fundamental to every area of life in advanced society,” Brown says.
“There are some big challenges but what we have shown in our part of the engineering field is that we can get this right. We can massively increase the numbers.”