Examination of Witnesses (Questions 50
MONDAY 4 MARCH 2002
50. We will try to get you out of here before
the next vote, if we can, but, of course, we do not know when
that is going to be, but we will do our best. Thank you very much.
You are described to us as the Engineering Council and affiliated
professional bodies. I do not know how you are going to presentwhether
you have one spokesperson or you are all going to chip in. Because
I do notice, and it is my first question, that, unlike the scientific
bodies, you did not give us a joint submission; do you ever talk
to each other? You can all answer that, but one would do?
(Mr Shearman) Chairman, we talk to each other all
the time, in fact. I do not know whether it would be helpful if
I described, very briefly, the set-up.
51. Yes, tell us how your institutions are involved
within education; that will be most helpful?
(Mr Shearman) Perhaps if I can just say who we represent
today. There are three of us here from the Engineering Council,
myself and my colleagues Ruth Wright and Victor Lucas, and there
are three professional engineering institutions represented here,
the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Institution of Incorporated
Engineers and the Institution of Electrical Engineers. There are,
in fact, quite a lot more engineering institutions than three,
but you have three of the largest here today, in terms of membership
and in terms of establishment. And the Engineering Council's role
is to set the overall standards for qualification and registration
as a professional engineer, which are then applied by the individual
professional institutions, who are licensed by the Engineering
Council to do so. And, obviously, these are generic standards
that are set by the Engineering Council, which the individual
institutions will then contextualise, if you like, to their own
particular professional sphere of operations. As I have said,
these are professionally registered engineers, as engineering
technicians, incorporated engineers, or chartered engineers, that
we are talking about, so our interest in your discussion is as
eventual users, if you like, of the education system at 14-19.
And really this means that we all have a considerable interest
in what goes on there, and, between us, to a greater or lesser
degree, participate quite a lot in discussions about the school
curriculum, development of qualifications, schemes to support
education at this level, and so on. I do not know whether any
of my colleagues from institutions would like to add to that.
52. Let me pick you up on that. What influence
do you have on discussions on the curriculum, what successes do
you have and what failures; more failures than successes, perhaps?
(Mr Shearman) I think our influences depend more on
the quality of any argument that we can produce, rather than on
the actual guns at our disposal, so to speak, and that we are
just one user, among many, of the curriculum. But we have had,
I think, reasonable success, for example, in common with quite
a lot of other organisations collectively, in promoting the role
of design and technology within the school curriculum, and as
an eventual qualification that is extremely helpful in the professional
formation of engineers. And we have had, I think, quite a lot
of influence through chipping away quietly on issues to do with
curriculum and qualifications generally.
53. Can you give an example?
(Mr Lucas) Yes, I can, Chairman. First of all, we
have worked closely with the QCA and also the awarding bodies,
for example, in the development of GNVQs, both in science and
in engineering, to ensure that the qualification is going to meet
the professional requirement for engineering technician, in the
first place, and for progression to appropriate engineering degrees,
and perhaps incorporated and chartered engineer after that, just
as an example of the question you asked.
54. We have been discussing the maths problem,
in different forms and in different areas, but do you feel that
you are being let down, really, by mathematics teaching, in that
the people are ending up not with the skills that you need, and
also they are being turned off it, so that they end up not actually
wanting to progress with engineering because they perceive that
it will be more difficult than other subjects, for instance?
(Mr Shearman) I think perhaps, again, I will start
off, but my colleagues may well want to supplement what I say.
I think we recognise that the maths syllabus, particularly at
A level, for example, which is what a lot of people within engineering
are concerned with, people within higher education and further
education who are dealing with teaching engineering, we recognise
that the nature of the syllabus has changed, and, whereas, once
upon a time, maths A level used to be very much taught as a preparation
for people who were going to follow a specific career in engineering,
technology, science-related areas, it now has a much wider take-up,
and therefore a much broader syllabus, and areas such as statistics,
for example, might be much more covered, and possibly better covered,
than they used to be, whereas other areas of mathematics that
may be of particular interest to engineers are rather less covered.
But there is certainly fairly discouraging evidence, that many
universities have conducted amongst their first-year engineering
undergraduates, showing a steady decline in apparent mathematical
capability and issues related to engineering over a period of
a decade, or so. There is one particular study that indicates
that there is an agreed drift, if you like, in achievement, every
couple of years, so that the kind of level of achievement in diagnostic
tests that might have been achieved by a candidate with an N grade
in maths ten years ago, is the kind of achievement that is being
attained by somebody with a B grade in A level maths now. And,
clearly, evidence like that is of extreme concern to us.
(Mr Salmon) If I may continue without being asked,
apart from representing the IIE, I am also a lecturer in engineering
at a college in the north of England, and the steady decline in
mathematics is very problematic, and we have recognised this over
a number of years, that it has gradually been getting worse and
worse. There are several impacts, or implications, for that, and
one is the additional learning support that we have to provide,
that students need; students coming from school with GCSEs at
grade C can need quite a lot of additional support to get the
mathematics that they require to follow engineering programmes.
I think part of the problem is that they are unaware of the mathematical
content required in even basic engineering programmes, and I think
the schools may not be aware of that, and therefore they are not
(Mr Lucas) Could I follow on from that, Chairman.
Until March, I was the senior inspector for engineering in the
Further Education Funding Council, for the whole of England, and
this is what we were finding, that many students coming from schools
were coming with a GCSE C grade; the system at the time was that,
of course, you could take several different levels of mathematics
at GCSE, but if you took the lowest level, level three, you did
not have the grasp of formula and equations to be able to apply
them to engineering techniques that one needed if you were going
to undertake a technician course, and you certainly needed to
do preferably level one but just about on level two. And because
the schools were not aware of what the potential students in engineering
were going to require, of course, they were not getting them to
go through it, and, of course, many of the students were not capable
of doing level one, or level two, which is why the additional
learning support that my colleague has talked about was very much
necessary. And this is very widespread, and I think we made a
mention of that, particularly, in the submission of our evidence.
55. It sounds to me very unappetising to do
a degree in engineering, on the basis that you get in to do it
and then you find out there is a load of other stuff that you
have got to learn as well, that is actually forbiddingly difficult.
I was involved in assessing a civil engineering course, in a previous
life, and they were actually requiring students of hydraulics
to understand the general theory of how to solve second-order
differential equations. Now really I was not convinced that that
was actually the best use of their time, when there were computer
programmes around where you just put in the numbers and mathematically
it would generate the answer out for you. And I do wonder, to
be honest, whether engineers sometimes, in the interests, as it
were, of standards, end up having courses that actually are perceived
by students to be overcrowded and extremely difficult, and then
we wonder why people do not do engineering degrees?
(Mr Shearman) I think what I would say, probably,
to start with, is that there has been a considerable amount of
effort made by the engineering community in recent years to change
a lot of the nature of HE courses in engineering. I think you
will find that there is now a far wider range of engineering courses
in higher education, and that the approaches have differed greatly
in the way that the engineering and the associated things like
maths are taught within them. And there is certainly far more
emphasis now on project work, both of an individual nature and
group project work, which, indeed, is actually a requirement if
courses are going to be professionally accredited, and much more
emphasis on teaching and learning through active work rather than
simply having to absorb large amounts of mathematics in isolation
from anything else.
(Mr Salmon) If I could continue with that, again,
I think there is a general misunderstanding, particularly at school
level, about what engineering is about; I have already expressed
that view; it is not just about technology, it is not just about
physical skill, it is a way of thinking and it is about problem-solving.
I think the rigour of mathematics is a very good grounding in
general problem-solving skills, and I, for one, would not like
to see mathematics, although I found it extremely difficult when
I was a student, diluted any further than I think it has been,
and I still find it difficult now, as a lecturer, but I would
not like to see it diluted any further. I think the rigour of
mathematics and the problem-solving skills and the other things
that go with it are very valuable, not just for engineers but
are life skills.
56. Might I say that that story about life skills
and the importance of being able to think in a structured manner,
electronic engineers, when I did it at university, had it drummed
into us; and I do not think that you convinced many people on
the courses, quite frankly, because if there was one thing that
engineers did not like having to do it was that level of mathematics,
second-order differential equations, a replace transforms. At
the end of the day, I am not sure that you can totally convince
most people on engineering courses that what they are doing, in
terms of mathematics, is not better related to a mathematics degree
than it is to an engineering course?
(Mr Salmon) I think that is probably true, at higher
levels, and most of the mathematics I did at university I have
never found any real application for; but I think the process
of going through mathematics at 14 to 16 and 16 to 19 is vitally
57. I am just intrigued, as an engineer who
went through, to hear people decrying the need for mathematics.
I do not see how you could be an engineer without that basic level,
especially the very light level of differential maths that you
do, or that we did when we were 16 to 19; I do not see how you
could become an engineer and understand hydraulics or do all the
beam calculations in civil engineering without the mathematics.
But, leaving that aside, looking at the curriculum, the Engineering
Council, in giving evidence, argued that there should be a move
away from the facts, the acquisition of knowledge, and a move
towards the soft skills, like process, history, proof, hypothesis,
that type of thing. Could you tell us why you concluded that,
(Mr Shearman) I think, because of a number of issues.
Firstly, like the rest of the science and technology community,
we are acutely aware that the share of science subjects and technologically-related
subjects in the take-up of qualifications post-14, let alone at
higher levels, the share of those subjects in that take-up, is
declining against the whole, there are a lot more opportunities
open to young people to choose courses of study and a lot of areas
of study which have managed to present themselves quite attractively.
Our emphasis on not having a fact-based curriculum, as the scientific
organisations have already said to you, was certainly not intended
to suggest that there would be an abandonment of exploration of
scientific methods, scientific principles, and so on, but that
we would find it extremely hard to specify specific areas of scientific
knowledge that people needed, if they were to take study or work
further in engineering and technology, and that what was needed
primarily was a population of people who were actually engaged
with science and found it exciting and interesting. And there
seems, to us, to be a lot of evidence that the present science
curriculum has developed fairly slowly, although there is a lot
of developmental work going on, from a background where its prime
purpose was to equip people to become professional scientists,
or to follow a specifically scientifically-related career, and
that no longer seems, to us, to be adequate.
58. Do you think that there is a role then for
the specialist schools in sciences to reblossom; and we used to
have them, did we not, alongside the grammar schools? Do you think
there is room for every town or region to have a specialist school,
offering science and maths?
(Ms Wright) I think, with the new specialist school
take-up, I gather there is quite a big interest in the science
specialism, and quite a reasonably big interest in the maths specialism,
and how those get spread.
59. There is not a maths specialism?
(Ms Wright) Yes, there is a new one; and there is
also an engineering specialism, and all sorts of other things.
So I think the science one is proving quite interesting, because
that brings science to the fore, with maths, and so forth; there
are other subjects that go with that. So it is that different
perspective on what the specialism is, which, if you take, say,
between the technology and the engineering, both of those, they
have got a focus on design and technology as their top subject,
but then, under that, you have got science and maths and ICT.
So it is just on the tweaking and the balancing.