Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 73)



  60. So do you think that really the curriculum cannot achieve both, it cannot both prepare people for a professional career in science and keep people sufficiently engaged to give them an understanding and an engagement in science so they can be good citizens; do you think it cannot do both, really?
  (Ms Wright) Of course it can; yes.
  (Mr Kirby) Yes. If I may, I would go further and say it has to do both, because we live in a world where technology that 20 years ago was not even perceived of, we take for granted, and in 20 years' time people will not be able to conceive of a world without it. We have to be a nation of people who are comfortable with technology and understand that it is not magic and understand the principles on which it works, not to any great extent, but so that we are comfortable with it.

Dr Iddon

  61. When I was at school, which was a long time ago, we studied the separate sciences, and there was no such thing as CDT; that came much later. Do you think, after studying in the 14 to 19 year age bracket, pupils have a concept of engineering, or do you suffer from the fact that it is not taught as a pure subject in schools? Where do the pupils get a concept of engineering from, is it CDT, is it physics, where does it come from?
  (Mrs Giles) Dorrie Giles, from the IEE. Engineering is not taught in schools. I know we have a vocational GCSE being introduced in engineering, and perhaps we can talk about the perception that that is likely to raise in schools; but, no, engineering is not taught in schools. But there are skills which give young people confidence that they can contribute to engineering, and this was touched on, I think, in the last evidence, from the scientists, that particularly young women, if they wish to be confident that they can go into an area which is not necessarily a traditional area for them, have to have some confidence that they can engage in that activity. I think, in particular, if we are talking about the example of electronics in the curriculum, which, in the more distant past, traditionally, has been delivered through the physics curriculum, and following National Curriculum was moved into design and technology; there is an area where it is quite obviously an area of science and technology, and ultimately engineering, which is very important to the country, to the future of the country, and something which, increasingly, can be engaged in by young people in a successful way, and gives them confidence that they can both design, create, innovate, in that area, particularly using new ICT packages and processes. And that is an area which I think we have concern about; it is an opportunity for young people to develop their skills, it is a vehicle for them to gain experience of a particular branch of engineering, but it is an area that is potentially in danger, because of lack of teachers who have the experience and the skills themselves to be able to deliver it. And it was something that was in the science curriculum and has been moved into design and technology; it does not really matter where it is, I do not think, as long as there is some opportunity for young people in that vital part of the curriculum.

  62. Do you think, the current discussion, that is going on at the moment, about this 14 to 19 age group, that brings a discussion of moving towards vocational studies for all pupils, or some pupils, will help engineering?
  (Mrs Giles) I think we are concerned that the perception is that engineering is purely about a vocational area. I do not think anybody here would argue with the fact that there is a need to raise skills at all levels in engineering, for young people, but I think there is a problem of perception, if the only subject that is labelled "engineering" in schools is linked perhaps with craft-level activity. And we all know that we need talented young people, whether they are talented in a practical way or whether they are talented in an academic way, or in a mathematical way, to be able to see a route through for them into the appropriate level of engineering, further education, higher education.

Dr Murrison

  63. I think we all welcome the creation of specialist engineering schools; but one concern that many of us do have is that it might draw science and technology out of the mainstream. I was wondering what the panel thought about that?
  (Mr Lucas) If I could come back, I think that also within the 14 to 19 Green Paper is the encouragement for schools and colleges to work together, as collaboratively as possible, to share expertise, resources, good practice, facilities, so that if you do set up specialist institutions one would hope that part of the package would be that those facilities, etc., could be shared with other institutions, so that other schools could take advantage of that particular expertise.
  (Mr Shearman) If I could add to that, I do not think we would want, in any way, to see science and technology apparently becoming ghettoised into special schools; indeed, it is perfectly possible to argue that is one of the problems affecting them at the moment, that they are seen as rather removed from what the mass of people do and engage with day to day. But if specialist schools can be used to create good practice in the teaching of science and technology, by being able particularly to focus the whole curriculum on applications through science and design and technology and engineering, and so on, that could well provide useful material for the education system as a whole. But clearly that depends on considerable investment, and I am not saying this is necessarily financial investment, in a process whereby that practice can be spread and can be disseminated effectively to all schools, and that all schools can be made to feel that they are sharing in what specialist schools can do.
  (Ms Wright) I think, when we were first approached with the idea of there being engineering specialist schools, we were not keen; I think the profession fairly united was not keen, because we thought it was probably some way of going for two-tier or three-tier education; we were looking from that point of view. And it was only when the Minister said, "No, no, the idea is that all schools one day will have this, and it is actually about ethos, it is about developing effective practice in teaching and learning, and so on," that we then saw where the opportunities were. Because if we could develop, through these, some really good examples of different teaching and learning, actually to move curriculum forward, it would support the various pilots and the various other things that the QCA, and everybody, are trying to do, and it would help enormously, and then we could see where this could actually help. But we did not want to see what we suspected it was, that it was engineering being thought of as something that engineering is not.

Dr Turner

  64. The link with design and technology has already been explored, to an extent. How useful do you feel that the GCSE syllabuses are, in design and technology, in helping students towards a possible future career in engineering; do you think it might be rather more useful to roll the more technological aspects of design and technology syllabuses into the science syllabus?
  (Mr Shearman) I think our starting-point would be that design and technology, as a whole, has made a significant contribution to the potential development of future engineers; we have been greatly heartened by the fact that the Engineering Professors' Council, for example, has stated quite clearly that success in A level design and technology should be regarded as a useful foundation for entry to higher education in engineering, and that is quite a big breakthrough, to get that kind of statement from a body like the Engineering Professors' Council. We have certainly tended to believe that science and design and technology had a lot to learn from each other, and there should be an interaction between them. There have been particular styles of learning developed in design and technology, particularly active styles of learning, and involvement in projects, and so on, and all the skills that go with project management, which we would not want to see jeopardised; and the danger of creating a composite area is that you might lose the particular contributions that one or other of the subjects that go into it has to offer.

  65. I think perhaps one of the questions is, which pupils take design and technology options, because in most schools my impression is that the brighter academic students do not do that, they will do the basic science subjects if they are going to be high flyers, and are not those the people that you want to be attracting into engineering?
  (Ms Wright) It is across the board; that is why they like it, all kids. And just an example—apparently on the Cambridge course, the general engineering course at Cambridge, there are actually 12 kids there who have got design and technology A level. Now it is starting to work through. But it is across the board that we are interested in it, because it is a different way of learning and teaching.
  (Mr Shearman) It was certainly noticeable, the last time I went to the annual awards ceremony for the Engineering Education Scheme, which is very much aimed at high-flying young people who leave school with good A levels and do a year before going into university, it was certainly very noticeable that amongst the award-winners, I think, something like three-quarters of them, in fact, had A level design and technology, and these were definite high flyer cases that we are talking about. So I think it does appeal to the high flyers as well.
  (Mr Salmon) I think also we have to bear in mind that we have skills shortages at all levels, and the high levels are reasonably well addressed at the moment with higher qualification HNDs and degrees, and I think the lower skills and the progression from the lower levels, or progression opportunities, are not being particularly well addressed. And I think that the new GCSEs in engineering, manufacturing, will go a long way to address that, it will give 14 to 16 year olds some real idea about what engineering is about, and I think, sadly, they lack that when they come into colleges at 16, they do not really have much of a handle on what it is about.

  66. How relevant to you, or to the students that you want to attract, do you think the new applied science GCSE curriculum will be?
  (Mr Salmon) I thought a question like this might crop up, so I went and asked someone, but I asked them about engineering and not applied science; I do not have applied science in mind. I think it would be the same response that I got from the students, and that they would have found it extremely useful in helping them to decide on a career, providing that they had proper and sufficient career advice early enough, and a lot of them thought that at age 14 that was too late, they had already decided on their GCSEs by that stage. But also I asked some 16 year old students about the possibility of doing so-called vocational qualifications and then changing their mind, and, surprisingly, they said that, well, they are very good life skills, they would not mind doing that, they would not mind doing the science-based GCSEs as part of the course.
  (Ms Wright) About the progression, I think—from the group that were here earlier, I heard them saying as well there is this progression issue, and, as they pointed out, I think both on the science and on the engineering fields, because it does not necessarily link up with the next bit, because at part one you got a foundation stage and an intermediate stage, you had got quite different kids doing those sorts of things and shifting in different ways, and they can connect up with the next level. The difficulty, as the previous group said, is that you cannot do that, because to go on to the next step you are looking at a full A level thing there, and with the engineering one it does not actually connect up with the next stage up in engineering qualification either. With the science one, I have heard people say it is a bit too narrow as well; it is just narrow. I think that is perhaps the trouble, that they are not looking; the vocation things could be fantastic. There is what I call the hybrid version that QCA are now doing, which is, you have got your core of science for real citizenship understanding and then you have got the academic strand and the vocational strand, and if those could actually intermix—I know that is terribly difficult, in terms of assessment, and so on—that is where the real opportunity for ladders and bridges for everybody would come, and I can see the possibilities.

  Geraldine Smith: Can I just come in there. Obviously, the fall in young people studying engineering at university, the 13 per cent decrease between 1995 and 2000, can it be traced back to the curriculum and the assessment at schools, or are there other things as well? You mentioned careers advice that young people are given, and maybe the image of engineering as well, maybe young people have the wrong image, they do not realise that there are very well paid jobs, very good opportunities; it seems a bit boring maybe at times to a young person; it can have that appearance. Or is it just that the curriculum is wrong, that there is more you can do?


  67. I am sure you all want to answer, but could one of you try to do it, because we have two other subject areas, and I know there is going to be a vote shortly; so who is going to give us the hard line?
  (Mr Shearman) Can I say, I think we are all falling over ourselves to tell you about the problems that there are with the image of engineering. But I will confine myself to saying that I do not think that young people, or indeed a lot of non-young people as well, realise the range of opportunities that there are in engineering; it is often very narrowly associated with manufacturing industry, which has been seen to be in rather sharp decline at various times in the last quarter of a century, if not longer. I do not think people realise that the range of opportunities that there are, and the fact that things like the Health Service, our transport services, all our energy generation, all our construction industry, and all kinds of things, both in this country and across the world, depend on engineering services and the intervention of engineers. And I think that, if more could be done to bring that to the attention of young people, then it would have a much greater effect than tinkering with aspects of the curriculum or aspects of qualifications.

Dr Murrison

  68. I think perhaps you have really begun to answer my question, but I am particularly interested in the gender differences that exist between people who study science and technology and engineering subjects, and I was wondering how you thought that we might encourage girls to study science and technology, engineering subjects. I suspect your answer would not be tweaking the curriculum?
  (Mr Shearman) No.
  (Ms Wright) It depends how you look at the curriculum. I was quite interested in the earlier answer, that if you look at curriculum in its wider sense, it is to do with teaching styles, it is to do with learning styles, it is not just about the content, so if you look at it and you look at it as a whole-school ethos, as what happens in schools and what goes on, it can make a real difference. There was a time when all subject areas really were looking very closely at everything they taught, how they taught it, how many girls they asked questions, how many boys they asked questions, all that stuff; for about ten, 12 years now, they have not had time to do that. There was a time when things were getting really hot, if you look at curriculum in the sense of teacher-training, professional development, and all that stuff, as well.
  (Mrs Giles) I think you said right at the start what has been the influence of the engineering bodies in the curriculum, and I am harking back to electronics again, but I think there has been an influence there. Many years ago, the Microelectronics For All project, which was supporting electronics in the science curriculum, placed electronics in context, and that was very successful in drawing all kinds of young people, I think, into an interest in that area of the curriculum, and the opportunity to engage in things that mattered to them, and actually to see how the electronics could solve the sorts of problems that young people were interested in; and that is certainly the ethos which can be delivered through design and technology. And, from my personal experience, as a former teacher in a girls' school teaching technology, that was something that was very inspirational to young women, because it gave them confidence that they had got something to contribute in an area of technology which is largely hidden, seems very clever, seems very out of the context of a young person, and they are not confident normally that they have got something that they can contribute in that area. But I think the difficulty for many schools is the lack, just as we have been hearing from the science community, that often technology and science are taught in conditions that are old-fashioned, perhaps not with very good equipment, and perhaps with teachers that have not had the advantage of sufficient professional development in those newer technology areas which are going to be more inspirational to young people because they can see the future for that.

  69. Can I say, I am particularly interested in girls, because all the factors you have described apply equally to males and females, do they not?
  (Mrs Giles) Yes. I think it was touched on, again, by the scientists, that I think engineering traditionally has attracted young men who are interested in the technical aspects, and they will go through on that and continue with that, because of their perhaps rather narrow interest in the technology aspects of it. I think girls tend to be put off more easily and need to have their confidence built that they have got something to contribute; and, therefore, the first-hand experience of having solved problems, particularly in the newer technologies, actually is very beneficial in giving them confidence to go forward actually to participate in that area as a career.
  (Mr Salmon) Perhaps I could follow up on that one. The Green Paper quite clearly calls for much closer collaboration between schools, colleges of FE and industry, and for some years now there has been a scheme called WISE, which I am sure you are aware of, Women into Science and Engineering, and they do a schools event, and we have been participating in this for about four years, and this is targeted directly at 14 to 16 year old girls, who come into the colleges for three days. During that time they are introduced to women role models, including the only woman Engineer of the Year, they are taken on industrial visits to local companies, to have a look round, and they complete an engineering project, which, in our case, is the electronics one, which we conduct in an Electronics Centre of Excellence, which has spent £3 million on creating a surface mount technology unit in there; it really is state of the art. They get a better look at engineering than most of our students, they get certainly more use of the technology centre, and it is a very, very positive thing to do. One of the companies that we take them to visit is a chemical engineering company, so they get a look at a different type of engineering; and we follow that up with a mentoring scheme, which involves undergraduates from the university, students from the college, and the girls, and mentors from industry; and currently there are about 100 girls involved in it. It is a very, very successful scheme. And, when we talk about collaboration between schools and colleges, that is what I have in mind, more of that.
  (Mr Lucas) Chairman, there are several initiatives like that which has just been described, such as the Engineering Education Scheme, which builds on the curriculum, uses the curriculum to have projects working with industry. And that is one reason, I think, why we went for trying to make the science curriculum very much more related to real life and practical activities, because then one can apply scientific techniques to real problems that are being faced by industry, to give 15, 16 year olds the opportunity of practising their science. But, as has been mentioned, and we have just heard a good example, some colleges and some schools really are quite good and they do make the effort and can achieve things and do have a lot of women going into engineering; it is disproportionate, it is very variable across the country. And I think the application of the Standards Fund, which I think might have been mentioned earlier, is an important element of this, and the delegation of the Standards Fund to schools; schools can be encouraged to work together in clusters to be able to share good practice in this area, in the same way that colleges, under the FEFC, and now the LSC Standards Fund; there is indeed a dissemination of good practice for engineering and construction, as to where the sorts of examples that we have been hearing about are shared amongst those colleges who are not following this. And this is funded by the Government to the tune of getting on for £100 million altogether, the Standards Fund, in order to be able to not just raise standards overall but try to encourage, and have met with some success in getting more women interested and involved and succeeding on engineering courses.

Geraldine Smith

  70. Is there any difference in all-girls schools from mixed-sex schools; have you any evidence to suggest girls might do better from single-sex schools, as such?
  (Ms Wright) There is some evidence, going back, and a woman called Pat Mahony did some quite interesting research into difficulty; it turns out that it is better for girls, but, boys' schools, it is not so good for boys, so, consequently, you have mixed.

  Dr Iddon: I was just wondering about these closer links between FE and schools, and you have just mentioned the Learning and Skills Council; will the separation of the control of schools and FE colleges, which used to be under local authority control, cause you some difficulties, or do you think the two can work together and there will not be a gulf existing?

  Chairman: I will ask Parmjit Dhanda; you might have something in that area to ask.

Mr Dhanda

  71. Yes. Do you want to come in first?
  (Mr Shearman) Yes, and then I will probably leave it to one of my colleagues to say some more. I think the signs are now that, in the light of what has been said in the Green Paper, and so on, that, at any rate, at 14 to 19, that divorce may be being reversed, to a certain extent—or at least that appears to be the thrust of what the Government is aiming to do. But I do think, at the moment, undoubtedly, the fact that different funding streams exist is a major problem, and the fact that there are different structures, LEA, LSC, and so on, can create problems, but one is, for the time being, taking at face value the Government's statement in the Green Paper that it aims to try to minimise these.

  Mr Dhanda: I was just going to say, on that, it is interesting that you mention that there are different structures at work here, but it is important that you have actually mentioned the role that FE plays, and its role also within the Green Paper. Is there anything else that we can do, as a Committee, or that you can do, to make it less patchy, because you talked about examples of where FE has worked really well, in terms of linking in with high schools, the secondary schools; is there more that can be done, or is there anything else that we can do to help improve.


  72. Mr Lucas, are you going to tell us?
  (Mr Lucas) I was going to say that I think there is a great deal of potential, if the Learning and Skills Council are taking responsibility for all post-16 funding in both schools and colleges, and with the remit that has been placed on the Learning and Skills Council to be more proactive in what their funding institutions are going to do; rather than just funding what the institutions want, they can assess whether or not that is going to meet local needs, be it industry's needs or, indeed, the students' needs as a whole. And I hope that, by being proactive, it will drive the institutions together, it will identify where there are shortages, and be able to boost the effort there, be able to put the Standards Fund money where it is needed to raise standards, but also, in those institutions which have got good practice, to be able to encourage them to share it with others. And, as I said, the FE sector has got a very good project in place, which has been very effective in disseminating good practice between its institutions, and now working with schools; and I think any endorsement of that sort of activity, which was actually noted in the Standards Fund for the LSC, the one area of activity which was identified as a model of good practice was the engineering dissemination of good practice programme, and that was linking with regard to management of the curriculum and the contents of the curriculum within the colleges, and hence going back again to what science and mathematics can offer to those who are going to be embarking on an engineering career.

  73. We have done it perfectly, as you would with people with a scientific training. Can I thank you very much indeed for your enthusiasm and the way you have answered a lot of questions covering a wide area; that will be very, very helpful in our inquiry, and has focused us very much today. Thank you very much for your time and your discipline in keeping it going. Thank you very much indeed.
  (Mr Kirby) Thank you for the opportunity, Chairman.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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