Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)



  420. I know what you want and how you go through the tests but what do you feel about the products that are coming out of our school system? Are you proud of them? Do you find that there is a dearth of ability or what? What are your impressions in industry? Maybe all four of you could say something about that. Do you go home and say "those bloody schools again, they do not produce good scientists"? What do you say? What is your experience? Who wants to start?
  (Mr Speechley) I will start. We do similar but we are much smaller, we have 200 people, so we do not take 80, we take two school leavers a year. We probably put about ten through in order to get those two. We do similar tests. I do not knock the school system, I have to say. I know a lot of teachers and I am involved a lot in education and I would not do that, they work very hard. They have perhaps been given some strange steers from time to time about what we might want. What I actually say is, because we are part of a worldwide organisation in particular we have access to the German students as well, I struggle to compare the sort of people we get access to from Germany who tend to have a stronger science and engineering base with—

  421. To what do you attribute that then?
  (Mr Speechley) I can only attribute it to the education system. Obviously there are all the perceptions about industry and engineering that we read about constantly as well which are different in Germany. They probably have access to a better applicant base, if you like, because the parents and the teachers are not working against it in the way that they perhaps do here to an extent.

  422. Do other members of the panel agree with that?
  (Mr Hanslip) We also have a German operation and I would support that. I think it is a cultural issue. In Germany engineering in particular is seen as a very prestigious thing to go into, in the UK it is seen as the opposite. There is a whole issue of public perception. I work for a chemical business, we kill babies and things like that. We need to get out and portray to young people what science can do on a day-to-day basis and interest them, get them excited with it. We take a lot of school trips into our factories and when we do they almost never want to go home, they have never seen anything like it and it really does have a big impact. Education and industry need to work much closer together to demonstrate how science works. I think that, and the previous two discussions about general scientific literacy, would really get young people more interested in that career. Most people just do not know what science does.

  423. Erica and Vicki, what about young women going into industry? Are there any differences that you spot there?
  (Ms Tyson) Our ability to attract young women at the Apprentice level is quite poor, we struggle to get girls applying at that age.

  424. Vicki is nodding. Do you agree with that?
  (Ms Garson) In the engineering apprentice area we have exactly the same issues.

  425. Is that the school's fault or society's fault?
  (Ms Garson) I wish I knew the answer to that. I really do not know whether it is a cultural issue or a schools' issue at all. I know there has been a lot of debate around that point. Certainly I think it is something that we should take into account when thinking of how curricula have developed, are we absolutely sure that we are making those curricula equally appealing to both genders and, indeed, all sectors.

  426. So do you go into schools and pick up these young women before society ruins their prospects?
  (Ms Garson) We certainly work in schools at all levels, primary and secondary level, and do some work in the universities. It is mainly the primary and secondary level.

  427. Tell me briefly, just to finish this section on training, what do you do with them once you get them? Do you tell them to forget everything they have ever learned? How do you build on it? How do you train them? In general, what are your principles of training?
  (Ms Garson) Can you just clarify whether, again, that is post-16, post-18 or all?

  428. Let us do post-16.
  (Ms Garson) Okay. The post-16 year olds that come in, if they are coming in on a general non-employed Modern Apprenticeship Scheme, have a very, how can I say, focused training programme that helps them develop a lot of skills and perhaps some of the wider social responsibilities that they might need to look at, so it might be anything from something like how to work in a team, how to take account of your own learning, to what are some of the basic principles of First Aid. It is a very wide ranging scheme hopefully enabling them to think about further careers but also covering the specifics of the technical area they have been brought into.

  429. Does anyone else want to add to that?
  (Ms Tyson) Ours spend about 10 months of the first year in the engineering workshops doing basic skills training but they do day release, sometimes it is block release, it depends a bit on what the local college providers are happy with. Then when they have got their NVQ Level 2 in the workshop skills they go out into their placements in line areas where they will pick up the on-the-job training and develop the skills needed for the route they are following, whether that is a machining route or a fitting route or a testing route, appropriate to what they have been recruited against.

  430. This is like Sir Alex Ferguson's youth policy. Do they stay with you or do they move on? Do they spend their lives with you? What happens to these young people that you have recruited post-16, say?
  (Ms Garson) Okay. If I can also add that we do provide the college placements as well. It depends entirely what are they are in. In a lot of the areas, for example in laboratories or in office and administration, we very much hope that they will be able to go on to be employed by us although clearly it is not something that we can always guarantee. For something like the catering area, the sort of training that we provide is very widely recognised in the local area and they are often very much in demand. In the majority of instances they will stay within the organisation and be encouraged to go on to further qualifications and further develop their careers. We have got some very nice examples of being able to track people through from that to eventually some very significant positions.

  431. So you would say that your selection procedures are pretty good, you select them well and they stay, or do you doubt sometimes your selection procedures? Do you miss some good ones or do you pick some bad ones?
  (Ms Garson) Clearly I believe we do select good people at post-16 but also part of this is about the expectations, it is about trying to give people who have taken a choice at a particular stage of their education a particular chance. What I should say is those schemes are very highly competitive, so it is very easy to—

  432. To be selective, yes. Is that the same with the other companies too?
  (Mr Hanslip) I think most large companies that have formal training schemes for young people do not have too much difficulty in attracting people. No recruitment process is perfect and you do get drop-outs. We have had quite a lot of people come in at 16, do NVQs and then go on to university to do technical courses and very often they make better engineers than going straight through the A level route. One of the things we particularly miss is the old technician level ONC type, HNC engineer. Unskilled work does not really exist these days in a lot of industry like it used to, so you do need people who have got a lot more technical ability without necessarily needing a degree to be able to operate modern equipment and do maintenance.

  433. Is there anything missing at the school level, do you think, in terms of teaching at the school level?
  (Ms Tyson) We are finding we are having to do bridging work to support some of our apprentices going on to the further education part, particularly with the maths side of things. It seems to be the ability to apply things to real situations.

Mr Dhanda

  434. Following on from that really, a common theme has been in terms of numeracy and mathematics. Would you disagree with anything that you heard earlier on today in terms of the weaknesses of people coming into industry in terms of their maths?
  (Ms Tyson) No.
  (Mr Speechley) No. I agree with what we caught earlier from the previous group. One of the tests that we do is numerical and one of the worst ones is fractions. It seems like fractions are missing. I really do think you need to understand what fractions are. I am absolutely serious by the way. We even test graduate engineers at the same level because you will find that out of 35 questions the fractions ones are missing and, frankly, those people would not be of any great use to us. We can teach fractions but I extrapolate from the missing fractions that there may well be lots of other missing pieces as well. To come as a 21, 22 year old about to graduate with a predicted 2:1 in engineering and not actually be able to answer simple questions on that, it is a fundamental. There are some gaps. That is not just occasionally either. We do find that there are some significant gaps in what we come out with.
  (Ms Tyson) We have picked up an issue on vectors and dividing forces into components at graduate level.
  (Mr Speechley) Absolutely.

  Mr Dhanda: I am quite satisfied with that. It is a common vein.

Dr Turner

  435. Do you find that school leavers come to you with any useful practical skills or do you have to virtually start from scratch? Is there anything you would like to see done at the school level to improve their practical skills?
  (Ms Tyson) We have seen them less practical than previously. Technology does not seem to teach the practical skills in the same way that the old metalwork did. Their social, communication skills are better. Their ability to talk about what they have done is better but a number seem to have less actual opportunities to apply. Some of the things that they have done as technology projects are quite weak. It does vary from establishments, so I would not say it is true for all teaching establishments, but some are quite weak on the opportunities that they have had to develop practical skills.
  (Mr Speechley) Can I just pick up on that as well. I have a 14 year old daughter who is going through so I see the angle there. I think the health and safety issue was mentioned earlier. It seems to me that they are actually kept away from things that could be considered remotely dangerous whereas we were not particularly kept away. Maybe there were a lot of accidents in schools, I do not remember them I have to say. There is this barrier now set up against anything which might involve litigation or somebody getting the blame for something, so people are frightened maybe. I agree, they are separated from the physical thing completely in some areas.

  436. Even teaching totally dissection-free biology.
  (Mr Speechley) I had not heard that one.


  437. The point is you are saying they are not being taught about health and safety, they are being sheltered from learning about problems whereas you would need them to know that there are problems and skills in working and taking into consideration health and safety rules. Is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Speechley) That is a very good summary. It is the sort of thing when I am doing DIY at home where I will take my daughter and say "put the goggles on". They wear goggles at school but they are not allowed to use the machines, I know because I have recently had a conversation. It will be different from school. I go into quite a few schools and they are stripping out machines. We do not want people who can turn lots of things, we are not talking about old metalwork skills, we are talking about the practical hands-on things that people need to know, certainly coming into our business they need to know.
  (Mr Hanslip) I think one thing that is improving year on year is the computer literacy of school leavers these days and that is a huge advantage. I think things like health and safety to an extent, I would imagine it is the same for you, we see as our responsibility to teach people right at the start and it is part of our normal curriculum for everybody coming in. I do not expect that to be taught at school. What you do expect is that people have just got the simple ability to learn. Somebody said earlier on the ability to learn and basic literacy and numeracy.
  (Ms Garson) I think ability to learn, if I may add to that, is a real key point. It is very difficult to predict what the scientific skills of the future will be but what we really do need is people who can rapidly absorb scientific information and use the concepts rapidly and that will prepare us, I believe, for whatever future scientific requirements are. If I may just go back to the point about what are some of the practical issues. This is not an ABPI view but certainly within AstraZeneca we have noted that those people joining us at post-18 who do have the associated A level in maths where they are doing a scientific job do fare better initially, so some people find it easier to adapt to some of the practical elements of their role, so that is something I think that perhaps should be taken into account when we are looking at purely scientific A levels and not maths. From the point of view of the other practical aspects, it is not something we would say we see as an issue but certainly there is something about in practical work being able to follow scientific enquiry through, so I evaluate some evidence and I ask further questions and, therefore, the ability to have project work within the syllabus and in assessment issues is something that would be helpful.

  438. Would you welcome that in an assessment of these young people at school or do you think that should be part of their training?
  (Ms Garson) Indeed, from an ABPI perspective and certainly within AstraZeneca we have been doing some work to try and help that at the same time as exciting young people with science.

  439. Do you see in your industries a shortage of scientifically astute people, literate people, coming through in the future? Do any industries worry about it at all, that you will have too few people to carry things out?
  (Ms Tyson) Yes.
  (Mr Speechley) Yes, I think that is true.



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