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Baroness Andrews: My Lords—

Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, I am about to conclude. My noble friend should not get excited. If she will subside, I shall finish directly. All she has achieved is to prolong my remarks further. As I say, the measure can be amended either by the Government or by the Government assisting a parliamentarian to produce a Private Member's Bill.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I have the feeling that I should provide duelling implements for the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon.

The main point that has emerged in the debate is that a cultural problem exists with regard to engineering. It is no longer considered a sexy subject. My education was solidly arts based. When choosing subjects in which to specialise the brilliant and confident students made their choices confidently. The rest tried to pick subjects that they considered safe and secure. Engineering does not have an attractive image and is not considered a vitally important subject.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, started with a historical fact. Civil engineers have certainly saved far more lives than the medical profession. Prevention is better than cure. When we gave ourselves clean water and clean air we stopped many of the great Victorian killers and the killers of the industrialised world. That is an unequivocal fact; one of the few that history provides.

So why do engineers have such a bad image? The short answer is that I do not know. It might be to do with the fact that we seem to worship the nice, safe professions such as law and medicine. There is definitely a cultural gap that we are not addressing.

The practical problems of recruiting maths and physics graduates to teach, especially at GCSE level, have been pointed out. As my noble friend, Lord Methuen, said, we should look at the people who have worked in this subject, who are in the present types of industrial practice—on which there has been much comment—and who may find themselves not regularly employed and getting by as consultants when they hit their mid-forties to early fifties. We should ask those people whether they would like to teach again.

There was a precedent after the Second World War, when we encouraged many people rapidly back into teaching by providing access courses. Some attention has been paid to this matter over the past few years, but we should drive hard into that area to get people back into the subject.

If we are worried about engineers, I would suggest that someone who enthuses about the practical benefit of a subject, which seemed to me as someone who did not like it a series of incomprehensible squiggles on the blackboard, might be a way of making the subject

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more real. Recruiting maths teachers who have been engineers first and who will say that you can do something worthwhile and practical with the subject might be a way of crossing the cultural divide. We must draw attention to that strategy.

It has been said on several occasions that the problem does not exist only at the higher levels of engineering. We must also consider plumbing engineers. Such professions suffer from the fact that the skills involved are not seen as status qualifications. I suggest that we look at our universities and the nature of degrees and try to bring the HND level qualifications more into the university structure. Possibly we should re-market and repackage them. Their "sandwich" nature often gives people a better chance of subsidising their income through university. In the current environment that is a bonus. We should put them into the degree structure as a stopping-off point; a point at which you can leave if you decide you are of a more practical bent. The qualifications could then be topped-up to degree or post-degree level; that is a more practical way forward.

Undergraduate life is changing: there is less funding and the old A-level system seems to be grinding to a halt, as is the idea of banging students through an intensive three-year course. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howie. I thought that I would be the first person to mention the higher system. I came across it at university in Aberdeen. It struck me that under it people had a much wider choice. The degree is longer, but it was good that we did not have the great god of A-levels to prime students for three years rapidly through their degrees.

If the A-level system is coming to the end of its natural life—as I suggest it may be—then the noble Lord, Lord Howie, is right: it would be easy to go towards a baccalaureate-type system. If we cannot go towards a baccalaureate-type system it would certainly be a staging post towards it. If it shows us the way towards that ultimate goal, I hope that we will consider it carefully.

I have come to the conclusion, especially during the debate, that we have a cultural problem. The industry can deal with it to an extent, as has been said, but the Government will have to try to market these courses aggressively. Ultimately we need them; if you are dealing with the physical world in a practical way, surely you will have better employment prospects than by studying laws that may change or business practices that may become out of date almost as soon as the textbook is printed. Therefore, I suggest that when dealing with the physical world one's future might be on a slightly safer foundation if one did not consider these subjects according to the latest fashion, but rather in terms of business management or indeed the arts-based approach.

8.14 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, this has been another short but equally important debate this afternoon. I am pleased to be taking part in it. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, most warmly for giving us the opportunity to discuss this issue.

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I make a confession: while growing up I have said to a number of people that if ever I am reincarnated I want to come back as an engineer. I have always thought—yes, I missed my opportunity—that the excitement of thinking about something, designing, making and using it attracts me very much. If someone such as my noble friend Lady Platt had been around when I was a little girl, it is just possible that I might have actually become one.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, reminded us of how important the engineer is to our well-being as a nation and indeed to the world. We have the problems of success because we live longer, are healthier and have every kind of aid to help us through life. We now look to the engineer to resolve the other problem—the problem of population growth. It will be the engineer who will find some of the answers to those questions.

There is a concern among engineers—mentioned by a number of noble Lords—about the casual use of the word "engineer". We have the man who mends the washing machine, fixes the lift or mends the electric kettle being called an engineer alongside the great professional engineers. That is a real issue. Some progress has been made on that. Some form of registration scheme through the professional bodies is another way forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and others have mentioned the difficulty of the subjects that are key to engineering—maths and physical sciences. The truth is that, in commonly used jargon, they are known as the "hard" subjects. Not everyone makes the hard choices. The noble Lord said that they are not easy to teach. For students and pupils they are not easy to learn. So there is an issue here. That is why my noble friend Lady Platt is absolutely right: there needs to be a great deal of encouragement at every level of education in order to persuade children to think about the subject.

One problem is the quality of the teachers. That is not to denigrate teachers, but the truth is that we have many teachers teaching science, and in particular teaching maths, who do not have a science or a maths qualification. Others do not have a very good maths or science qualification; and we have an unprecedentedly large number of teachers teaching subjects for which they were not trained. That is bound to have an effect on the quality of the teaching—and of the learning.

Much has been said about boys versus girls. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Platt. She has done more than anyone I know to promote engineering as a profession—but to promote it for women. Her work with WISE is legendary. I also want to join with her in her campaign to have WISE's grant reinstated. It has been incredibly valuable as a service that persuades young girls into engineering. My noble friend has an aeronautical engineering degree. She achieved that when not all that many women went to university, let alone managed a degree in aeronautical engineering. So many congratulations to my noble friend.

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The noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, mentioned Monty Finiston. I happen also to be a fan of his. It was Monty Finiston who introduced an educational movement called Education for Capability. His idea was that every schoolchild, from whatever level of ability and at whatever age, should have the experience of thinking about a problem, trying to decide what to do about it and making something—by making and doing—using and evaluating it, thereby going through all the processes that one would go through in engineering. I think that we have rather forgotten that very practical applied approach to learning. Certainly he is much remembered for it.

Concern has been raised about standards. That is a problem. We have heard and seen the statistics produced today that at key stage 2 standards in science have fallen. In 95 local education authorities they have fallen. They rose in only 25 local education authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, mentioned the disappointing news that the uptake of modern apprenticeships, particularly in engineering, has fallen by 20 per cent. The take-up of modern apprenticeships has fallen in every single part of the country except in the North East, where there was a small rise.

I should like to add a word about careers advice. I believe that we make a terrible mistake with careers advice. People go into schools when the pupils are 14, 15 or 16 and talk to them about careers and what they should be doing. Effective careers advice should start in infant schools. Engineers and people in the professions should go into schools and talk to very young children. It is at that stage that children would be enthused. They will then understand the importance of particular subjects and the importance of working hard.

That should be reinforced as the child goes through school. Careers advice should start very early and be reinforced before the child leaves junior school and arrives in secondary school. It should not be left until the child is 14 or 15 to tell him that it would be exciting to be an engineer if, frankly, he was awful at maths and had not tried very hard. I believe that much more could be done; namely, starting earlier with careers advice.

More people from industry should visit schools and schools should take pupils out into industry. That should be encouraged more. I agree with my noble friend Lord Freeman on his point about parents. There should be an interaction with parents. Why should not professionals also come to parents' evenings to talk about the kind of careers open to their children if only they studied particular subjects?

The noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, said that nothing has changed since the time he introduced this very debate on this side of the House making the very same point. What has changed, which is welcome and is being built on by the Government, is that science is taught now at a very early age. It is part of the national curriculum for infant and junior schools, and that has helped. Maths, science and technology are now part of the national curriculum for all children.

I make one plea to the Government: there is an enormous amount of top-slicing of budget, which I am afraid supports many centrally controlled fanciful

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projects, and the core funding into schools is being depleted all the time. We need more of the core funding put back into schools so that they can do something about improving the services given to our children. The key is obvious: better qualified maths and science teachers.

Another point I feel particularly strongly about is that there should be more teaching of subjects in primary schools by subject specialist teachers. It is too much to expect one teacher to teach one class for a whole year, covering eight, nine or even 10 subjects. I believe that for subjects such as maths, science and technology there should be much more moving about of the children and the strength of each teacher used to teach across the age range. There should also be a better transfer of children from junior to secondary schools. I know of too many bright children who leave junior school and coast during their first year in secondary school. Often, they are lost for ever.

I have said that careers advice could be better and more effective. Unless some of those changes take place—we have heard suggestions from all sides of the House today—sadly, the answer to the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, will be no. We all hope that that is not the case, but the point I take from my noble friend Lord Freeman is that it is more important to consider the quality of the engineers than the number.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest. I am the father of two engineers. I therefore counsel the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, that he will do a good job if he succeeds in inculcating such values in his daughter. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that perhaps I did not start too early. My incompetence with the screwdriver was noticeable to my children at the age of five and that may have been the reason why they began to take a keen interest in engineering skills.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, for introducing a most significant topic for debate. I, too, want to put on record his significant work as chairman of SETNET, the Science, Engineering and Technology Network. Its activities are a key part of the strategy for meeting our future engineering requirements. They are especially welcome in their contribution to improving the links between industry and our education institutions and in helping to enhance teaching capacity.

I recognise the anxieties expressed about the position confronting engineering. Complaints about engineering and the problems of our culture go back at least 150 years. Even in the great days of Brunel and the 19th century engineers, there was still a great anxiety about the fact that a true education cultivated the arts rather than the sciences. There were great worries about our manufacturing base at that time. Therefore, I believe that at times we can overstress the extent to which cultural factors operate against the successful development of engineering skills. We play

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our part as a significant economy in the world and as a significant manufacturing economy of the world over a long period of time.

We recognise that certain aspects as regards culture and education can take hold. It is necessary that we adopt strategies which counteract the perspective that certain subjects are easier to conquer intellectually and in which subsequently it is easier to make one's living in our uncertain society.

None of us underestimates the sensitivity of young students and potential undergraduates to the market. One of the things that broader and certainly higher education and the students whom they educate is noted for is the quite significant responses to market sensitivity—where the jobs are, where the courses are created, and where the students graduate. Therefore, if we are going to change the position as regards engineering we need to make a very significant contribution in terms of the perspective of our education institutions.

I seek to establish as best I can today the extent to which the Government take this issue on board and recognise the useful ways in which government policy in education and in support for industry and co-operation with industry can help to improve the engineering base of our country and sustain and advance its skills.

Perhaps I may emphasise in this connection that all is not gloom. For example, it is the case that the numbers of students going into certain areas of education are increasing quite significantly. The particular area in which the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, has such high renown is aeronautical engineering. It has seen a substantial increase in the number of students in recent years. The numbers have increased by 49 per cent. The number of students in electronic engineering has also increased by 32 per cent.

There are declines in certain areas. Reference was made in the debate to civil engineering where there has been a significant decline. We know that is one of the areas which is most sensitive to the economy, not least because a great deal of its work relates to the public economy, with investment in major projects. Therefore, civil engineering often shows fluctuations as acute as any. That is not to say that I am taking lightly the issues which confront civil engineering. I am merely seeking to indicate that there are areas of engineering about which we can be slightly more optimistic than perhaps the general tenor of comments this evening has suggested.

The absolute numbers of students entering universities to study science, engineering and technology have increased by 8.5 per cent over the past five years despite an overall fall in employment in the engineering sector. So we need to strike a balance about the issues that confront us. That is not to say that we do not need to find ways in which we can strengthen engineering interest and provision.

As a government, we have made good progress in the sector in developing a vocation-based progression route from the new engineering GCSE, through modern apprenticeships and centres of vocational

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excellence to foundation degrees and higher education participation. That is to seek to develop an aspect that was dealt with by a number of speakers in the debate—that the vocational deserves a place in equal status with the academic; that the ability of people to do as well as to think intellectually and conceive issues must be in rather better balance than has perhaps been the case in our culture hitherto. That is a challenging dimension, but we have no doubt that education has a part to play in changing that perspective, and we are doing something about it.

We are also strengthening the links between employers and the education system, widening participation in engineering and science and enhancing our delivery of high level engineering skills. The industry is one of the first for which a vocationally based GCSE has been developed, and it is expected to be the first for which a fully licensed sector skills council will be approved. I say that in response to the comments of my noble friend Lord Howie on that aspect of education.

As for schools, we believe, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, that it is important to catch future engineers, scientists and technologists as early as possible in their careers. She may be right that we could do more at junior school level. It is certainly the case that we need to do more with regard to career formation and ambition at secondary school level. We are all aware of the great problem that teachers are expert only in the subjects that they teach and through the experience that they have had. That is a disadvantage in respect of those areas of external work in which teachers are not directly qualified. Engineering suffers from that problem, which is why we are introducing specialist schools alongside the engineering GCSE. We regard that as a major step forward.

I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, paid tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, for her work with WISE. We recognise the importance of that work and the ambassador's role it plays with regard to schools. We recognise how important it is to have a much better mix of men and women who are competent in the sciences and who can go on to be engineers. That would correct what, historically, has always been an extraordinary—

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