Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 50 - 59)




  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 present—whether 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.

Mr McWalter

  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 providing it.
  (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.

Mr Dhanda

  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 important.

Bob Spink

  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, please?
  (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.

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