Education: Engineering — Question
11:44 am

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Lord Trefgarne (Conservative)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will reconsider their decision to downgrade the engineering diploma to one GCSE equivalent.

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Lord Trefgarne (Conservative)

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I need to declare an interest: I am the former chairman of SEMTA, previously the Engineering Training Authority.

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

My Lords, reforms to school performance tables are intended to raise the status of qualifications and not downgrade them. We want a simpler system where qualifications have an equal value and are selected because of their benefit to pupils, rather than their league-table weighting. We are encouraging engineering employers to work with awarding organisations to develop successor qualifications to the diploma. Engineering is extremely important for the future of the British economy. That, of course, is one reason why we are expanding university technical colleges and engineering apprenticeships.

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Lord Trefgarne (Conservative)

My Lords, while I understand the arguments put by my noble friend, is he aware that the proposition on the engineering diploma has received the condemnation of providers, regulators and employers alike, and now of the Business Secretary himself? Will the noble Lord therefore please reconsider?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

I am aware that this matter has given rise to some strong opinions among those who are committed to the engineering industry. I am afraid that I am not able to give the noble Lord the commitment that he would like, because the overriding objective of trying to simplify the qualifications is to have a consistent approach across different subjects and areas, and the benefit that we think we will derive from simplification is worth striving for. I recognise that there are strong concerns. I am glad that engineering employers are talking to the awarding organisations that want to carry on offering the principal learning element of the engineering diploma, and I hope that that will continue. I urge the noble Lord, with his experience, to help us in those conversations.

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Baroness Howe of Idlicote (Crossbench)

My Lords, does the Minister agree that whether one GCSE equivalent or more is required to qualify, there is an even greater need to increase the number of girls who apply for this career and make it much more attractive to them, because their skills will clearly be needed much more than in the past?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of that, and I know that it is one of the issues that the university technical colleges are grappling with because they are keen to encourage that kind of take-up. The noble Baroness is right to remind us of that, and I hope that we will see the figures increasing.

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Baroness Wall of New Barnet (Labour)

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, are crucial? The Government aim to involve more women in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing, yet the diploma encouraged more women to be involved in those subjects than had previously been the case. There is a lack of understanding among employers of why the Government felt the necessity to move away from that. The diploma is recognised and valued, and I urge the Minister-as did the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne-to rethink the position.

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

My Lords, there are two separate issues. So far as the diploma generally is concerned, the reason that the Government have taken their decision is that we do not want to favour a particular kind of qualification that then receives additional funding to support its take-up over other qualifications. We want qualifications to be driven by the interests of the children and the awarding organisations. I completely agree with the points made about the importance of making sure that employers are involved with the development of qualifications, and it is my hope and belief that employers will work with the awarding organisations on the replacement of the principal learning element of the engineering diploma, which is the core issue at stake here, and that we will have well regarded and rigorous qualifications that will encourage the take-up of engineering, other technical subjects and vocational qualifications. The route to having more people taking these subjects is to make sure that they are properly valued by employers and everyone else.

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Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the quality of teaching of engineering and other science and technology subjects is important? Perhaps he will he join me in condemning the following practice. A survey was sent out to assess the demand for a 16 to 19 STEM free school, which offered an iPad as a prize for completion, and gave only one option on the question as to whether the school would be the person's first choice? That answer was yes. What is his department doing to identify such exaggerated demand, and will he specifically ban the offering of incentives and the use of unbalanced questions?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

On the first point about the importance of STEM subjects and making sure that there are teachers able to teach them, as my noble friend will know, we are working hard to encourage the supply of those well qualified teachers. On her second point about the free school application, I am grateful to her for bringing it to my attention. It is the first time I have heard of it. I will refer it to the officials who will be carrying out the first sift of the applications, because the important test of evidence of demand must be genuine evidence of demand for a particular school.

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The Earl of Listowel (Crossbench)

My Lords, does the Minister share my concern that in the latest unemployment figures, 22 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds are unemployed -the highest percentage since records began? Does that not indicate the great importance of what he said, which is that the curriculum needs to attract and interest children of all kinds, so that they stay in education as far as they can to get the qualifications that will give them hope of a job when they complete their education?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Earl. One encouraging point is the increase in the number of young people doing engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships, for example, which has risen by 30 per cent in the past year or so. The work we are doing with studio schools and with UTCs to encourage the take-up of vocational courses is all part of that, but I agree with the noble Earl's fundamental point that one wants qualifications and courses for children of all ranges of interest, practical or academic. They should have parity of esteem, and the way to have that is through rigorous qualifications, not pumped-up ones.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Labour)

My Lords, given that the engineering diploma takes approximately 20 hours a week to teach, whereas a traditional GCSE subject takes up to five hours a week, how are teachers expected to persuade young people to take the engineering diploma in future when it is valued at only one GCSE? It takes 20 hours, but all you get is one GCSE. Surely young people who take it will never have the opportunity to accumulate enough GCSEs to go on to higher education. The Government are effectively killing it on the vine by downgrading it.

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

I do not think that that is true. Without being too technical about it over the Dispatch Box, the particular element at issue is the principal learning element. The diploma is an overall wrapper with a number of elements which add up to seven GCSEs. Those elements are perfectly free to continue. The principal learning element is the one that awarding organisations will discuss with employers to work out how best to continue to develop qualifications. The ultimate point is that, given the support that there is for engineering qualifications from employers, when young people see that there is a chance of progression to a good job with an engineering employer, that will be one of the strongest incentives for them to study engineering and pursue those courses.