Science, Technology and Engineering (Careers Information in Schools)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 13 February 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Conservative, Mid Worcestershire 1:15, 13 February 2013

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable pupils in primary, middle, high and secondary schools to gain greater understanding of careers in science, technology and engineering;
to establish a duty on schools to provide opportunities for pupils to gain such understanding;
to provide for the establishment of advisory groups drawn from industry and relevant external bodies to assist schools in the provision of such opportunities;
to require governing bodies of middle, secondary and high schools to include two local employers;
to impose a duty on the Department for Education to ensure a database of national schemes providing relevant opportunities is established;
to enable graduate level practitioners of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to teach these subjects in schools for limited periods without full teaching qualifications;
and for connected purposes.

I begin with two declarations of interest. First, I was recently appointed as a non-executive director of a small advanced manufacturing company. Secondly, one of my two heroes is that most brilliant of engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. As someone who now wishes he had been an engineer, recent experience has convinced me that the shortage of engineering and technological skills is one of the greatest avoidable threats to our nation’s prosperity and security. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend Matthew Hancock, for being here to listen to the case.

What I am trying to do in the Bill is simple and focused: to increase demand from young people and to make them more enthusiastic about pursuing STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and careers, whether as apprentices or graduates; to inspire them about the possibilities in engineering, science and technology; to show them by practical example and experience while at school that engineering and technology are exciting and important careers; and then to sustain that interest throughout their time at school.

I am grateful to all the engineering institutions, professional organisations and trade associations, and to the CBI and the many large companies I have consulted in bringing forward these proposals. Without exception, they have told me that they enthusiastically support my analysis and what the Bill seeks to do.

In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, engineering got a pretty bad press. The news was dominated by strikes and job losses. It is hardly surprising that the legacy of that time has had its impact. It is no wonder parents have been reluctant to recommend engineering careers to their children. But during my five years as Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee in the last Parliament, and during my two and a half years as a Defence Minister in this one, the overriding concern I heard time and again from manufacturing and technology companies was that there just are not enough engineers—apprentices and graduates—to meet demand. I remember one test and evaluation company telling me last year that it had been forced to give up looking for engineering graduates in the UK and was now recruiting from Spain, Portugal and Greece. That might help to plug the skills gap for the companies that take that decision, but it is a lost opportunity for the country and for our young people.

Furthermore, recruiting from abroad is not always an option. In defence, the armed forces, the civil service and in companies, we often have to have UK nationals doing the work on national security grounds—the so-called “UK eyes only” requirement. To take the most obvious example, unlike a nuclear engineering company in the civil sector, defence companies providing and supporting the nuclear deterrent simply cannot rely on foreign engineering skills.

There are some real signs of encouragement. The number of GCSE single science entrants is going up, as are applications to university for STEM subjects. Apprenticeships in engineering and technology are increasing, too. However, there is a wide consensus that we have to do much more to sustain that improvement over many years. As the Science and Technology Committee stated in a report last week,

“there is a persistent shortfall in the numbers of engineers required to achieve economic growth, a situation that is likely to worsen unless radical action is taken.”

We need at least half as many more engineers. We might even need to double the numbers qualifying at both level 3 and 4. To succeed in this, we need to repeat three key messages. First, designing, making and building things matters and provides real job satisfaction—old truths that are being rediscovered. Secondly, careers in engineering and technology are now well paid. Thirdly, engineering has changed as technology has developed; it is now about problem solving, not oily rags. Considerable practical outreach activity is directed at school key stages 3 and 4. Some estimates suggest that there are more than 3,000 schemes reaching out to those age groups across the country, but their reach is worryingly patchy: there are hot spots of overlapping activity and deserts of inactivity. Unless pupils towards the end of key stage 2—ages 10 and 11—realise the importance of doing well in maths and physics, they will never be able to pursue engineering or science careers. As the Science and Technology Committee said in last week’s report,

“young people must be inspired to study science and engineering in the first place.”

At its simplest, we need to inspire boys and girls at a much younger age to want to do well in the two key subjects of maths and physics. Perhaps the single greatest need is to make more girls want to do physics. We do not need more schemes in order to do so. Indeed, there are probably already too many. Rather, we should build on the excellent existing work of EngineeringUK, the Royal Academy of Engineering and many others.

We need more co-ordinated and focused business and official support for schemes designed to attract young people to science, engineering and technology by providing real experience, challenge and understanding. Such schemes include Big Bang, Tomorrow’s Engineers, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network and its ambassador programme, the STEM directories and Primary Engineer, which is particularly important in addressing the key stage 2 point.

We also need to make even better use of the many other more specific schemes that exist. Two of my favourites include, first, the Bloodhound SSC—supersonic car—project, which will attempt the 1,000 mph land speed record next year and is reaching out to about

4,000 schools. The project will feature in a programme on CBBC this evening—your children might like to watch it, Mr Speaker. Secondly, Imagineering began in the midlands and is a long-standing practical scheme to give young people real engineering challenges at school.

A major issue is that in most schools—this is not a criticism, just an observation—teachers are not aware of the reality of modern engineering and science. They just cannot steer pupils in the right direction. However, as an engineering employer told the Science and Technology Committee:

“I believe it is unreasonable to expect teachers to have a great in-depth experience and knowledge of the manufacturing sector…the only group that can do that is the employers. That is our bit of the bargain.”

Schools often deter girls from engineering and science careers. Defence company BAE Systems tells the story of a girl whose recent application to become an apprentice was shredded by her head teacher because, “Girls don’t do that sort of thing.” Well, they do—and they do it outstandingly well, both as apprentices and as graduates. Nevertheless, however we measure the participation of women in engineering, it comes out at about 10% at best, which is the lowest rate in the European Union—27th out of 27.

It need not be like that. Missile manufacturer MBDA’s engineering intake is now 50% female. If its success could be replicated more widely, our skills problem would be solved. Securing genuinely equal access at school to information on the modern reality of engineering and science would help achieve this, and that is a key aim of this Bill. Such equal access would show that there is something in engineering and technology for everyone—fast jets, passenger aircraft, avionics, cars, bridges, tunnels, satellites, mobile phones, green technologies, environmental sustainability, water supplies in the third world, food, health and medicine, and even vacuum cleaners and hand dryers. The list goes on.

The Bill contains some of the ideas that command strongest support in the professions and industry. Each measure is a free-standing proposal to the Government, but taken together they could be really powerful. My proposals build in part on suggestions in Lord Heseltine’s report on growth and they go some way to addressing my concern about the profound inadequacy of careers advice in schools.

The Bill does five things. First, it imposes a light-touch duty on schools—primary, middle and secondary—to expose their pupils to the realities of modern engineering and technology. Secondly, it imposes a parallel obligation on local enterprise partnerships to help schools in their area to fulfil that duty. Thirdly, it adopts Lord Heseltine’s recommendation that secondary schools should have two employers on the governing body, but adds that they cannot both be accountants, solicitors or estate agents—one must be from a science, technology, engineering or manufacturing background. Fourthly, it imposes a duty on the Department for Education to continue its support for activity on engineering-awareness schemes. I say to the skills Minister that I am not convinced that the Department really understands how vital it is to help young people make informed career choices. Finally, it sweeps away all restriction on schools using professional engineers and scientists from local employers to teach maths and physics where they have teacher shortages. It is better to be taught—I know that my hon. Friend Steve Baker strongly agrees with this—by an enthusiastic young professional who can show the value of the subject to a sceptical class than by someone who is a good professional teacher in other subjects, but who has no training in maths or physics.

An early measure of success over time would be the number of young people doing well in GCSE maths and physics. Later, it would be a significant increase in the number of girls taking A-level physics. Eventually, it would be a sustained increase in applicants to engineering courses and increasing female participation in the profession.

Of course, we have been talking about this for years, but we cannot be complacent. We are, as the Prime Minister has said, in a global race. China is moving up the value chain. Like India, it is churning out thousands of engineers every year. Our place as one of the largest manufacturing nations on the planet—which we still are—is threatened. Our resilience and security over a wide range of threats, from food and water shortages to cyber-security and defence, depend on getting more British engineers and scientists.

If the Bill’s measures worked, the system would have to respond with more teachers, more university technology colleges, more places in further and higher education institutions, different courses and so on. That, however, is the supply side; this Bill is about increasing demand. First, let us help more young people to understand the great careers available in science, engineering and technology.

With my A-level physics and maths I, too, should have been an engineer, but to my continuing regret no one told me at the right time about the exciting careers in engineering. I do not want ignorance of the opportunities to be a reason for more young people to make the same mistake as me.