It is widely accepted that the UK needs more engineers. Not enough young people, in particular women, are entering careers in design and construction. Research by the Institute for Engineering and Technology last year, found that only 15% of companies surveyed make particular efforts to attract and retain women in engineering and technical roles and just over one in ten of the UK engineering and technical workforce is female.
Undoubtedly the industry must do much more to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, but efforts to attract more people into these professions, must also begin much earlier. Currently the government’s education policies are not only failing to encourage more young people to choose a career in this sector, but proactively preventing it.
This year, technical qualifications entitled “Design Engineer Construct! The Digital Built Environment” (DEC) have not been approved by the Department of Education in England. This is a learning program which has been developed to create and inspire the next generation of Built Environment professionals.
But as the technical qualifications gained from this the program have been dismissed, DEC is now at risk of being dropped by schools across the country. The exam results no longer count in school league tables, and therefore schools are very likely to simply cut the program altogether.
This is in itself illustrative of a wider problem in in our education system: that schools are pressured to focus only on teaching things which can be neatly measured in league tables, rather than simply on providing a broad, balanced education which equips children with all the skills they need to get on in life.
The Conservative government’s obsession with league tables means that any course or program that does not provide points, will not see the light of day. The toxic culture this creates - of competition between schools as they vie for a better ranking than their neighbours, based on a narrow set of criteria - takes valuable focus away from quality teaching and learning.
Similarly, the Government’s bias towards academic subjects which can be easily measured in exams, means that subjects which lend themselves more naturally to project-based learning (like DEC) are neglected.
For all of their talk of valuing vocational education, until the Government are willing to rethink the undue emphasis they place on league tables and high states, exam-based assessment, then more practical subjects like building and engineering will continue to be deprioritized. And at a time when school budgets are being slashed, and teachers are chronically overworked, that often translates into them being written out of the curriculum altogether.
Ultimately the measure of a good education system is whether it provides every child with the opportunities and skills to fulfil their potential - whichever path they choose to follow. This must include young people who prefer more practical and vocational subjects.
We should be focussing less on narrow measures of academic success and more on ensuring every young person is aware of the full range of career opportunities which are open to them. If the Government wants to live up to its own rhetoric about valuing vocational education – and if they want to ensure we have a thriving construction and engineering sector in future – then they must allow these subjects to flourish in our schools.
Lord Redesdale is a Liberal Democrat peer