Putting engineering on the map?

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2008

The UK’s new Engineering Diploma for 14-19-year-olds is being taught from this September. Rupal Mehta explores its development, and what it means for education in the country and a sector dominated by an ageing workforce.

The UK’s new Engineering Diploma for 14-19-year-olds will put the field ‘on the map for students [and] parents’, according to Marian Watson. The teacher at state school Lambeth Academy in London believes ‘a sure way to establish engineering as a core subject [is by] introducing a well-resourced and supported qualification that is publicly backed by Government and professional engineering bodies’.

Her counterpart, Peter Lane at Bradfield School, in Sheffield, agrees. Both teachers studied engineering at university and have industry experience. They are therefore well placed to judge a qualification that combines vocational and academic elements and is designed to engage pupils in the field.

Lane was a civil engineer for 18 years before becoming a teacher. He says, ‘When I became an engineer, I was lacking the practical skills [such as project management, teamwork, problem solving, and industrial design]. Theory cannot compensate. So it’s about combining the two’.

Professor Fred Maillardet of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC) adds, ‘By definition engineers sit in the middle of the divide between vocational and academic work. The divide has [therefore] been affecting engineering for decades.’ The average age of a Chartered Engineer is 55, so more people need to be recruited to ensure a secure workforce as those at the upper age scale retire.

Spreading the word

Marrying vocational and academic education to such an extent represents a significant educational and cultural shift in the UK. The two have traditionally involved separate routes, with the term ‘vocational’ often regarded by many in industry and education as suitable for only the less academically able.

The range of 14-19 Diplomas are said to reflect a new learning approach that is more appropriate to the needs of UK businesses and designed for students of varied academic abilities, with routes to higher education (university), apprenticeships or straight into the world of work. They run alongside existing qualifications, providing parallel pathways for young people. Engineering is one of the first five such courses being taught from this September.

The Engineering Diploma comprises three main levels – Foundation Level 1 (equivalent to five GCSEs at grades D to G), Higher Level 2 (equivalent to seven GCSEs at grades A* to C) and Advanced Level 3 (equivalent to 3.5 ‘A’ levels). The Level 1 could lead to an apprenticeship or the Level 2, the Level 2 could lead to an apprenticeship, recruitment into the industry, or the next Level, and the Level 3 could lead to university or directly into work.

Each stage incorporates three main areas of learning:
• Principle units that include engineering principles and theory, the importance of engineering to our society, how materials contribute to design and how to launch and develop new ideas. Students also spend a minimum of 10 days’ work experience in industry.
• Additional and specialist learning to allow students to choose topics such as robotics, medical engineering and aerospace, study another unrelated or related subject, or complete a specific problem solving project to demonstrate their skills and knowledge.
• Generic learning – to show how English, mathematics, and information and communication technology (ICT) relate to engineering in the real world.

There are external exams as well as continuous assessment.

Although courses such as the Engineering GCSE for 14-16-year-olds exist, ‘this is the first large-scale in-curriculum engineering activity’, argues Matthew Harrison, Director of Education Programmes at the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE). He was involved in the Diploma Development Partnership (DDP) that created the curricula.

He adds, ‘We are as interested in the healthy supply of excellent technicians as we are in the supply of graduate and Chartered Engineers. The Diploma allows them to study an authentic engineering curriculum at age 14 alongside the compulsory GCSEs (English, Mathematics and Science). They can take it further if they do well, or let it rest’.

On board

But any fundamental change to a country’s education system is bound to bring its supporters and critics, as well as confusion and misunderstanding about what it entails and how it can be delivered.

For parents and pupils to be convinced about an untried qualification, both higher education and industry need to support the Diploma, dictate its development and move beyond the traditional scepticism that ‘vocational’ is a euphemism for ‘dumbing down’.

The DDP therefore encompassed employers, representatives from universities, and teachers from schools and post-16 colleges. About 100 employers from companies such as Vodafone, BT and Rolls-Royce are also acting as voluntary Diploma Champions throughout the UK. Sir Alan Jones of Toyota is leading the Diploma Employers Champion Network.

Jones says, ‘We want a situation where someone coming out of education has those skills that an employer in a modern competitive world needs. That will give the young person a career and a head start for the employer. It’s also an opportunity for businesses to put themselves on view’.

Universities, however, have had more teething problems with the Diploma. The EPC, which has 1,400 members from over 90 universities, has been heavily involved in trying to maintain academic rigour through the Maths for Engineering unit that will be available from January 2009 at Level 3.

Maillardet, who chairs the Maths Working Group at the Council, insists, ‘We have developed a module that is equivalent to ‘A’ level Mathematics’.

Moreover, he argues that the unit improves upon the ‘A’ level. ‘For a decade the EPC has been concerned about the quality of students entering degree courses. It’s not just the understanding but the inability to apply mathematics that is the problem. Maths for Engineering teaches the same topics, but it is based in applications.’ By working with employers, the Council has produced exemplars that illustrate real engineering problems.

Assessment involves the traditional testing of theory, but also includes an exam that introduces pupils to an unfamiliar industry problem that they must solve using mathematic principles. ‘It will move away from teaching people to pass the test,’ suggests Maillardet.

With the new module in place, most university admission tutors have backed the Diploma. While some ‘elite’ universities are ‘waiting to see’ what happens, Maillardet believes a credibility boost came when the Head of Undergraduate Admissions at Cambridge University, Geoff Parks, signalled his support. He is reported to have said the Diploma is ‘significantly better for engineering at university than Mathematics ‘A’-level’.

On the ground – best practice

However, beyond national acceptance, the Diploma’s success ultimately depends on its delivery, and that is by no means straightforward. For the course to fulfil its objectives, teachers alone should not deliver it, as students must experience the practicalities of engineering, from automation to design. The programme is therefore based around local consortia partnerships between schools, the council, industry and universities.

Harrison says, ‘In the northeast it might be about energy and chemicals engineering, in the southeast – SMEs, transport and food. The curricula is equally applicable but the guiding principles are flavoured differently. We want to ensure that the first 63 consortia have the most successful first year they can have. If the 4,000 students attain well, that will have a cultural effect’. Another 63 groups will start teaching the course from 2009, and all pupils should be entitled to study the Diploma by 2013.

However, the onus on local participation naturally leads to variable involvement. A report released by the UK Public Accounts Committee on 9 October revealed that ‘some consortia were much more advanced than others’.

Graham Lane, who heads the DDP, admits ‘it is patchy’, but says he and the team are keen ‘to spread good practice as quickly as possible’. While some consortia, such as Sheffield, have successfully forged links with employers and universities, those in rural areas, such as Cumbria, face different challenges. Money from the UK Department of Transport is available in such regions to transport pupils to other schools, companies or universities.

Graham Lane explains, ‘Some schools have not got the contacts. We have got a brochure of ways to get involved. We are developing incentives in the northeast – if a company gets involved, they will get recognition from the local authority through free adverts in the local newspaper’.

He adds, ‘Smaller companies are difficult to engage. They do not want lots of schools ringing them up. You need someone to manage that relationship. We need to make it easy for those companies to get involved – they cannot do work experience but they can tutor projects’. He believes that in some areas a number of schools and local authorities may need to work together.

Meanwhile, ‘state schools, such as in Essex, do not want to get involved. But they have till 2013’.

Essentially, ‘the load is being carried by the teachers, supported by lots of people, to customise it for the local engineering environment’, says Harrison. ‘That’s why [the RAE and Specialist Schools and Academies Trust] are focusing on the continuing professional development of teachers’.

Making a change

The hard work is ongoing and only when the first cohort complete the various levels of the Diploma in the pilot two years will its degree of success and the lessons learnt be clear. Uncertainty at the early stages, has caused the consortium in Sheffield to teach ‘A’ level Mathematics at Level 3, rather than the Maths for Engineering unit, ‘to guarantee’ university entry. Increasing participation and consensus among all stakeholders will ultimately be vital to enhance the Diploma’s value in the minds of parents and pupils, and ensure students attain well and progress into careers in the field.

The Engineering Diploma, after all, is only one of a range of Diplomas to be introduced, including in increasingly popular subjects like Media and ICT.

Improved careers advice and teacher awareness will be crucial for pupils to pick the most suitable routes into careers, be it the traditional academic route or via the Diploma.

Maillardet says the next concern is therefore ensuring a secure supply of specialist teachers at schools and colleges in the future. Peter Lane and Marian Watson could well provide a model for the future – employees from industry who have turned to teaching.

Local regeneration in Sheffield?

Sheffield has one of the more advanced consortia delivering the Engineering Diploma. Gary Drabble works for the local authority to secure the future workforce for the area. The city will require 7,000 Level 3 and 15,000 Level 2 engineers in the next five years. The average age of the existing workforce is 48.

Drabble says, ‘There is an issue of raising awareness in the area as parents’ perceptions of engineering is low-paid and dirty, when in reality it is different. It is about smaller companies focused on medical and sports engineering, and high tech elements. We have Rolls-Royce and Boeing’.

Open evenings involving pupils, parents, university tutors and industry representatives were crucial in communicating the prospects of a career in engineering, while Drabble has liaised with teachers, industry and universities to secure efficient delivery of the Engineering Diploma.

A lead school in each quarter of the city teaches the principal units of the Level 2 to pupils from other schools in that quarter, with support from the Sheffield Engineering Centre for the practical elements. Bradfield School has specialist engineering status, so it has the capabilities to lead northwest Sheffield. ‘In electronics, for example, you would study the theory of transistors as well as soldering,’ explains Drabble.

Bradfield is also collaborating with Boeing to deliver a ‘How to design your own aircraft seat’module, and will be working with Cadbury’s in early 2009.

For the Level 3, Sheffield Hallam University is delivering some of the teaching and offers teacher training to help schools deliver engineering, which is, in some cases, a new subject for the Design and Technology teachers who are mainly involved.

Drabble is also working with metals producers through the Special Metals Forum to arrange work experience placements and ambassador projects. ‘The biggest fear was around work placements for 14-year-olds – what are they going to do? So we are looking at questions they can answer, such as on health and safety, and people’s jobs. That gives them more structure.’

The key appears to be having a figure in local authority who can act as a ‘broker’ for the different stakeholders and make sure the schools’ timetables are coordinated and assessments organised and scrutinised to ensure consistency of marks between the various education providers. An electronic system for real-time assessment could soon be in the offing for Sheffield.