POST-16 EDUCATION –SATISFYING THE NEEDS OF ENGINEERING IN BRITAIN

The Foundation held a Lecture and Dinner Discussion on the subject “Post-16 Education: Supplying the Needs of Engineering in Britain” at the Royal Society on 9 October 1991. Lord Butterworth CBE chaired the evening and the speakers were Professor Ian Nussey OBE FEng, IBM United Kingdom Limited; Dr Dick Evans, Principal, Stockport College of Further Education; and Dr Derek Roberts CBE FEng FRS, Provost, University College, London.

Summary:

Both speakers examined the present state of engineering education, its good and bad features, and made proposals which, they believed, would enhance Britain’s ability to meet the challenges that faced the country. Professor Nussey put forward seven requirements for engineering education and discussed the roles of Government, academia and industry. Dr Evans, who compared the reality with the ideal situation, said only when the ‘shadow’ between the two was removed could one face the future with optimism. He put forward his own views of ways in which this could be achieved.

Dr Dick Evans

It will assist the presentation if I build the talk around a paraphrase quoted from T.S. Elliot:

“Between the idea and reality falls the shadow.”

THE IDEA competent, flexible and responsive workforce, sufficient in number to cope with the challenges that face this country.

The Engineering Council have said that “Engineers of tomorrow must be technically competent, market conscious, commercially adept, environmentally sensitive and responsive to human needs”. The Council have also stressed the importance of the engineering team comprising the Multi Skilled Craft Person, Engineering Technician, Incorporated Engineer and the Chartered Engineer. It is important that each member of the team is recognised and supported by on-going quality education and training. This country has for too long neglected the essential importance of the craft person and technician. After all, for every engineer, scientist and technologist there needs to be at least four to five highly qualified support staff helping to put ideas into practice.

THE REALITY

An educational/training system which is manifestly elitist and driven by a process of accumulative failure.

Quality is equated with rarity.

Too early specialisation restricts access for the mature student and other disadvantaged groups, i.e. women, ethnic minorities.

The post-16 scene is fragmented in terms of providers, the curriculum and qualifications. It is a jungle of immense complexity and proportions. Employers and Higher Education Institutions are quite rightly baffled by the plethora of awards, many of which restrict progression and lack coherence.

One of the main symptoms of the disease is the philosophy of short-termism that permeates our society. “The City Mentality” dominates practically all elements of our society and education and training is no exception. We lurch from one short term scheme/initiative to another, without any real evaluation or long term planning. Other nations appear to plan their education and training programmes over decades as opposed to months/a few years.

A number of features in engineering highlight the factors in the present system that put a limitation on the opportunities available for the prospective engineer:

  • The historical pattern of courses and awards
  • The high threshold knowledge of requirement for entry.
  • The low participation of women/adults and people from ethnic minorities.
  • Continuous pressure to expand and update the syllabuses.
  • The higher than average drop-out and failure.

(It might be a sad reality that for this country there is a cultural factor. However, that is a major topic for another talk!)

A recent statistic sadly notes that the number of apprentices in engineering in 1991/92 is down by 33%: 6,000 as compared with 9,000 in 1991, and 20,000 in the late 70s.

THE SHADOW

There are many factors that contribute to the production of the shadow. The curriculum is polarised into the vocational and academic tracks with little opportunity to transfer between them. The current situation can be somewhat simplistically represented by the ‘V’ model. The ‘V’ represents the two separate tracks of academic/vocational awards – two different vehicles, possessing different statuses and travelling at different speeds, diverging with little or no connection.

The recent pronouncements in the White Paper about the proposed new Ordinary and Advance Diplomas offer little hope that the situation will improve. A number of institutions and consortia have developed the so-called ‘Y’ model – a common first-year bringing together academic and vocational awards. After one year students can elect to pursue an academic route (AS or A-levels) or a vocational route (BTEC). A great deal of exciting work is being done on the ‘ Y’ model, for example, Wessex, Northwest Modular and at Gloscat. An ultimate hope is that the ‘Y’ model can evolve into an ‘I’ model, i.e. the single curriculum framework. We should do all we can to encourage the ‘Y’ model and hence the incrementalist approach to curriculum reform.

The British Baccalaureate (BB) and the Royal Society proposals advocate the root and branch approach for the creation of ‘I’ model and have added hope to this endeavour. Unfortunately, the recent proposals to limit course work to 20% for A-levels and the move to reduce course work on GCSE will seriously endanger these incremental approaches to bring together academic/vocational awards and to engender parity of esteem between these awards.

This country is obsessed with the supposed “historical standards”, i.e. the A-level and the importance of full-time honours degrees. Another factor is the undue influence of the independent sector. Successive Secretaries of State have consulted, listened to and have been disproportionately influenced by this faction. Such consultation is surely equivalent to consulting the Kray twins on law and order. All I ask is that the Secretaries of State consult all sectors of education/training on an equitable basis.

The Education Reform Act and the White Papers encourage education/training to move into the market place which promotes destructive competition and enforces isolated institutional autonomy. Education and training is too valuable to be exposed to a Darwinian philosophy.

HOW DO WE REMOVE THE SHADOW?

We must introduce greater order to the post-16 system, i.e. lower the entropy! The Schools Examinations and Assessment Council and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications should be merged. A single Department of Education and Training should be established. The number of professional bodies that represent engineering (47 at the last count) must be reduced. Encouragement and support is needed for local partnerships between the worlds of work and education/training, the Training and Enterprise Councils and the Local Education Authorities. Local networks must be established between education institutions offering real and effective opportunities for progression for all. Full support should be given to the endeavours of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications with more realistic deadlines for them. The Council must however rationalise the large number of lead bodies which set standards for NVQs, although it is interesting to note science does not yet have a lead body. Greater ease of access and participation in the system is needed for all, particularly mature and other disadvantaged groups, with the removal of the financial barriers that are at present being put into place deterring such students accessing the system. Encouragement is required for an incremental approach to curriculum reform, i.e. the ‘Y’ model, with support given to moving to the ‘I’ model as quickly as possible. It is vital that Careers education, counselling and guidance for all is improved and if we accept that education and training is a life-long process then we must move away from ‘Admission to Transition’ and from ‘Selection to Matching’.

Institutions must develop more flexible modes of delivery of the curriculum, i.e. distance learning, part-time provision and tailor-made programmes for industry and mature students. To excite and attract young people into the engineering world there must be close collaboration with primary and secondary schools. Education and training in engineering should adopt the ‘E’ model (sorry more of the alphabet soup). The ‘E’ represents an ongoing and sensible balance of breadth and depth in the curriculum as opposed to the existing ‘T’ model with early specialisations and only later the introduction of breadth. Modular developments into programmes of study and a wider system of credit recognition needs to be adopted. The excellent work of the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) in its credit accumulation and transfer scheme (CATS) should be built upon at all levels.

CONCLUSION

The shadow between the ideal and reality can be removed provided we accept that it exists and a concerted effort is made to remove it. Only then can we view the future with optimism.

FINAL COMMENTS:

Quality must be equated with fitness for purpose for all. We must introduce ‘Unity in place of Fragmentation’ and ‘Flexibility in place of Rigidity’.

In order to cope with all these challenges we surely must adopt the abattoir metaphor:

“Act sensitively but beware of vested interests”.

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