The Year of Engineering implores us to “take a closer look” at this thing (engineering) that we think we know but probably don’t, suggesting, rightly, that engineering is broader, more creative and more pervasive than most people might imagine. To prove the point, over the coming months, the engineering community will present its wares through fairs, films, competitions, industrial visits and a hefty social media presence, fronted by talented practitioners and other advocates, under the striking yellow livery of the Department for Transport-led venture (my own Twitter feed @Peter_IMechE feels decidedly ‘Norwich City canary’ right now).
This is a great opportunity to inspire the next generation and to raise discussion about the changing nature of engineering and what this means for how we talk about the subject with young people. It also provides a context for those of us involved in providing education in its broadest sense to step back and think about what we’re doing and why. Something along these lines happened with Science Year back in 2001, which started out with slick advertising, but may have had its greatest effect through its legacy programme, which changed the landscape of science education in the UK.
Alongside this is the publication of the long awaited Careers Strategy. This may not offer the same showbiz pizzazz as the Year of Engineering, but its potential significance for engineering could be at least as great, if not more so.
The UK economy suffers from seemingly intractable issues around productivity, with social inequality on the increase. At the same time, research highlights the mismatch that exists between the roles young people imagine for their future and the likely available jobs.
Engineering (and associated) sectors are where the gap in skills lie, yet the subject remains largely undetectable in the mainstream school experience of many young people.
This means that engineering is more heavily reliant on a functioning careers education in schools and colleges, than most sectors. We need informed advocates in situ if we are to reach both the natural engineers and more importantly those talented young people who otherwise would never give a second thought to engineering, through lack of exposure or the false belief that it’s not for them.
In her foreword to the Careers Strategy, Apprenticeships Minister Anne Milton MP, highlights how a thriving careers system is essential for a fairer society and how for too long careers guidance has not been given the status it deserves.
For pupils from families without engineering heritage, the best hope of discovering the subject is through extra-curricular opportunities. When available, these are typically provided on a voluntary basis by committed teachers, drawing on the vast array of industry and third sector outreach activities and STEM Ambassadors. The Year of Engineering will almost certainly give a fresh impetus to existing programmes of this type, while hopefully offering a springboard for some new ideas.
But making the leap from fun activity to future work opportunity requires a major cultural change in the status and positioning of careers learning in all our schools and colleges so that careers education is seamless with all learning and training.
The Gatsby Charitable Foundation’s Good Career Guidance internationally researched benchmarks, have sensibly been adopted by the Government through its Careers and Enterprise Company, as the route to success. Their implementation will rely heavily on two features of the proposed programme. The first is the use of the Compass assessment tool that will help every school to chart its progress against each of the benchmarks. The second, and undoubtedly pivotal, element is the appointment of a “high-quality” career leader in every school – with the right skills and experience, senior leadership support and status.
But to make a real difference will require some serious financial investment. Only £4 million is being made available to fund the training and support of careers leaders, and only for those schools in areas of the country deemed to be needing most support. In an annexe to the Good Career Guidance report, PwC costed the running of the Gatsby benchmarks in a school at £44,676 per school, or 0.9% of total revenue. Applied to all secondary schools and colleges, this would cost £200 million – still less than half of the cost of the Connexions career service when it was introduced in 2003.
Instead of significant new money, much of the strategy will seemingly rely on employer goodwill and corporate social responsibility. This is a good thing in that it provides a degree of ownership and authenticity, but to what extent will this reliance on industry support as a substitute for real additional investment place the excellent intentions of the Gatsby plan at risk?
So perhaps the best legacy for the Year of Engineering might be a rallying cry from employers and engineers that all school and college students have access to a professionally run, fully funded and high quality careers experience.