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From Birdcage Walk

Peter Finegold, Head of Education and Skills

One Birdcage Walk
One Birdcage Walk

Five years on from John Perkins Review of Engineering Skills

Dear Member,

In 2013 Professor John Perkins, Chief Scientific Adviser at the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published a landmark review of engineering skills. In 2018 to mark the fifth anniversary of its publication, the Royal Academy of Engineering invited Professor Perkins to revisit his 2013 paper and evaluate progress to date.

Read the full report - Engineering skills for the future: the 2013 Perkins Review revisited

In his original report Professor Perkins called for concerted action by the profession, industry, educators and the Government in an effort to increase the number of people choosing to pursue engineering as a profession. However, there was an acknowledgment that effort was not enough; radical thinking and new approaches would also need to be brought to bear if these goals were to be achieved.

With this in mind, since the report was published IMechE has remained at the heart of efforts to find creative but practical solutions to these issues, stimulating debate and supporting programmes that seek to deliver meaningful change.

One example is the STEM Insight programme, which the Institution conceived, developed and has funded since 2014, where teachers spend five or ten days in an industrial placement. Since its inception the scheme has demonstrated that one of the most powerful ways of encouraging more young people towards engineering careers is through teacher placements in industry. STEM Insight is predicated on the fact that teachers are among the most significant influencers of careers decision-making and it is incredibly valuable if they can spend time in the modern workplace to understand the value of technical skills.

The Institution has also remained extremely active in the policy debate around engineering and education. Some three years after his Review of Engineering Skills wabs published Professor Perkins, was keen to chair the ‘Big Ideas’ seminar for us, which shaped our subsequent report called ‘Big Ideas: the future of engineering in schools’. That report and the reports IMechE has published since on this topic have continued to shape the debate around how engineering might attract more young people with a greater range of talents and from more diverse backgrounds. Many of the recommendations from our policy reports are in evidence in Professor Perkins’ most recent review.

So what has all this effort achieved? And to what extent has engineering education in our schools improved – leading to an increased number of young people considering coming into our sector?

Well, in this latest review Professor Perkins certainly presents a mixed picture in terms of these outcomes. There are areas of undoubted improvement, with a growing national recognition of the value of engineering to the country and a government strategy to boost engineering skills and industry.

However, it is concerning that there are also many areas where progress has been extremely slow and more decisive action is needed.  ‘Big Ideas’ was predicated on the belief that we may need to do something different and radical if we were going to bring about the change that seem to have eluded engineering for decades .  encapsulated in this paragraph,

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting to get a different answer. Despite many well-intentioned efforts over the years, the lack of meaningful progress in narrowing the engineering skills gap has been striking. It is surely time to try something different. Rather than further one-off initiatives, it must be time to consider more structural and integrated reform.
Big Ideas: the future of engineering in schools

The past year or two has offered some hope and it is my firmly held belief that the engineering community now understands the need to align its educational activities, though it is still in debate as to how this should be done. There also seems to be a growing recognition amongst the political classes that change is needed. It is heartening to hear the Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP, calling for the introduction of a broader based exam system with vocational training alongside traditional academic subjects in the curriculum – one of IMechE’s key recommendations over a number of years. However, if this is to change then Government must take the lead, as it did during the Year of Engineering in 2018. It must appoint a Ministerial lead for engineering, assign an MP in a supporting role as engineering champion and establish a UK-wide ministerial advisory group of expert and influential stakeholders. 

The Government’s Industrial Strategy provides us with a welcome opportunity to invigorate the UK’s industry and economy, but none of this will be possible without the right skills in place to deliver these plans. As the UK also gets ready to leave the EU, ensuring the UK is ready to develop its own home-grown skills has never been more important.

At the launch of Professor Perkins’ report at the House of Lords a few weeks ago, the tone was very much about the urgent need to address these issues and a recognition that we have been treading water for too long. At IMechE we have long been calling for practical and measurable action to take priority and I remain hopeful that the wind seems to be shifting in that direction. Technology is rapidly changing the engineering profession and the sector must move equally quickly if we are to deliver the highly skilled, technically trained workforce of the future which will underpin our industries, build new infrastructure and secure our future economy.

Thank you,

Peter Finegold

Head of Education and Skills

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