Features editor

There’s a difference between education and training. It’s a statement that most people, I think, would agree with — but a quick straw poll around Engineer Towers indicates that not everyone has the same idea of exactly what that difference is.

The question arises because of the government’s downgrading of the engineering diploma. Incorporating maths, science, design and technology, the diploma was designed to be studied from age 14 to 19, for about 20 hours per week, and was deemed to be worth the equivalent of five GCSEs.

But following a review of vocational qualifications and training, the Department of Education has decided that many of these courses should not be deemed GCSE equivalent and should not be counted — or counted differently — towards the rankings of schools and colleges. The engineering diploma has, as a result, been downgraded from five GSCE equivalents to just one.

Education secretary Michael Gove, with his characteristic eye for a ill-judged comment, said this was because ‘for too long the system has been devalued by attempts to pretend that all qualification are intrinsically the same… young people have taken courses that have led nowhere.’ The fact that a battery of engineering companies and institutions has taken issue with this, and that this qualification is far from ‘leading nowhere’, seems to have passed Mr Gove by, but he does seem to be much more interested in his own voice than anyone else’s.

But the fact that a 20 hour-per-week exclusive course of study was deemed to be a good thing for engineering in the first place is a somewhat questionable. It smacks a bit of the old pre-education reform leaving school at 14 for industrial training, to be honest. And, to me, it points up something intrinsically wrong with the attitudes we have towards engineering, science and technology.

What’s education for, anyway? Why do we educate children? It’s not just so that they can get a job when they leave school — although, obviously, that’s a big part of it. But if that were all it’s for, then nobody would study history, English literature or art, and relatively few people in Britain would learn a foreign language. No. We educate people so that they can take part in and appreciate society. That’s right and proper.

The problem is, the people who originally devised school curriculums didn’t think that science and engineering were part of society. We can’t really blame them for that, because the classical syllabus on which the school system is based originated centuries ago. But it hasn’t caught up.

The thing is that engineering is very much a part of society. How can it not be, when the basic development of movable type — an engineering innovation — was responsible for the great shifts in society in the middle ages? How can it not be, when the history of this country, and of the way the world has developed, is so bound up with the development and spread of technology? How can it not be, when your enjoyment of a concert is entirely dependent on the acoustics of the hall in which you’re sitting, the design of the musical instruments you’re listening to, and the mechanics and circuitry of the amplification equipment? All of these are the results of engineering and none of them developed in isolation.

I’m preaching to the converted here, of course. But my point is that the engineering diploma worked by hiving off the subjects deemed necessary to be an engineer into a ghetto that seemed to be much more about training than education. There’s nothing wrong with training; it’s a necessary thing, and everyone in industry understands that it’s a life-long occupation. But training is specific to particular tasks. You don’t train a 14-year-old. You educate him or her.

What’s missing in the education system is an appreciation of the place of engineering as part of culture. It should be part of history lessons; conversely, its history should be part of science lessons. It should be part of maths classes — specifically mentioned, not in passing. It should definitely be part of design and technology. And it could even be incorporated into English classes — there are many beautifully written scientific biographies which could be studied, and many writers and poets incorporate scientific imagery into the work. The development of the steam engine (and the computer, and the jet engine) is as much a part of British culture as the works of Shakespeare and although politicians occasionally pay lip-service to this fact, it isn’t reflected in school curriculums.

This doesn’t solve the problem of the downgrading of the engineering diploma, a hamfisted piece of politics at best. But if educationalists took a long look at how the curriculum is streamed and compartmentalised along arts/sciences lines, they might come up with a system that doesn’t need to push 14-year-olds into a five-year, 20-hour-per-week ghetto in order to produce people with an appreciation of and facility for engineering. All training is education, but not all education should be training.