Reading, writing and rocket science

There has been a flurry of activity to get the first engineering schools established in the UK. Helen Knight looks at the future for science education.

The government’s recent attack on ‘bog standard comprehensives’ may have angered teachers, but it struck a chord with many in engineering.

The UK’s secondary schools have for some time been failing to produce enough young people with technology, maths and science skills – the starting blocks for any engineering career. This problem is not unique to the UK, but is likely to worsen since less young people studying these subjects means less people to teach them to the next generation. The result: teaching gets worse, and even more young people decide to take media studies instead.

The government’s answer – continuing a policy originated by the previous Conservative government – is to introduce more ‘diversity’ into the education system by allowing private firms to sponsor schools seeking to specialise in particular subjects.

Experience with existing specialist schools suggests they are working. And the addition this year of engineering to the list of specialities has been the trigger for intense activity on the part of Emta, the engineering training organisation, and the EEF – especially since only £50,000 in private money is needed to set up a specialist school. This fairly modest sum unlocks a considerably larger amount in government money. Together, Emta and the EEF hope to back the establishment of three engineering specialist schools next year.

There are already 700 specialist schools, which still teach the National Curriculum, but specialise in technology, languages, sport or art. The government plans to raise the number to 1,500, or just under half the total number of secondary schools, by 2005. This year’s Education White Paper added engineering, science, business and enterprise, and mathematics and computing to the list of specialities, which will be introduced in 2002 at the start of the next academic year.

Specialist schools have already attracted support from big names in the engineering industry, including BAE Systems, which is one of nearly 400 corporate sponsors. Car maker Ford is also in talks with the government over plans to support the scheme. It should help to develop a greater awareness of technology among young people, says a Ford spokeswoman.

Producing engineers

But will these new specialist schools actually be any better at producing engineers than the ‘bog standard comprehensives’?

For a start, schools specialising in engineering or technology will have more cash to spend on equipment and resources than usual comprehensives, says Christine Prentice, deputy chief executive of the Technology Colleges Trust, an advisory body on the specialist schools initiative to the Department for Education and Skills. The trust provides free support for schools applying for specialist status, and is raising sponsorship so that schools in deprived areas do not face unfair difficulties finding funds.

Schools that secure £50,000 in sponsorship from private firms receive a £100,000 DfES grant to enhance facilities for their specialist subject. This could mean upgraded computer systems, a new science lab, or more design and technology equipment.

The schools also receive an extra £123 annually per student in recurrent funding, of which they can spend up to a third on equipment and another third on enhanced staffing, training and development, while the rest must be spent on providing support and expertise to their local community.

This extra funding should give engineering specialist schools an advantage in attracting the best teachers in subjects such as maths, science and technology. But at the same time, they may also struggle to keep good teachers in other subjects, such as languages, where funding is tighter and they could be competing with a specialist language college just a few miles away. Teaching in those subjects could suffer, at a time when firms are seeking engineers with business as well as technical abilities.

Dismissing this concern, Prentice says: ‘The schools still have to teach the National Curriculum, but it gives them the chance to offer enhanced provision in one area, and that helps them to focus and raise achievement levels.’

Taking exam results as a measure of success suggests specialist schools are beating other comprehensives hands down. In 2000, government figures show the 393 specialist schools created before September 1999 averaged 53% of students achieving five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C, compared with 43% for all other maintained schools.

The schools have also been successful in their chosen speciality. Research by the Technology Colleges Trust shows technology colleges averaged 51% of their students achieving A* to C in design technology in 1998, compared to 44% for all other maintained schools, including selective schools.

All the evidence suggests the schools’ focus on their speciality does result in more students taking those subjects at GCSE and achieving better results, says Dr Anne West, director of the Centre for Educational Research at the London School of Economics.

But there are concerns that schools chosen for specialist status are already successful, while those from more disadvantaged areas could be left further behind in the funding stakes. ‘It is important that it is not just a reward for already successful schools,’ says West. ‘It is a question of balance: we need more schools to address the needs of disaffected young people – focusing on engineering may be one way to do that.’

The success of the UK’s 15 City Technology Colleges, created in the late 1980s and early 1990s under the Conservatives, provides a glimpse of what specialist engineering schools could achieve, says Michael Sanderson, chief executive of Emta.

Unlike specialist schools, these colleges were built from scratch and entirely funded by private firms. But like specialist schools, they also focus on subjects like technology and maths.

‘They have attracted private money to what are genuinely specialist technology schools, and have been an enormous success. Firms put money into schools near their factories, giving them a pool of young people to suck into their apprenticeship schemes.’

Often the schools produce more skilled young people than the firm needs, and a large number of potential engineering apprentices are released onto the local employment market to be eagerly recruited by smaller firms without large training budgets.

But will specialist schools tempt young people into engineering, or is the profession’s poor image too ingrained? ‘I don’t think it matters whether young people are interested in engineering as such, as long as they study a technical subject,’ says Sanderson. Emta is considering changing its entire approach by encouraging more young people to study maths, science and technology subjects, rather than ‘flogging’ the word engineering. ‘Research shows that words like technology are more of a turn-on than the word engineering, so if we can suck them in by stealth, I’m happy to do so,’ Sanderson adds.

Plugging teaching gaps

Emta is working with Regional Development Agencies to identify gaps in technology and science teaching provision. It will try to plug any gaps it finds by funding specialist schools, along with funding from the Engineering Employers’ Federation and from member companies of both bodies. ‘There are going to be barren areas where provision is needed,’ Sanderson says.

The consortium initially plans to offer sponsorship to three schools looking to apply for specialist engineering status, and hopes to extend this funding to other schools if these first colleges are a success, says Ann Bailey, head of education and training at the EEF.

‘The schools provide a mechanism for introducing people to engineering’s everyday value. We are not seeking to make everyone engineers, but those who wish to will have the chance to concentrate on maths, engineering and design, and technology.’

Schools may also introduce student apprenticeships for those interested in taking the Modern Apprenticeship route into engineering, she adds.

Aeroengine maker Rolls-Royce is so convinced specialist schools work that it has sponsored four technology colleges in areas around its largest factories, including two within a mile of each other in Derby. At these sites, the company has few problems recruiting apprentices, says Margaret Gildea, director of human resources at Rolls-Royce: ‘We have not had any difficulty recruiting apprentices, and I’m sure our sponsorship of technology colleges has helped in that.’

The company has ‘sponsor governors’ on the boards of its technology colleges, and offers work experience and careers evenings. Teachers are invited to see how Rolls-Royce operates, while the firm’s engineers visit the school to offer their expertise.

Support in planning the school curriculum is also offered, but Gildea dismisses the idea that specialist schools could become ‘corporate colleges’, run by a company to suit its needs rather than those of students. ‘Most pupils at our technology colleges will not end up working at Rolls-Royce; they go to university. But we hope they will become engineering graduates.’

She concludes: ‘We are very supportive of specialist schools – because we have seen the effects.’

Sidebar: Technology college makes the grades

Thomas Telford in Telford, Shropshire is widely recognised as one of the UK’s best secondary schools. It specialises in maths, science and technology, and topped the GCSE results tables last year, when it became the first comprehensivein whih all of its pupils achieved six or more GCSEs at grades A* to C.

This year, students look to have bettered that result with at least nine GCSEs at higher grades.

As one of 15 City Technology Colleges, the school is independent of local council control. Its £3m development was sponsored by construction firm Tarmac, and the City of London Guild of Mercers. As a result, most of its governors hail from industry.The Conservative government approached both companies to support the school in the late 1980s, and they found the concept very attractive, says John Bowater, one of the school’s governors and group executive director of Tarmac, which provided £1m in sponsorship.

‘Tarmac was growing rapidly at the time, but we found young people did not have the core skills we required, particularly from a technical point of view. So we thought it would benefit us to gain a degree of influence.’

Students are taught for between 31 and 35 hours a week, compared to the national average of 23.5 hours, and the school also operates a longer year. Teachers spend the extra time on specialist subjects, and helping students develop an understanding of industry and commerce.

‘We tried to create more of a business than a school environment, to give youngsters more autonomy and responsibility, and prepare them for life after they leave,’ says Bowater.

Any fears that a longer school day would deter youngsters, or that the strong emphasis on technology subjects from age 11 might worry parents, are calmed by the flood of applications the school receives each year, with over 1,000 applicants for 168 places.

The pay of the college’s teachers is performance-related, and they can earn up to 10% more than at other schools, helping it attract the best staff. The head of the careers department is a former Tarmac personnel manager, who works with industrial consultants to offer students a professional advisory service.

The school has developed an information, communication and technology GNVQ which it sells to other schools, and has been asked by the government to support the creation of a similar college, now called city academies, in nearby Walsall.

‘When we got involved we expected to have a strong intake of youngsters from Thomas Telford into Tarmac,’ says Bowater, ‘but 85-90% go on to university, so we have been victims of our own success’.