View from the Academy: Working together to change perceptions

diversityWith more students taking STEM subjects at A-level, it is crucial that we maintain momentum in our efforts to attract more people into engineering careers. Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive Hayaatun Sillem discusses the drive to change perceptions

Many people have welcomed the rise seen this month in numbers of students taking STEM A-levels. Subjects classed as STEM by the Joint Council for Qualifications accounted for 36.2 per cent of all UK A-level entries this year, compared with 34.5 per cent last year. Entries in all three sciences were up – biology increased by 3.1 per cent and chemistry and physics both increased by 3.4 per cent, while maths remains the most popular A-level. The biggest proportional increase was in computing, where entries rocketed by 23.9 per cent, although this offset a 25 per cent fall in ICT. It was also good to see an increase in entries to STEM A-levels by girls, up 5.5 per cent from last year, including a 6.9 per cent increase in physics and an increase in the number of girls taking computing from 9.8 per cent in 2017 to 11.8 per cent this year.

However, not all STEM subjects fared as well. In design and technology, entries fell by 7.8 per cent. This highlights a serious issue for engineering. Design and technology provides opportunities for students to develop design solutions, informed by their understanding and application of science, mathematics and computing, to solve everyday problems in a practical way. While the popularity of many of the entry-point subjects seems to be rising, design and technology, which provides a vital bridge from STEM subjects to engineering, has been falling for a number of years.

This is why, at a parliamentary reception in early July, we called for politicians and businesses to champion design and technology in local schools, and talk to school leaders about how the subject can be better supported. The call was part of an action plan presented to MPs, engineers and – importantly – young people, who informed its recommendations. Other recommendations included that the government should tie ‘taster days’ into the upcoming careers strategy and that politicians, education providers and businesses should support and promote local careers fairs.

On the same day that A-level results were announced, the latest monthly apprenticeship statistics were published. Here again, the news is less positive, as apprenticeship starts are down once again, from 457,200 in 2016-17 to 315,900 in the equivalent period this year. The UK has long suffered from a perception that vocational pathways are less valuable than academic routes. This is part of a wider challenge to give students better access to high-quality careers advice, including about vocational routes, which is essential if we want more young people from diverse backgrounds to have the opportunity to participate in engineering careers. At the Royal Academy of Engineering, we will continue to work with our partners across the profession to engage policymakers with the recommendations in our action plan, and further, more detailed proposals that address the same challenges.

This effort goes hand in hand with our drive to change perceptions of engineering among young people and their influencers. As I have previously reported in this column, we launched an ambitious campaign in January – This is Engineering – to do just that. On September 10, we launch our second This is Engineering season. Centred on a series of short films that bring to life the breadth of engineering through young role models, the campaign has surpassed our expectations, amassing more than 16 million views from teenagers on social media. A survey of 1,000 young people before and after the campaign launch indicated a 41 per cent increase in the number of teenagers who, after seeing the campaign, said they would consider a career in engineering.

The engineering skills and diversity shortfall is a long-term challenge and, as a consequence, we have set out to make This is Engineering a multi-year campaign. As the government’s Year of Engineering draws to a close, it is crucial that we maintain the momentum of our efforts to attract more people to engineering careers.

But driving a step change in the public perception of engineering and the likelihood of young people pursuing engineering is something we can only do in partnership – and we are continuing to work closely with EngineeringUK both on This is Engineering and the associated programme of schools engagement delivered under the Tomorrow’s Engineers umbrella.

Reflecting that commitment to partnership working, I will soon be handing this column over to colleagues from across the profession. This will be my last column after more than a year and a half of contributions, which I hope have been of some interest to you. My thanks go to The Engineer for offering me this opportunity and to all those who have read and engaged with my articles. I look forward to working with many of you in the years ahead to tackle the issues that I have explored in this column, not least the much-needed step change in the strength and breadth of our talent pipeline.

Season two of This is Engineering will launch on September 10. To watch the new films, visit:

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