Comment: How we inspire the next generation of scientists – Engineers Week, 2014

by Liam Byrne | 05.11.13 | in: Uncategorized, Universities, Science & Skills, Westminster

To mark Engineers week, shadow higher education minister Liam Byrne stresses the importance of inspiring the next generation of scientists.

For three years, Britain has been trapped in an economy where prices grow fast – and wages grow slow. Today, Ed Miliband has spoken about the practical steps we can take to tackle that challenge and tackle it now. But we know too that in the long term we can only break out of the trap we’re in if we build a different kind of economy – with high skilled jobs and wages to match.

That’s why this week’s reports that we’re simply not training our workforce to win in a race to the top are terrible news. It’s now clearer than ever that the government is setting course for a low pay, low skill, low growth economy. Our GDP is still a shocking 2.5% below its 2008 levels. Business investment has fallen by nearly 11% since the start of 2012. Export growth has been sluggish, despite a weaker currency. So much for rebalancing the economy. Worst of all, productivity has collapsed – 7% lower than it was in 2008 and 80% of the jobs created since June 2010 are low paid.

We just can’t compete in the new world like this. Just look at what’s happening all around us. China is spending $2.5 trillion creating leadership positions in seven sectors of the future. Engineering graduates are pouring out of Chinese universities. Yet here in Britain we have a million young people out of work – while employers consistently report severe shortages in recruiting people with STEM qualifications.

We can’t go on like this, and as we mark Tomorrow’s Engineers week, we need to be clear and determined about what needs to change. We need fresh thinking about how we encourage the today’s schoolkids to aim high to become tomorrow’s engineers.

So, I ask you; how can we expect to train tomorrow’s scientists if we allow unqualified teachers in Free Schools and Academies? 1 in 10 teachers in Free Schools are unqualified, meaning they do not need any qualifications at all to teach in schools – a fact which seriously threatens the standards of teaching in STEM subjects. Al Madinah Free School’s Ofsted report was damning: “There are frequent occasions where pupils are insufficiently challenged; for example, in a mathematics lesson pupils spent most of the 55 minutes cutting-out and pasting shapes and learned little that was mathematical.” Labour will end the watering down of standards by David Cameron, ensuring all teachers in our state funded schools become qualified. We have also announced that under Labour everyone will study maths and English to 18 – we want all young people to continue core subjects as they are essential for what they do next.

Second, we need careers services that inspire young pupils to become scientists and engineers. Careers services have become all but extinct and young people now lack any independent advice on what skills to develop to land a local job and a local career. We need to think radically about rebuilding a system that doesn’t let young people leave school with a plan for their future careers, whether that’s a university or an apprenticeship offer.

And third, we need world class universities for sure – but we also need bigger and better vocational routes into science and engineering. The Science Council is doing precisely this, helping build a register for technicians and providing clear advice on career building, setting up a vocational track to becoming a registered or chartered scientist. We think it would help a lot if young people had a clear vocational route to a gold standard qualification at 18 called a Technical Baccalaureate. Employers should be involved in the accreditation of vocational qualifications, and we should ensure that anyone studying for a Technical Baccalaureate successfully completes a programme of work experience.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson standing up in Scarborough to say that Britain must harness the scientific revolution to win in the years to come. Fifty years on, as the race to top intensifies, it’s clearer than ever that we need to radically improve our preparation of tomorrow’s engineers.

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