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Engineering classes are faulty

Student engineers are more likely to fail or drop out of their poorly-taught courses, say inspectors. Ngaio Crequer reports

THE CLASSROOM teaching of engineering in colleges is often dull and uninspiring, with extensive dictation and copying from whiteboards, and staff failing to monitor students' learning.

The proportion of grade ones and twos (outstanding and good) awarded for engineering courses between 1997 and 1999 is also significantly lower than for other subjects.

Although teaching and learning were "at least satisfactory" in practical workshops, engineering has much to do to match the achievements of other programme areas, according to a report by the Further Education Funding Council inspectorate.

The report was based on 85 inspections carried out between September 1997 and August 1999, plus visits to a further 49 colleges.

Although the number of people employed in engineering is expected to fall, natural wastage will lead to a requirement to train people new to the industry. About 350,000 new craft and operative recruits will need to be trained each year, as well as 80,000 in the "science and engineering associate professional and technical occupations".

In 1997-98, 365 of 423 further education colleges had courses in engineering and technology. Of these, 100 colleges had fewer than 100 students on such courses. The number with more than 1,000 students on engineering courses has fallen from 123 in 1994-5 to 72 in 1997-8.

There was a 35 per cent increase in enrolments between 1994-5 and 1997-8, including a remarkable 47 per cent increase in part-timers.

There was a 9 per cent decline in student numbers in 1998-9 but this does not mean a major decline in courses. Changes in qualifications led to some students being assigned to other programme areas.

The overall pass rates in engineering remain low, say the inspectors: 58 per cent in 1997 and 55 per cent in 1996.

Advanced technician and NVQ level 3 pass rates have been above the average in both years but are still not good.

The low pass rates owe much to the poor performance of 16 to 18- year-old students on level 1 and 2 courses. They have pass rates which are "significantly below the average for all programme areas". One reason may be the heavy amount of portfolio work required of the students, with some being unable to meet deadlines.

Another problem is keeping the students on the courses, although this has improved slightly over the years. The picture is mixed, but most departments have poor retention rates on at least some of their courses.

Some students leave early because they get a job, but the inspectors say that few colleges systematically record the destinations of leavers so accurate analysis is impossible.

Mathematics is a key subject for engineers. Most students on advanced courses have a minimum of grade C in GCSE in maths but "a significant minority" do not. "A weak grounding in mathematics continues to provide substantial problems for the teaching of mathematics and science in engineering courses."

Most colleges routinely assess the literacy and numeracy skills of their students, and offer additional support if required.

Some engineering departments report that up to 90 per cent of level 2 students need some form of additional support. Moreover, the drop-out from additional support programmes is high.

The inspectors say it is more likely to be successful if: extra help is provided during normal classes; students are able to work with vocationally relevant material; and there is perceived to be no stigma attached to requiring help.

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