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Goodbye to the oily rag

A new generation of specialist schools aims to forge a modern image for engineering and create a workforce fit for the 21st century, reports Elaine Williams

Dainty bowls of chocolates and bottles of sparkling water sit on white tablecloths as Byron's daughter, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, stares down at staff gathered in the hall of Congleton high school.

The image on the overhead projector is significant. Ada, though elegant in taffeta and frills, has a piercing gaze. Not for her the wild romance and poetic passion of her father. Ada is an engineer. Her passion is the cold beauty of geometry, the metaphysics of mathematics; her creativity is channelled into the analytical engine she helped invent in the 1840s. Her foresight was to realise that this engine might be used to compose complex music or graphics; that it would have practical as well as scientific application. Indeed, the analytical engine is regarded as a forerunner of the modern computer and Ada the first computer programmer.

Teaching staff at this Cheshire school gaze on Ada's feminine beauty as the true icon of engineering. Congleton will become a specialist school of engineering in September and its head, Les Jones, wants his staff to banish the stereotypical image of the engineer as a man with an oily rag and a bagful of nuts and bolts; to leave behind the discipline's association with sweat, dirt and noise. Mr Jones believes the image of engineering should be as crisp and graceful as the clothes that lend a professional sheen to this staff training session.

The man working the overheads is Richard Hinckley, Congleton's vice-chair of governors, a former electronics engineer and computer programmer. For those teachers who might be apprehensive that specialist engineering status will mean the sidelining of humanities, drama or art, he offers assurances that engineering is the creative element in a technological world: it analyses, designs and creates solutions that address real-life needs. It happens in theatre; in art; in the environment; in biomedical science; indeed, in most spheres of human activity. Engineering is the "approach", technology is the means. "We live in an approximate world. Engineering is a systematic method of making things to achieve improvement," he says.

Mr Jones is at pains to show how engineering status will raise the game for subjects across the board, and most of his staff seem to be behind him.

They believe Congleton's planned engineering innovations studio will benefit all disciplines.

Russell Spink, the school's music co-ordinator, believes the new status will allow him to make music more attractive and accessible to many more pupils. "We can go more down the road of sound engineering and providing digital solutions to sound creativity. It's an alternative but complementary approach to traditional methods of making music."

Congleton is proud of its reputation in the performing arts, and puts on a major show each year; this year, students performed Return to the Forbidden Planet. Mr Spink says the changes will enhance the production side of future performances, widening the appeal of performing arts to students.

Jill Davis, Congleton's co-ordinator of drama programmes, plans to offer lighting engineering as an option within her department. "We buy in lighting and sound equipment for our productions, but in future we hope to employ technicians who will train pupils to run the whole thing in-house.

It means those pupils who don't want to tread the boards can be involved in a different way."

But the school also intends to expand its language provision. From September, Congleton will offer Italian as well as German, French and Spanish lessons. Specialist school status boosts secondary budgets and, at first, Mr Jones considered going for language status, but then realised that engineering would benefit many disciplines outside the core subjects of science, maths and design technology - including languages.

Another Congleton governor, Torfeh Sadat Shafai, a lecturer at Staffordshire University, was formerly professor of engineering at the Technical University of Hamburg. Through his support Mr Jones has made several trips to Germany to set up an exchange scheme with the seven Hamburg schools that collaborate with the university on engineering projects. Mr Jones has also talked to Alitalia, the Italian airline that has links with the European Centre for Aerospace Training at Macclesfield college, about the possibility of collaborative engineering projects.

Macclesfield staff will be helping Congleton teach the dual-award engineering GCSE from September. "We see engineering as an elegant solution to improving the school," says Mr Jones. With companies such as the electronics giant Siemens on the doorstep, it hasn't been difficult to persuade parents that engineering status is a logical option.

But Mr Jones believes the engineering curriculum in schools has to be updated, and he is willing to pilot changes. He supports Professor Sa'ad Medhat, former director of education, policy and innovation for the Engineering and Technology Board, which represents 600,000 engineers, in his campaign for school syllabuses to take account of contemporary developments. Professor Medhat says syllabuses are locked in the 19th century - "outdated and old-fashioned" - and lack appeal for young people.

Janet Renou, head of Skipton girls' high school in North Yorkshire, faced an uphill task in persuading parents and governors that engineering status was the way forward for her high-achieving school, a selective grammar ranked among the top 50 state schools nationally for attainment. Skipton's parents and governors believed engineering status would convey the wrong impression: one of technical rather than academic excellence.

Ms Renou enlisted the support of Edinburgh University's school of engineering and electronics to show parents the "blue sky" projects - such as in biomedicine and the aero industry - that engineers are involved in and to foster an appreciation of engineering as a vital discipline in the world economy. Former pupils who have forged successful careers in engineering, such as the site manager for the new Wembley stadium, Jackie Bowker, are being enlisted as role models to promote their discipline.

"Engineering these days is about true innovation," says Ms Renou, "and we believe our specialist school status will contribute to world-class achievement in science, mathematics, technology and enterprise."

Engineering undoubtedly faces a skills shortage. Demand is great in almost every sector, universities have trouble filling engineering undergraduate places and only 8 per cent of engineers are women. Ms Renou can see that pupils who choose a career in engineering will be in great demand. "Putting girls into high-level engineering opens up the world's markets to them," she says.

By September, 35 schools in England will have specialist engineering school status. Some, such as Faringdon community college, in Oxfordshire, are trying to widen the subject's appeal by teaching it through humanities to all key stage 3 pupils. In RE, for example, students are looking at the ethical and moral implications of genetic engineering; in geography they are studying the environmental impact of transport development.

Barry McGregor, subject leader for engineering at the Specialist Schools Trust, believes the subject's stock will rise "now we have a vanguard of schools driving home what modern engineering is about". Engineering has become a more refined, high-tech undertaking, but pupils scrutinising undergraduate prospectuses are often overwhelmed by the number and variety on offer. "There have been many isolated initiatives to encourage pupils into engineering," says Mr McGregor, "but this whole-school approach is new and should be welcomed."

The profile of engineering in schools is being raised this week by the merger of the Young Electronic Designer (YEDA) and the Young Engineers for Britain awards into one overarching body. The new organisation, Young Engineers, will carry an educational programme backed by government, industry, trade associations and training authorities with advice and mentoring for projects, which will culminate annually in a Celebration of Engineering event. Malcolm McLaren-Clark, chief executive of YEDA, says the new organisation will provide a "sharper focus" to get across to young people the exciting prospects that engineering careers can provide.


* The number of UK students accepting offers of university places in engineering fell by 17 per cent in the 10 years to 2001.

* Numbers gaining physics A-level fell by 17 per cent between 1993 and 2002.

* The drop-out rate on degree courses may be as high as 36 per cent.

* There has been a fall in the number of full-time engineering students in further education.

* Take-up of the engineering GCSE introduced in September 2002 has exceeded expectations. Up to 7,000 pupils are being taught the subject in 291 schools. The target had been 5,000 pupils and 260 schools by September 2004.

* Construction, electronics engineering and computer science need more engineers and those with "technical skills for the new knowledge economy", according to the Department of Trade and Industry White Paper on science and innovation, July 2000.

* Only 1 per cent of secondary schoolgirls want to become professional engineers.

* Only 14.9 per cent of engineering undergraduates are women.

* Up to 51 per cent of new engineering graduates gain professional positions, almost twice the proportion of new graduates overall.

* The starting salary for engineering graduates is between 20 per cent and 33 per cent more than that of graduates generally (DTI Barclays first destination study).

Source: Engineering Council (Digest of Engineering Statistics 2002)

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