Children should be introduced to engineering skills as soon as they arrive at secondary school, or even earlier, if Britain is to revive its flagging industrial base. This was the unanimous view of teachers and industrialists at an industryeducation seminar organised by the Smallpeice Trust at the end of last year.
Science and technology should be as familiar to pupils as English and maths, said the schools representatives, even if this means putting technology into the primary school curriculum. Industrial processes and expertise should be introduced into the classroom.
They also insisted that fellow teachers should offer impartial careers advice, whatever the impact on sixth-form numbers: fifth-formers should be told if they might be better suited to a modern apprenticeship with a firm.
For their part, the industrialists said that students should be introduced to "the discipline of engineering" at the start of key stage 3 (age 11), while children as young as eight should be taken on regular visits to factories and design offices.
Engineering has not only suffered in the wider economy; it has had problems right through the education system. After several false starts and re-writes, it was only this autumn that secondary schools got a complete 11-16 curriculum in technology. A curriculum, that is, that everyone agrees on, and appears to be workable.
The subject remains, however, poorly funded nationally. A recent study found that technology teachers were scavenging for teaching materials in industrial skips.
Universities, meanwhile, are having difficulties filling their engineering courses. The shortage of potential engineers, associated with a decline in A-level physics and mathematical mechanics, has led people to question the viability of some university departments.
Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University told the recent Association for Science Education conference that higher education should consider cutting some of the 105 engineering courses currently available. He also criticised the Government for its failure to invest in professional science and engineering.
The Smallpeice Trust has become best known for its former sponsorship of teacher training at city technology colleges. None the less, its main mission is to sponsor industry education links.
"Commercially, our nation's emphasis has moved away from engineering, towards the service industries," said Philip Goward, general manager of the trust. "Hence this seminar, which has been attended by people willing to get their hands dirty clawing back that ground, before it's too late.
"World-beating engineering is what made Great Britain great, and could do again in the future. No one is telling these young people that they must follow a career in engineering, but surely they should be taught the rudiments, so that at least they do not ignore engineering altogether, particularly when it is such an inextricable part of modern life."
The Smallpeice Trust runs residential courses for pupils from the age of 13 upwards. It can be contacted on 01926 336 423