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'Tune up engineering'

Leading academic calls on ministers to overhaul the oily-rag image of engineers. Neal Smith reports

Making engineering exciting is the mission of Professor Sa'ad Medhat, who is lobbying ministers for an overhaul of the subject in schools.

"We have to move away from the image of engineering as oily rags and dirt," said the visiting professor at Bournemouth university and expert in electronics. "There are many exciting subjects, such as nanotechnology and computer-aided design that could appeal to young people."

Following a recent tour of schools, he met Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, to tell him that much teaching of the subject is boring and old-fashioned. He is calling for a task force of academics, teachers and industry figures to advise the Government on producing changes to the curriculum. These could be tested, he said, at the 26 schools with specialist engineering status.

Professor Medhat, the former director of education, policy and innovation for the Engineering and Technology Board, which represents 600,000 engineers, said: "The teaching of engineering in our schools is totally out-of-touch with the latest developments. It is no wonder students are being turned off the subject when the teachers are well behind the times."

Richard Smith, director of science and technology at the sector skills council for science engineering and manufacturing, Semta, said: "The subject needs to be sexed up and the curriculum made much more appealing and engaging."

Les Jones, head of Congleton high, said he would be willing to pilot changes to the curriculum for engineering in his Cheshire school.

In September it will become an engineering college but only 20 out of the 180 pupils starting their GCSEs that term will be taking engineering. And the exam, he believes, is too manufacturing based.

"We need to move away from bashing things out in the workshop to thinking about solving problems and using the latest technology to do this," he said.

But it is not all doom and gloom for the subject. Since it was introduced as a GCSE in 2002, take-up has exceeded expectations. More than 7,000 pupils are now being taught the subject in 291 schools. The target had been 5,000 pupils, in 260 schools, by September 2004.

The target of 12,000 pupils taking vocational exams in engineering and manufacturing at 16, by September 2005, has also been broken, with 14,000 studying the subjects.

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