Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Engineering A Future: why a new diploma is a hit with the girls

Published By: The Independent - 04 Feb 2010

Not many teenage girls wax lyrical about steam engines and depth gauges, let alone devote their lunchtimes to building a model racing car, but the students at Newstead Wood School, a selective girls’ school in Bromley, south London, are pioneers. Alongside their GCSEs, about 20 of them are taking the new engineering diploma – and loving every minute.

“You do such a wide range of activities, you go to college and work with machinery. It’s so challenging, working things out for yourself,” says Jessica Salisbury, 16. “And you work in such different ways,” says Bethany Hall, 15. “For one of our assessments we had to look at how a torch works, and take it apart, and then design a torch for a teacher going camping.”

Their teachers are equally enthusiastic about the course, which includes electronics, mechanical engineering, manufacturing and engineering design. Jenny Wright, head of engineering, says: “Students learn through practical approaches, the content is varied, they get to work in teams and solve problems. It’s also very challenging, which for our students is important.”

And Andy Colegate, the school’s engineering technical manager, who teaches one unit of the course, agrees. “It turns out practical and competent students. It’s not a wishy-washy qualification or an easy option. As an engineer myself, I think it is a really positive thing for the profession.”

The engineering diploma is one of range of new diplomas that bridge the academic-vocational divide and that are currently being introduced to schools and colleges -- but not without difficulty. The multi-level qualifications are “delivered” by “consortia” of schools, colleges and industry, and critics say they are complex and difficult to organise. Schools have been reluctant to take on the timetable challenges, government targets have been unrealistic, employers have been wary, and teaching standards have proved variable.

But eighteen months after it was launched, the Engineering Diploma is starting to show its true metal. Students are enthusiastic, employers are involved in designing and delivering it, and some top universities are giving it their backing.

Geoff Parks, the director of admissions for Cambridge University, is an engineer who has been closely involved in the diploma’s development, and Cambridge will be accepting the advanced diploma as an entry qualification for its engineering courses, provided students also have A level physics and additional maths, from this autumn when the first students come through. “If any university engineering tutor sits down and goes through the specifications they will readily appreciate that the students are learning good stuff. I don’t know anyone who has looked at it in detail who has a bad word to say about it,” says Parks. “Universities are seeing a decline in practical skills among recruits who come down the A level route, partly because of what they do in schools but also because so many of them spend their free time playing games in a virtual world rather than mending their bike or whatever it was they did in the past. This diploma gives students those skills.”

Some universities are still hanging fire, but many more have come of board since the maths content of the advanced diploma was bolstered last year with an extra ‘maths for engineering’ certificate.

“This is very similar to A level maths,” says Fred Maillardet, chair of the maths task group of the Engineering Professors’ Council which developed the additional qualification. “In fact, to be frank, we used the opportunity to improve the A level, which people had come to feel was too much about ticking the boxes and not enough about real understanding.” Real-life applications are used for each topic, including looking how escalators, cranes and diggers work, and these case studies are now being downloaded by other maths teachers, he says. “People always talk about this diploma bridging the academic and vocational divide, but for engineers that idea is a nonsense. There is no such divide.”

The diploma, introduced in the autumn of 2008, has three levels, and takes students out of schools and into colleges, universities and the work place. There have been few takers for the foundation stage, aimed at less able GCSE candidates, but about six thousand pupils are currently taking the higher diploma, equivalent to seven good GCSEs. And, although only about 700 students are taking the advanced diploma, equivalent to three and a half A levels, numbers are expected to rise when today’s higher level students choose their post-16 options. Students are also imaginatively mixing diplomas with GCSEs and A levels to greater degree than was expected.

Meanwhile its fan base is growing. “Employers are now getting involved in all sorts of ways. They are teaching projects and helping with assessments, and this is all applied learning, so there is something in it for them as well, ” says Claire Donovan, who is responsible for the diploma at the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies. “They get opportunities to train their own staff, and they get problem-solving from groups of young people who haven’t been told it can’t be done! It has completely exploded the gap between industry and education. It’s strong, relevant, it’s been tested with the broadest possible range of employers and I have not met one who hasn’t enjoyed working on it.”

Severn Trent Water offers students work-related learning, a range of practical site visits, work experience and mentoring. “Our recent induction days for the students received excellent feedback,” says Tony Wray, chief executive. “Our company is a hundred per cent behind the diplomas.”

“Where employers are helping deliver it and partnerships are being built up it is going really well,” says Graham Lane, chair of the Engineering Diploma Development Partnership. “Increasingly the method of teaching is completely different from the classroom, and word about it is growing.” Exciting new developments include students setting up their own commercial companies, and new opportunities for advanced diploma students to do five or six weeks’ work experience in Europe.

However difficulties remain. In some places the diploma is being taught only in the classroom. In others, engineering work placements are hard to come by. More links are needed between schools and employers, and some universities remain suspicious. Many students who are enthusiastically taking the diploma during their GCSE years do not feel able to take it at the advanced level, because they do not want narrow or close off options. “They have to be confident that universities will accept it, and some of the universities don’t even seem to have heard of it,” says Jenny Wright.

Then there is the really big one. What happens if there is a change of government? In the past the Tories have declared they will scrap all diplomas. However, more recently, shadow ministers seem to have taken on board the enthusiasm of students and employers for the new qualification.

Everyone is holding their breath. But it is already clear is that if a new government throws this fledgling out of the window, or turns it into more narrowly vocational qualification, as some fear it might, then a truly innovative educational programme will have been lost.