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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Engineering Skills (Perkins Review)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

During a debate in Parliament Meg gave the following contribution.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution.

The Perkins Review is an important publication. It clearly shows that the Government and others need to do much more to ensure we are not disadvantaged more than we are by the lack of people with engineering skills or by people not using the engineering skills they have. The review highlights the low proportion of women working in engineering and states: One of the main reasons…is girls’ subject choices in school.”

Few girls study mathematics, and even fewer physics, through to A-level. In 2011, 49% of state-funded schools had no girls taking A-level physics at all. Much has been written on the issue, including by me. Many initiatives have been tried, but the proportion of women engineers remains stubbornly small.

Recommendation 7 of the Perkins review states: Government should continue to support schools to increase progression to A-level physics, especially among female students.” That is to be welcomed.

An important development is the latest report by the Institute of Physics, which was launched only yesterday. It contains important information on subject choices in secondary schools. Entitled “Closing Doors,” it shows the individual consequences to young people of choosing particular subjects for A-level - in particular, the decision not to study physics closes doors to a wide range of engineering roles.

Importantly, the research is undertaken on a wide range of subjects: three that are predominantly studied by girls at A-level and identified as such, and three predominantly studied by boys and identified as boys’ subjects. The research shows that it is not just in physics that there is a significant failure to challenge gender stereotyping.

Simply cajoling girls to study physics, however, is not an answer; there are wider issues of gender stereotyping in schools. The Gender Equality Duty, introduced by the Equality Act 2006, requires public bodies to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between men and women.” That also means between girls and boys.

Some schools do challenge stereotyping, and we need more research to understand how they do that and what works for students. Schools across the country that have poor results have been analysed by the Institute of Physics, and they need support and help to change and improve.

Professor Perkins argues in recommendation 5 that we should be aiming to inspire 11 to 14-year-olds to become tomorrow’s engineers. However, like the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire, I contend that our efforts to broaden young people’s views of where science can take them must begin at the very least at primary school, if not earlier. Most children form an early view about the kind of careers that are open to them, so focusing on secondary school children is likely to be too little, too late.

We should ensure that all nursery, primary and secondary education is free from gender bias in the roles presented to children. A previous report by the Institute of Physics, “It’s Different for Girls,” outlined how single-sex schools are significantly better than co-educational schools at getting girls into non-traditional subjects.

That confirms the vital importance of role models to the young when they are considering careers, as well as the real benefit of someone not feeling like the odd one out if they decide to study a particular subject. At a co-educational school, a girl choosing physics is likely to be in a minority; in a single-sex school that is clearly not a problem. I do not advocate single-sex schools at all, but we must learn why they are getting more girls to study physics than co-educational schools.

Role models are very important, and in Sheffield we have an inspiring one. Ruth Amos is 24 years old and already running her own company.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Meg Munn: Before the suspension, I was about to talk about Ruth Amos, aged 24, who is already running her own company. She designed a product, the StairSteady, for her GCSE resistant materials course, to help people who have difficulty using stairs but do not have the money or space for a stairlift. We should champion stories such as Ruth’s in our schools.

As hon. Members have said today, the Department for Education has a crucial role in ensuring that young people have the necessary skills to pursue a career in engineering. I was concerned to learn that many local schools offer only a generic GCSE, so students are prevented from even considering physics at A-level.

The state-funded secondary education sector, including Academies and free schools, should not seek league table success by opting for so-called easier subjects at GCSE. All must offer and promote the three individual sciences and maths. That should be coupled with an embedded model of careers education in which curriculum learning is linked to a wide range of real-life careers.

I do not have time today to cover the woeful state of our careers advice service, but it must be tackled if we are to have any chance of achieving the outcomes to which Perkins rightly aspires.

Of course, a traditional academic approach is not the only way to develop tomorrow’s engineers. Recommendation 10 of the Perkins review rightly stresses the importance of providing élite vocational provision. We have seen the success of that in Sheffield.

The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing is focusing on recruiting more female apprentices, with a new cohort joining in April. Sheffield Hallam University’s women in science, engineering and technology team is providing advice and support on how to make that ambition a reality. Furthermore, our brand new University Technical College boasts 14% female students in its first year, and deserves credit for that when, on average, only 2% of engineering apprentices are female.

Skills shortages in engineering are a national issue, requiring leadership and co-ordination, and Perkins was right to call for a more joined-up approach. Having worked on the issue for a long time, I am familiar with the plethora of Institutes involved in this work and the need to co-ordinate better, but I think it was a mistake for the Government to withdraw all funding from the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, which was an excellent co-ordinating organisation for all initiatives involving gender.

I suggest to the Minister that it is not only important to work across the engineering institutions, but that joining up initiatives in geographical areas might lead to better outcomes.

In 2011, I edited a pamphlet on women in science, engineering and technology, and following on from that we have developed in Sheffield a STEM strategy group. One initiative has been to give young people the chance to try some hands-on activities, with teachers having the opportunity to talk to university experts about what they can do to support girls into STEM subjects post-16.

Over the last few years, engagement with employers has improved enormously and they have been integral in developing the apprenticeship programme at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. Many employers are active supporters of our new University Technical College.

Encouraging girls and women into these areas is not enough if the culture in the workplace does not change. The Perkins review rightly contends that employers must do much more to support people returning to engineering following a career break. Adopting measures such as flexible working and better managed career breaks for maternity leave also benefits employers.

For example, Mott MacDonald, an engineering firm in Sheffield, benefited when it allowed Cathy Travers, its most senior female engineer, to work during term time only when her children were young. That adaptability rewarded the firm with loyalty, and it retained a talented and experienced employee. The best performing companies are often those with diversity high on their agenda. Organisations with a strong diversity and inclusion culture reduce average employee turnover by half, quadruple work force innovation and double customer engagement.

The Perkins review tells us that to fuel the long-term pipeline for skilled engineers, we must ensure that all state-funded schools actively promote engineering as a career option for women, but we should not stop there. We need an environment in the engineering sector that welcomes women. Only when all our young people have the opportunity to realise their potential can we ensure that Britain develops the very best of tomorrow’s engineers.


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