The supply of science, technology, engi­neering and maths learners from school is a worry and action is needed, but in the meantime what can be done to make the subjects more attractive in the world of FE. Carol Snape considers looking beyond the GCSE and A-level options.

If the UK’s economic recovery is not to be “constrained” by a lack of engineering skills, as Prof John Perkins, chief scientific adviser at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) warned in a recent report, then the “substantial demand for engineers” must be met quickly.

Professor Perkins has issued “a call to ac­tion” to government, industry and educators to “step up” to inspire future engineering talent and address skills shortages.

The report [Review of Engineering Skills, BIS, November 2013] highlights the fact that “the vocational route into engineering is an under-exploited asset for the profession” and “there is real opportunity for the sector to take advantage of the new FE freedoms and flexibilities and take ownership of future skills needs”.

At the launch of the report, Business Secre­tary Vince Cable echoed his words saying that too few teenagers were studying science.

The number of young people choosing these subjects post-16 is certainly relatively low, especially among women.

The report highlights the fact that while in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of students studying three individual sciences at GCSE and there is no gender gap; a significant gap starts to show at A-level.

The gender gap in physics is most striking: it is the second most popular A-level subject for boys in England, but only 17th among girls. No less than 49 per cent of state funded co-educational schools in England failed to enter a single female candidate for A-level physics.

Something must be done to engage and enthuse learners, particularly those who did not study science, technology, engineering and maths subjects pre-16

The gender gap in A-level physics constricts the number of women in the talent pipeline for engineering as well as the physical sciences. In 2012, 17 per cent (362) of all state-funded schools and colleges did not have any A-level physics entrants.

Something must be done to engage and enthuse learners, particularly those who did not study science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects pre-16. A starting point may be to attract learners to the Stem subjects in FE colleges via a non-GCSE or A-level route.

QCF qualifications in the Stem subjects are emerging that have been designed to meet the needs of learners who are interested in sci­ence, technology and engineering but have not studied science at Key Stage Four or who have not achieved GCSEs in the subject.

They offer an alternative, more applied, ap­proach than the GCSE, giving the learner the knowledge, understanding and skills that will enable them to progress to qualifications in a science or technology related area at a higher level.

And, as these QCF Stem qualifications are relatively new they have been designed with 16 to 19 Study Programmes in mind.

As with all QCF qualifications they offer a credit-based approach where learners can see their achievements building to a full qualifica­tion.

The applied science and technology qualifi­cations from OCN Eastern Region, for exam­ple, offer a grounding in core subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics and electronics and a range of optional study areas including forensic detection.

Such qualifications can also be used with learners pre-16 who require an alternative, more applied approach than GCSE science qualifications to set them on the path to suc­cess.

Prof Perkins says the profession suffers “from widespread misconceptions and lack of visibility that deter young people, and especial­ly girls from pursuing it as a career”.

Let’s change these misconceptions by offer­ing engaging and interesting qualifications to the engineers of the future.

Carol Snape, chief executive, OCN Eastern Region