Decline in design and technology could narrow social mobility in engineering

Lack of triple science and D&T GCSE could be holding pupils back from a career in engineering.

23 February 2022

The decline in the number of pupils studying design and technology (D&T) could be preventing children from poorer backgrounds becoming engineers, a new report suggests.

A study from the Sutton Trust and the Bridge Group published on Wednesday found that poorer pupils are less likely to access some of the subjects needed to study engineering at university, which could be narrowing the range of backgrounds represented in the field.

The report says that D&T is a “potential pathway” into engineering but that, between 2010 and 2017, the number of pupils opting to study the subject fell by 42%, with this leading to a “perceived decline in standards in the subject which, in turn, has led to a drop in its perceived value as a qualification for further study and employment”.

The paper says this has made the subject a lower priority for funding, and that as with GCSE triple sciences, the decline of D&T is “more severe” in poorer areas.

It says that the fact engineering is ranked 13th out of 31 overall in how pupils from poorer backgrounds are represented within university courses is partly driven by poorer pupils’ “limited access” to triple science GCSEs, which are often needed for competitive university places.

“This is compounded by the decline of Design and Technology (also more acute among schools in areas of socio-economic disadvantage) – a subject that is considered key to developing young people’s skills and interests in this area,” it says.

It finds that subject choice and attainment gaps between poorer pupils and their peers “persist at A level”, where the availability of subjects such as Physics, D&T and Further Mathematics “is far greater among independent schools and state schools in more affluent areas”.

The report finds that, in engineering, almost three quarters (71%) of people in their 30s from wealthier backgrounds are in managerial roles as opposed to just 39% of those from poorer backgrounds.

And it says that “the split between students taking ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ routes (into engineering) has resulted in a two-tier system that closely aligns with socio-economic divisions”.

However the report notes that engineering is more socially diverse than other professions, with 2017 Labour Force Survey data revealing that 21% of engineers were from poorer backgrounds compared with 6% of doctors and 12% of journalists.

The paper suggests engineering has less of a “class pay gap” between poorer and wealthier entrants because the skills measured in engineering are less subjective, so softer skills such as “polish”, which are more strongly correlated with social background, count for less.

It adds that, historically, engineering may also have been viewed as less “gentlemanly”, leading to a more diverse pool of applicants.

James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, said: “Engineering offers fantastic career prospects so it is great to see that the sector is performing better than most when it comes to socioeconomic diversity.

“Opportunities in engineering are spread throughout the country, giving good employment prospects to young people from different regions and making an important contribution to levelling up.

“However, today’s report also highlights that there is more work to be done, particularly in supporting progression to senior roles.

“It is vital that the engineering sector continues its diversity and inclusion work to make sure it is accessing the very best talent from all sections of society.”

The report recommends that employers collect and analyse data on socioeconomic background, gender and ethnicity to improve access to the field, and that firms should explore ways to widen work experience opportunities for young people from poorer backgrounds.

It adds that firms need to introduce “clear pathways” to support progression for those from poorer backgrounds.

Nik Miller, chief executive of the Bridge Group, said: “While engineering compares favourably against most other professional sectors in relation to socio-economic diversity and inclusion, there are still inequalities in access, progression and pay – and important relationships between this characteristic and others, including gender and ethnicity.

“Bringing together the range of research in this area, we hope this report will inspire action at a time when the imperative for social equality is clear – and the role of our engineering sector more vital than ever.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said D&T is an “excellent subject which opens doors for young people from all backgrounds in a number of engineering careers as well as other high skills jobs”.

He added: “Sadly, the Government downgraded the importance of this subject by excluding it from the so-called English Baccalaureate suite of traditional academic GCSE subjects it wants young people to study.”

Mr Barton said EBacc subjects are “embedded in the performance tables on which schools are judged” while “in a double-whammy, schools have also had to cut their budgets over the past decade because of Government underfunding”.

He said while schools try to offer the subject, “these twin pressures have inevitably driven it to the fringes of the curriculum, along with creative subjects”.

“This makes no sense at all for a Government which wants to introduce a skills revolution in education,” he said.

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