D&T decline ‘stops poorer children being engineers’

The decline in the number of students studying design and technology (D&T) could be preventing children from poorer backgrounds from becoming engineers, a new report warns. The study from the Sutton Trust and the Bridge Group, published today, says that poorer students 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 students opting to study the subject fell by 42 per cent. It adds that this has led 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 is the case with GCSE triple sciences - the decline of D&T is "more severe" in poorer areas. The drop in numbers studying design and technology Responding to the paper, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said that the number of students studying D&T had been pushed down because government policy had "downgraded" the importance of the subject. The paper says the fact that engineering is ranked 13th out of 31 overall in how students 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 socioeconomic disadvantage) - a subject that is considered key to developing young people's skills and interests in this area," it says. The research finds that limited subject choice and attainment gaps between poorer students 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 says that in engineering almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of people in their thirties from wealthier backgrounds are in managerial roles, as opposed to just 39 per cent 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 socioeconomic divisions". However, the report notes that engineering is more socially diverse than other professions, with 2017 Labour Force Survey data revealing that 21 per cent of engineers were from poorer backgrounds compared with 6 per cent of doctors and 12 per cent of journalists. The paper suggests that 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." 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 socioeconomic diversity and inclusion, there are still inequalities in access, progression and pay - and important relationships between this characteristic and others, including gender and ethnicity." Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said the government had "downgraded" the importance of D&T by excluding it from "the so-called English Baccalaureate suite of traditional academic GCSE subjects it wants young people to study". "The English Baccalaureate subjects are embedded in the performance tables on which schools are judged, and in a double-whammy, schools have also had to cut their budgets over the past decade because of government underfunding," he added. "While schools endeavour to offer design and technology, 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 that wants to introduce a skills revolution in education. "It would surely be logical for the government to end this artificial divide between subjects and support design and technology in pre-16 education in order to lay the groundwork for such a revolution, ensure that all young people are able to pursue subjects which interest them, and meet the needs of British industry in training the engineers of the future." Get the biggest education stories of the week delivered straight to your inbox every Friday with the Tes magazine newsletter. 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