Falling numbers of students studying design and technology (D&T) could be preventing children from disadvantaged backgrounds from becoming engineers, a new report suggests.
A study by the Sutton Trust and the Bridge Group published on Wednesday found that poorer students are less likely to access some of the subjects needed to study engineering at university, potentially narrowing the range of backgrounds represented in the field.
The report says D&T is a “potential route” to engineering but that between 2010 and 2017 the number of students choosing to study the subject fell by 42%, leading to a “perceived decline in standards in the subject which, in turn, has led to a decline in its perceived value as a qualification for further education and employment”.
The paper says this has made the subject a lower priority for funding and that, as with the GCSE Triple Sciences, the decline in D&T is “most severe” in poorer areas.
He says the fact that engineering is ranked 13th out of 31 overall in how students from disadvantaged backgrounds are represented in university curricula is partly driven by ‘limited access’ for poorer students triple science GCSEs, which are often required for competitive university places.
“This is compounded by the decline in design and technology (also more acute in schools in lower socio-economic areas) – a subject considered essential for developing young people’s skills and interests in this area,” the report says. .
It finds that subject choice and achievement gaps between poorer students and their peers “persistent at A level,” where the availability of subjects such as physics, D&T and further math “is much greater among independent schools and public schools in wealthier areas”.
The report reveals that, in the field of engineering, almost three-quarters (71%) of 30-somethings from wealthy backgrounds hold management positions, compared to only 39% of those from poorer backgrounds.
And he says that “the separation between students who follow ‘professional’ and ‘academic’ paths (towards engineering) has resulted in a two-tier system that aligns closely with socio-economic divides.”
However, the report notes that engineering is more socially diverse than other professions, with data from the 2017 Labor Force Survey revealing that 21% of engineers were from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared to 6% of doctors and 12% journalists.
The article suggests that engineering has less of a “class pay gap” between poorer and richer entrants because the skills measured in engineering are less subjective, so that more general skills such as “Polish”, which are more strongly correlated with social background, matter less.
He adds that, historically, engineering may also have been viewed as less “gentlemanly,” leading to a more diverse candidate pool.
James Turner, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, said: “Engineering offers fantastic career opportunities, so it’s great to see the sector performing better than most when it comes to socio-economic diversity.
“Engineering opportunities are spread all over the country, providing good job prospects for young people from different regions and making an important contribution to upgrading.
“However, today’s report also highlights that there is still work to be done, particularly to support progression into leadership positions.
“It is essential that the engineering sector continues its diversity and inclusion work to ensure that it accesses top talent from all walks of life.”
The report recommends that employers collect and analyze data on socio-economic background, gender and ethnicity to improve access to the field, and that companies explore ways to expand opportunities work experience for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
He adds that companies must introduce “clear pathways” to support the progression of people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Nik Miller, Managing Director of The Bridge Group, said: “While engineering compares favorably to most other professional sectors when it comes to socio-economic diversity and inclusion, there are still inequities in access. , progression and pay – and the important relationships between this characteristic and others, including gender and ethnicity.
“By 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 a “great subject that opens doors for young people from all walks of life into a number of engineering careers as well as other highly qualified”.
He added: ‘Unfortunately the government has downplayed this subject by excluding it from the so-called English Baccalaureate GCSE traditional academic subject set which they want young people to study.’
Mr Barton said EBacc subjects are ‘integrated into the performance charts on which schools are judged’ while ‘in a double whammy schools have also had to cut budgets over the past decade due to the government underfunding.
He said that while schools try to offer the subject, “these twin pressures have inevitably pushed it to the fringes of the curriculum, with creative subjects”.
“It makes no sense for a government that wants to introduce a skills revolution in education,” he said.