Skills shortage still threatens economy

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This year’s GCSE results show more young people are studying science and maths and the first cohort of students have successfully completed the Higher Diploma in Engineering.

However, Europe’s largest body of engineers is warning that the UK faces a massive skills shortage, unless this trend increases at a rapid pace.

Around 20% of science-related professional jobs in the UK are filled by migrants demonstrating how significant the problem has become.  This could become even more unmanageable with a number of low carbon economy initiatives high on the agenda.

At the same time, a soon to be published survey by the Institution of Engineering of Technology (IET) shows that one in every five engineering employers are concerned they will not be able to find suitable engineering candidates to recruit in the next four to five years. That is a significant increase from the figure reported in 2009.
Individual science GCSE entries are up. Meanwhile, out of 3,069 young people that completed the new two-year Higher Diplomas, 871 studied engineering, making it one of the most popular. So short term there are improvements, but this trend is still not sufficient to meet expected future demand.

Paul Davies, Head of Policy at the IET said: “There is a significant risk regarding the match between the supply and demand of UK engineering skills. That is why we have been supporting the formation of the new Diploma from the outset, as we believe it is essential to get engineering into schools and young people enthused about this exciting subject.

“This innovative qualification enables young people to progress towards undergraduate study or employment with the confidence that they have ‘real work ready’ skills.

“The Diploma has the potential to ensure that engineering is at the heart of the curriculum and on the minds of young people as an exciting career option for the first time.”

Responding to this year's science GCSE results, Professor Sir John Holman, Director of the National Science Learning Centre, said: "The numbers taking ‘triple science’ – separate Physics, Chemistry and Biology GCSEs – have increased again, by about 30%, repeating the strong growth of past years.  This is a real success story, and the priority now is to make sure that every school offers the option to take triple science, because we know this is an excellent preparation for further study of sciences at A level.  The growth in popularity of triple science further highlights the desperate need for more specialist physics and chemistry teachers.

“The proportion of students achieving A and A* grades in the sciences has fallen, in contrast to the trend in other subjects.  This is probably related to the exam regulator Ofqual’s instruction to exam boards to make their questions more challenging to high ability students.  I hope that Ofqual has now rescued the situation and that we will have stability and reliability in science grades in the future.  This is particularly important with A* and A grades because students achieving these high grades are much more likely to continue the study of sciences at A level.

“We are seeing the continuing decline in numbers taking ‘double science’, i.e. Science plus Additional Science.  This can partly be accounted for by the growth in numbers taking ‘triple science’ instead, but we have evidence that schools are increasingly entering their less academic students for vocationally-related qualifications instead of GCSEs. 

“While these courses may motivate less academic students, their value as genuine preparation for science-related work is questionable.  Most worrying is the evidence that schools and academies are entering students for vocationally-related qualifications as a way of improving their league table positions – these qualifications can be equivalent to two or even four science GCSEs.

“Schools should guide students in their choice of qualifications in the interest of the student alone, not to improve the school’s league table position.  Schools may not be doing any favours by guiding weaker students towards vocationally-related qualifications, even though it may increase the tally of five GCSE pass equivalents. 

“The Coalition government needs to look urgently at the whole question of GCSE equivalences, which are providing perverse incentives for schools to direct students the wrong way.”

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