With the UK falling down the world rankings at an alarming rate, we can’t leave the education of our recruits to the government - it’s time for our industry to step in
Where do we get the raw materials for our industry? We dig some out of the ground and these are scarce, as we know. Some we grow in forests and, with good husbandry, we can grow more. And some we grow in our schools, colleges and universities - these, the raw ingredients of the future of the building industry, are probably scarcest of all. It’s not a question of quantity, for we churn out graduates and technicians by the thousand. It’s quality, and from this I think building professionals have largely abdicated. Education, that’s the government’s job, isn’t it?
You may remember that in 1998, the Blair government asked primary schools to teach a “literacy hour” and a “maths hour” each day. This was, by any global measure, spectacularly ineffective. Not because our standards are down, but because the rest of the world has flown past. In the past 10 years, the OECD “Pisa” survey shows, the UK has plummeted down the world rankings from eighth to 28th for maths and from fourth to 16th for science. As for engineering, I don’t know, but I suspect we may have been overtaken in this field, too. The weakness at primary school level has the potential to undermine us over the coming decades, as these kids grow up into our increasingly technological building industry.
The weakness at primary school level has the potential to undermine us over the coming decades, as these kids grow up into our increasingly technological industry
With this in mind, I go to the House of Lords to give “evidence” to their lordships’ committee on STEM education - as in science, technology, engineering and maths - and am ushered through Westminster Hall, under its 600-year-old hammerbeam vault, more Hogwarts than NASA. Their lordships are charm itself, perceptive, engaged and forward-looking in their questioning. Enough to turn your knees to jelly, especially as the first question comes from Astronomer Royal, Baron Rees of Ludlow, a scientific colossus, a man who has almost seen the Big Bang. Gently he asks: “What vision do you offer to your recruits?” Quite a question from a man whose vision is normally carried out through a 76m radio telescope. Rees is the man who said: “When a scientist makes a discovery, he or she has no clue what the applications are going to be.” To which the well-rehearsed response is that if you actually want to make something you don’t need a scientist, you need you need a bleedin’ engineer. This cleared up, it’s time to rub the lords’ noses in it, so to speak, by mentioning the fixing of the Great Stink outside their window by engineer Joseph Bazalgette.
The point of this gathering was for their lordships to hear from those who recruit STEM graduates. First up were the industrial giants from Rolls-Royce, GlaxoSmithKline, Microsoft and Siemens. Not giants to Time Lord Rees, of course, but still … Their testimony was fairly blunt. Maths and (privately funded) research are still vital, but during recruitment they place little reliance on universities to produce much more than raw “protoplasm”. This they jelly-mould for their purposes, although they didn’t quite say it, of world domination.
Then it was the turn of the SMEs, and I realised I was the sole representative of our beloved industry. By this time, I was feeling small and cosmologically temporary, especially alongside Vectura, a company that uses particle science to treat asthma and Parkinson’s disease. Nevertheless, I suggested that their lordships should persuade the commons to support creativity and design teaching, partly because if you type “creativity” into the government’s website, you get into an endless, surreal loop with the word “imagination”. Aged the lords may be, but they are also rather wise. Our grey-haired elders gave me a ray of hope that our apparent decline may be turned around. But you don’t need to be a Time Lord to realise that the education of our recruits is too important to be left to the government. It’s time for the industry to engage. To begin, if you haven’t given them your view, it’s not too late - just visit the lords’ STEM website.
Chris Wise is chairman of the Useful Simple Trust and director of Expedition Engineering