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Beware black holes

The new year's news focused on the crisis in education, reporting that some schools are moving to four day weeks due to lack of teachers. I suspect that the sciences will be suffering more than the arts.

In Blair's new Britannica this has to be bad news. Researching the subject, it was possible to discover that while 1,600 people were accepted for post-graduate teacher training in English, only 175 were accepted in physics.

Comparing this to last year's A level numbers, we can see that the teaching of physics is seriously under-subscribed. There were 80,000 English A level candidates and 29,000 physics A level candidates.

The ratio of new English teachers to final year students is 1:50, while the ratio for Physics is 1:165. Ratios for other subjects are: History, 1:35; Maths, 1:60; Biology, 1:60; Chemistry, 1:144 (source: Times Literary Supplement 22/9/00 and DfEE website).

Inquiries reveal that behindthe-scenes research funded by such organisations as the Nuffield Foundation (www. kcl.

ac. uk/education) identifies how 'school science fails to sustain and develop the sense of wonder and curiosity of many young people', how 'the curriculum separates science and technology' and 'appears detached and irrelevant'.

Finally, most damning of all, it says: 'the science education we are currently offering our young people is outmoded and fundamentally is still the preparatory education for future scientists'. . . not engineers.

The consequences of such a science meltdown have not gone unnoticed but comment is generally limited to the falling numbers of young people taking science rather than the numbers of teachers; the latter in many respects determining the former. Equally disturbing is the closing of the non-academic routes into our profession, happening at the same time as we experience this meltdown. A black hole is forming with serious implications for national prosperity.

At an institutional level, we have a duty to society to plan the profession of the future. This responsibility, particularly with pre-university education, has been largely devolved to the Engineering Council. All the evidence suggests that this challenge has still to be met.

Current discussions on the future of engineering include ideas such as licensing and tend to wax on about preparing the profession for the knowledge economy. This refers to the fact that we have moved from an industrial society to one largely based on services involving the interchange of knowledge rather than commodities. While the ideas are important the debate misses the bigger issue.

The critical challenge society faces is an engineering one: how to wrestle with the consequences of global warming, and create an inclusive sustainable society. The knowledge economy may help us get there, but we need to recognise that the battle may be lost if we fail to develop enough people with the necessary skills.

If the Engineering Council is to be trusted with our future, it has to use its links with government to force a revolution in the educational system.

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