Why become an engineer?

At times in our lives there are choices to be made. That is if you are lucky enough to be able to make those choices. What courses to study at different stages of youth, is a big question. My story has more pragmatism that idealism. I was a great deal better at maths, physics, and geography than history or english langauage. Underlying that was as much interest as natural ability. It wasn’t so much a typical divide between the arts and humanities and science and technology. I enjoyed art. I’d say it’s having more of a graphical mind than a one that’s tunned to langauage and words.

I had a fascination with machinery. Growing-up on a farm I had plenty of opportunities to work with machinery. Taking engines apart and fixing anything and everything that needed fixing. What I found frustrating was the make-do-and-mend approach. It’s the classic agricultural attempt to fixing everything with 6-inch nails or baler twine. When money is tight, it’s a question of keeping machinery going for as long as possible before having a big bill or to chuck it away.

It was evident that small family livestock farming wasn’t for me. That feeling gave me more incentive to study. I left school at 16 yrs. with a moderate number of exams under my belt. What to do wasn’t clear but it wasn’t an open book either. I applied for apprenticeships within commuting distance of home. Local engineering employers of the time, Westland helicopter in Yeovil, Racal in Wells and Plessey Marine in Templecombe were targeted with letters from me. That’s the businesses of aircraft, radar, or sonar.

I’m a great believer in serendipity. Events come together by chance and an outcome can be better than might have been imagined. In 1976, I got a positive response from Plessey Marine Research Unit (PMRU). That year, the company sponsored two apprentices. Me being one of them.

Westland helicopter had a large long-established apprentice training school. A couple of my school mates ended up in Yeovil. Then, so did I but at Yeovil college. It ran an Engineering Industry Training Board (EITB)[1] training programme. This gave a bunch of 16-year-olds their first exposure to machine tools. The 48-week programme was much more. Some skills are life skills, that like riding a bike, are not forgotten. Today, I can still make a reasonable decent weld.

Training within PMRU was a series of placements moving from department to department. Although I was employed as a drawing office trainee there were other possibilities opened. The mix included a day-release to continuing studying.

Back to the original question. Why be an engineer?

There were professional engineers I worked with, and who mentored me, who did much more than put up with a curious local youth. They were inspiring. I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to understand design. I wanted to know the theory behind Sonar systems. Those steppingstones in the years between 16 and 18 are of immense importance. My opportunity to cultivate fascination drove my motivation to study. It worked. It set me on a path.

It’s one thing to put STEM[2] in schools. It’s another to give students real experience, of real work in real workplaces. Both are needed.

[1] https://mrc-catalogue.warwick.ac.uk/records/WDP/3

[2] Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) the umbrella term used to group together the distinct technical disciplines.


Performance based regulatory systems are all the rage. That’s when regulatory action is taken based on the measurement of a key indicator or a series of indicators. Sounds like a good idea. It is for the most part. Set a target of reducing or eliminating something that is damaging or undesirable and track progress towards achieving that goal.

Wouldn’t it have been to the benefit of all if a performance-based approach had been applied in the 1989 Water Act which privatised water in England and Wales? A great deal of sewage flooding into rivers could have been avoided. 

However, it wouldn’t have helped to have nothing more than a simple “good” or “bad” indicator. In a performance-based system there’s a need for reasonably accurate measurement and graduated bans of performance achieved. The measurements taken need to be done in a timely manner too. Publishing measures that are a year or more out-of-date isn’t a good way of confidently plotting a way forward to hit a goal.

Listening to the News about Ofsted’s grading scheme, I can’t help but think that having a four-category grid is wholly inadequate for their purpose. Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. The Education inspection framework (EIF)[1] in England is primitive in this respect. Shoe-horning every school in England into Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement or Inadequate is brutal.

What’s the betting that at any one day many of the schools graded Outstanding are not, and many of the schools graded Inadequate are not either. The problem with these indicators is the crudity of the labels. We’ve all seen huge banners erected outside schools if there’s favourable news to communicate. What passers-by and parents see is the headline and not the reality of the performance of a particular school.

The sub-division of the lowest category into schools with serious weaknesses and in need of significant improvement doesn’t help much. Negative words get merged into a negative judgement.

Experience with risk management is that categorisation schemes face challenges when performance sits on the borderline between categories. That’s one reason why anything less than five categories is not often used.

The aim of a performance based regulatory systems is to improve performance. If the tools used become those that blame and shame, then that system is not working. Nothing, I’m saying here isn’t already written-up in the annals of quality management. People have been wrestling over different methods for 60 years, at least.

The current Ofsted’s grading scheme is poor and unimaginative.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-inspection-framework/education-inspection-framework


Grammar schools. Don’t talk to me about grammar schools. I hear one of the Tory leadership contenders is touting the return of grammar schools[1]. Ironically, he’s also talking as if he believes in meritocracy. Apparently, he didn’t mean a universal return of selection in education but only expansion in areas where selection already exists. Maybe his double-take was because there remains evidence that selective education entrenches the divisions in our society. There’s a vestige of community snobbery that is served by dividing school children at age 11 years. This has always been popular amongst committed Tory voters.

The false narrative that grammar schools create social mobility is for the birds. Much of the entrenched views on this subject are the result of stereotypes that portray images of comprehensive schools and grammar schools as being like a comparison between Grange Hill[2] and Hogwarts[3].

Now, I will not get trapped in the myth that all grammar schools are bad, and all comprehensive schools are good on some higher ethical level. In most situations parents are going to seek the best state school opportunities, in their area, for their children. Those children will thrive in well-funded and well-run schools of either kind.

The circular argument that the grammar school experience “worked for me” is often a way society’s divisions are perpetuated through the generations. It’s self-fulfilling. We must ask – Should the children of doctors be more likely to become doctors? Should the children of teachers be more likely to become teachers? Should the children of politicians be more likely to become politicians?

My plea is that we don’t run headlong back to the pigeonholes of the 1970s. We need to give the best education we can to all pupils. Wherever they are from, and whatever the situation of their parents. The talent the country needs will not come solely from selective or private schools.

Yes, not everyone has been gifted with academic ability or for that matter craft or creative ability. Degrees of specialisation do make sense but not by selective partition at age 11 years. Remember that partition was conceived when children left formal education at an age less than 15 years.

One Tory leadership contender has hooked onto the campaigning value of virtue-signalling of having been to an ordinary school. She tells of seeing: “children who failed and were let down by low expectations”[4]. Thus, highlighting a perception of early disadvantage to heighten her projection of later accomplishments.

Debates on education never stray far from recounts of personal experience. Each of us are so impacted by our school years that it’s impossible to remain entirely objective. My father went to the local grammar school, but I did not. Although this fact never seemed to matter much at home, in the background, maybe in my own mind, there was an implication of failure.

What I value, on reflection, is the board range of experiences that an “ordinary” secondary modern schools afforded me. We had a wonderful cross section small town and rural life. A generation of school staff that ranged from young student teachers making their first idealist mark on the world, to grumpy escapees from the cities who treated everyone as backward laggards, to hardened eccentrics who regaled us with their collection of war stories.

Variety is the spice of life.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-62340247

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Grange_Hill_episodes

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hogwarts

[4] https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/liz-truss-school-tory-leadership-candidates-row-rishi-sunak-1760697