HL Deb 01 May 1985 vol 463 cc234-6

2.41 p.m.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether there has been an increase in undergraduate women reading scientific subjects, including engineering, in the last five years and, if so, what they are doing to encourage the trend to continue.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, there has been a consistent increase in the relative and absolute number of women engineering and science undergraduates over the last five years for which figures are available. The Government are anxious to maintain this trend and have taken substantial steps to do so through measures encouraging girls to take up science in schools and to increase significantly the number of places available in engineering and scientific subjects in higher education institutions. Further progress depends also, however, on changing the existing preconceptions and attitudes of girls and their parents.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. Has he any information as to the success which the Equal Opportunities and Manpower Services Commissions have had in encouraging women to take up these careers and therefore in giving them more motive for applying for university places to study relevant subjects?

The Earl of Swinton

Yes, my Lords. Among other things, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Engineering Council showed much initiative in designating 1984 as Women into Science and Engineering Year. This provided a welcome opportunity to increase awareness and to encourage girls to consider pursuing science and engineering subjects. Also, the technical and vocational education initiative and the micro-electronics education programme aim to provide equal opportunities for girls and avoid sex stereotyping.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, would the noble Earl the Minister agree that, as has been indicated by the noble Lord who asked this Question, this is not only a matter of what universities do but also of the chances for women in the post-university, adult world dominated by men? Does the noble Earl not agree that, on the whole, women are much better than men as drivers of cars and engines, and much more skilled in operating many machines? Will the noble Earl do his best to break down the violent male prejudice against women in the many occupations in which they actually excel men?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the noble Lord is perhaps already embarking upon the first debate this afternoon. I agree with him that, certainly so far as some of the new information technologies are concerned, women are much more suited to, and better at, these high technology jobs. The Government are trying to get that message across.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a great need for the encouragement of more teachers of science in schools, particularly in girls' schools?

The Earl of Swinton

Yes, my Lords; and better taught teachers, as well.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the noble Earl the Minister not agree, following the last supplementary question, that it is essential that schools bring girls to the point at which they can profit from university and polytechnic education in these subjects? Will he also agree that the figures supplied to me by his department, through his courtesy, show clearly that girls from girls' schools do more than twice as well at these subjects as girls from mixed schools? Should we not draw some lessons from that?

The Earl of Swinton

Yes, my Lords. To answer my noble friend's second point first, there were a number of other factors which I tried to point out in that letter, and other things which come into play. I agree that action to increase the number of women undergraduates must begin in schools. Before we can increase the number of girls taking science A-levels we must increase the number of girls studying science up to the age of 16. The Government have recently published a policy statement on science from 5 to 16 years in which it is proposed that all pupils, including all girls, should be properly introduced to science in the primary schools and should continue a broad study of science throughout the first five years of secondary education.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, will the noble Earl please tell me how all this otiose talk will end up producing better and improved education when schools have suffered cuts of millions of pounds in materials imposed by the party now in power?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I think that is a very different question.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, will the Minister inform the House whether the interesting views he has expressed are accepted by the Engineering Council, which is making such progress in reorganising the engineering profession?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I imagine that very much they are. That is why, as I said in answer to the first supplementary question, the Engineering Council was very much a party to Women into Science and Engineering Year; and it is hoped to change these attitudes.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minster tell me how well women are represented in part-time engineering and technical courses at polytechnics and universities? Part-time courses are sometimes very much easier for women to attend. Are the Government going to encourage more part-time courses?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I am afraid I do not have any figures available. I will write to the noble Baroness on that point.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that Mr. Gavin Laird, of the engineering union, said in public before the Select Committee on Overseas Trade that his union is very anxious to increase the number of women in engineering and is doing all it can deliberately to bring women into the industry?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I was not aware of that, but I am delighted to hear it.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, can the noble Earl give some assurance that girls will not be pressurised into reading scientific subjects when they have no wish to do so? A great many have not.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I find it very difficult to pressurise members of the opposite sex into doing anything unless they are themselves absolutely determined to do it.