Page last updated at 14:25 GMT, Thursday, 27 August 2009 15:25 UK

Dyson calls for vocational focus

By Marc Settle
BBC Radio 4's The World At One

One of Britain's top inventors has welcomed the new work-related diploma qualifications, but warned that the country's failure to value engineering could have damaging long-term effects.

Sir James Dyson
Sir James Dyson was knighted for his services to engineering

His engineering expertise has made him one of Britain's richest men and his name has become a brand recognised across the world.

But Sir James Dyson has used an exclusive interview with BBC Radio 4 to give a warning that Britain risks losing out because engineering is treated "with disdain".

His bagless vacuum cleaner, which can now be found in millions of homes across the globe, was only perfected after more than 5,000 prototypes.

Sir James has though voiced concern that the current education system could hamper future innovators from following in his footsteps.

He was speaking on the day that the latest GCSE results were released, along with the very first results of England's new Diploma qualification, which is designed to mix academic with work-related study.

"These diplomas are a good idea, but they should not have been called that - they should have been A-levels," the entrepreneur told Radio 4's The World At One.

"A distinction is being made between what are essentially vocational courses and what are academic ones.

"I don't think that division should exist. We should have A-levels in vocational subjects."

Sir James also spoke out against students who take vocational subjects being seen as "second class".

"Both are equally valid. Some people are academically inclined, some vocationally and we shouldn't penalise the latter.

"It can make them feel of less value and less intelligent, and I don't think that's true.

"If you're an engineer and you're very good with your hands and your brains, you shouldn't be penalised because universities will only accept people with high academic A-levels where you only use your brain."

Britain's strength

I think there are 10 times as many study media studies as engineering and science
Sir James Dyson

His efforts to foster the next generation of engineers went as far as trying to set up a school of design in the West of England. That though foundered because of problems over planning permission and funding.

Sir James believes the failure of ministers to back that project is an indication of how engineering is considered.

"Engineering is treated with disdain, on the whole. It's considered to be rather boring and irrelevant, yet neither of those is true.

"Britain's great strength is its innovative, design and engineering natural ability and we're not using it."

Sir James now has worries that Britain's attitude to engineering could have long-term repercussions.

"Just look at China, Japan, the US, South Korea. They file 20 times as many patents as we file, and their share of world trade is going up, ours is going down."

He also used his interview with The World At One to take a side-swipe at some of the subjects that teenagers are choosing to study.

"I think there are 10 times as many study media studies as engineering and science. We produce more psychologists than engineers.

"Yet the majority of exports are engineered products or manufactured products, not media studies or psychology."

It is a balance Sir James clearly hopes will swing back towards the vocational subjects which made him a billionaire.

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