My memories of physics classes at school are of us chasing each other around the lab benches, competing to see who got the biggest flames out of the Bunsen burners and who could burn who the most. For his part, our poor teacher – called Mr Benson and nicknamed Basher Benson – spent his time running after us, flicking the rubber tubing of the burners across the wrists of the troublemakers. His lashes never caught me but it was still a painful experience and, to my eternal shame, I just scraped an O-level.
Luckily, I married a man who is a brilliant physicist and who still patiently explains to me how the world spins around. It's why I've been obsessive about encouraging our children – two boys and two girls – to study physics and maths. Something rubbed off; three did it at A-level, and one studied for a PhD. What strikes me most about the way they were taught is how the syllabus is far more relevant to their daily lives – and more fun – than in my day, whether it's learning how MRSI scans work or why microwaves heat.
So I nearly fell off my chair when Vince Cable said in his speech to the Engineering Employers Federation's annual dinner last week that half the state co-education schools in Britain don't have a single girl pupil studying physics at A-level. It's one of those shocking facts that you have to say out loud a few times for the full enormity to sink in. In fact, I had to ask the Business Secretary if he had got his numbers wrong. But Mr Cable said they were hot from the Institute of Physics, which also reports that only 6,500 girls studied physics in 2012 – unchanged from five years ago.
Boys aren't much better; only 24,000 of them studied physics at A-level this year. It gets worse. A recent survey showed that only 47 per cent of teachers thought engineering to be a desirable career while a fifth thought it to be undesirable. What planet are they on? Where have they been if they don't know that engineering today is one the most thrilling, secure and well-paid (median salary second only to medicine, and higher than law) of all careers.
With attitudes like this, its no wonder the UK faces a chronic shortfall in engineers, and must double the number of professionals over the next decade to fill the jobs forecast. We can't radically increase the supply of engineers without raising the numbers studying physics, yet in many schools teenagers are allowed to rule out the subject at 13, an age when many haven't had the chance to know about its full potential.
It's also pretty pointless when politicians, including Mr Cable, argue for more infrastructure investment to kick-start the economy if we don't have enough home-grown skilled professionals to design such projects.
Engineering needs a fundamental makeover and switch in perception to show it is every bit as attractive as medicine or law, especially for women. Only one in 10 engineers are women, the lowest in Europe. As for apprentices, fewer than one in 20 is female. Government can only do so much, so the profession must sell itself better. Events like the See Inside Manufacturing campaign, which takes teenagers and teachers into factories, have been a great success.
But big change will come only from the top, and the EEF should get together with our secondary school heads to bang home the message that there will be 1.86 million new jobs over the next decade, yet only half will be filled at current rates. Here's a challenge for the EEF: in 10 years' time at least a quarter of the engineers present at its annual Dorchester bash should be wearing dresses – and that's not the men.