‘Boring’ and ‘irrelevant’ were two of the words to emerge from a Department for Education (DfE) focus group looking at opinions of teenagers towards STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. It seems that this lack of interest has very real consequences, with too few candidates for STEM places at our universities. A survey (published in October by Nestlé UK & Ireland) revealed that 62 per cent of UK businesses feel that Britain is facing a worrying skills gap in the industry with the current number of recruits failing to meet future demand.
It’s a big demand. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) says the UK needs at least 87,000 new engineers each year, for example. It is ‘critical’ that this shortage is addressed, the IET says, and has launched a campaign to involve MPs to talk to STEM employers in their constituencies. The IET wants local MPs to encourage companies to work with schools to help young people understand the career opportunities available.
This is just one of many initiatives underway to try and improve interest in science-based careers, particularly among female pupils. Another word the DfE focus group found associated with STEM subjects was ‘male’. The statistics prove that one right, with boys far more likely to study maths and science A-levels (apart from biology, which is more popular with girls). It’s worst in physics, which is taken by 19.2% of male A level candidates, compared with only 3.6% of girls. It’s an enormous missed opportunity for the female half of the UK, who currently account for 46% of the workforce, but only 15.5% of the STEM jobs.
Another of the initiatives launched in 2014 to address this situation is a joint government- and industry-backed campaign which wants to increase the number of students studying STEM subjects by 50% over the next three years. The ‘Your Life’ initiative involves business, educators, members of civil society and government in showing how science and maths leads to exciting, successful careers. The campaign aims to ‘speak to 14-16 year olds as key decision makers’.
Getting them young
This is clearly the moment to strike. The Nestlé survey suggests that nearly four out of five 14 to 16-year-olds would consider a career in a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) related industry – yet more than half of those surveyed said they didn’t know what such a career would be in practice. They are not being taken through from nascent interest to practical career advice. Unsurprising, considering 52% of science and maths teachers admit that they do not know what STEM-related businesses are looking for in new employees. Educators and employers definitely need to share more information.
But is age 14 young enough to truly engage children’s interest? Sir Michael Tomlinson, former chief inspector for Ofsted, believes that starting STEM development in the early years at primary school is important. This would help to challenge the belief among schoolchildren that these subjects are too difficult and only lead down a specific career path such as ‘being a scientist’, when actually STEM subjects ‘open up a variety of career options.’ Sir Michael also argues that STEM skills should be integrated across a curriculum, and not just be confined to specific lessons.
Many of us remember a particularly exciting science lesson where, say, the teacher donned a pair of protective specs and poured one chemical into another to create an extraordinarily revolting, growing pile of gloop. But did that teacher explain how such chemical reactions might impact on the everyday products around us? Today, they probably would. The curriculum needs to give them room to do that, and to integrate exciting, but relevant, STEM teaching across the curriculum from a young age, so that both boys and girls could be better prepared to continue these studies to university level.