Let’s give students the tools they need to achieve

October 2022

By Jo Foster, Director of the Institute for Research in Schools


Exam season is over, and we are well into a new academic year. Over the last couple of months, we have seen the drip feed of news that the gulf between students in the north and south has increased. Having increasing numbers of students falling behind can have long-term ramifications. Against the backdrop of planet defining problems like the energy crisis and the climate – we need an army of engaged students in the UK to push on our industries and solve the big issues of the day. It’s all hands-on deck now, and we simply cannot afford to leave anyone with a keen mind behind.


This year, while we have seen the number of students studying STEM rise and those from disadvantaged backgrounds going into university also increase. This is cause for celebration, but we should not rest on our laurels. These talents must be nurtured, and a stable pathway built for them to study in higher education and go on to a fulfilling career. Not so long ago, the government stated that it aimed to make the UK a science superpower. We are a long way off that.

At present only 24% of workers in the STEM workforce are women, which is a massive lost opportunity. We are missing out of the talents of so much of our talented population.

It is positive to see girls are studying STEM subjects in greater numbers

This year’s exams have also continued the trend of girls outperforming boys in exams in biology and physics. While that is cause for celebration, a comparatively lower number go on to have a career in a STEM industry; at present only 24% of workers in the STEM workforce are women, which is a massive lost opportunity. We are missing out of the talents of so much of our talented population.


However, we are omitting so many more. A study from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) found that aspiration for a career in STEM from disadvantaged groups is high and yet they are hugely underrepresented across the workforce. It is a fact that by providing opportunities for students to take part in authentic science, we can break down those barriers for so many of those students who think that a career in science is ‘not for them’ simply because of their background or sex.


Science is for everyone irrespective of their background and while progress has been made, there is still more work we can all do across the sector to challenge damaging misconceptions and break down these barriers.


Not enough students studying STEM in the UK

As in some developed western countries, there is a skills gap here in the UK where we simply do not have enough students studying STEM and going on to a career in a related industry. It is interesting to note that in many of those countries that have a much smaller, or do not have a STEM skills gap, such as Singapore, research is often taught as part of the curriculum from early in Secondary school. A career in STEM can be the key to social mobility, breaking down those barriers that exist for too many children, and them the aspirations and tools they need to enter the labour market and have a successful career.


One thing that aids this barrier is that there is often seen as only one route into science; a degree. This is not true. Apprenticeships are an excellent route into a STEM career, but currently the apprenticeship route compared to the degree route is significantly undervalued. If we can get this right, we can not only benefit the individual but also the local community.


Go back to basics!

We need to go back to basics and look again at how we can provide an inclusive pathway for students to take up apprenticeships in STEM industries and build much better local links between schools and employers. If we get this right, we can reduce the number of young adults not in education or employment and provide a boost to local economies.


This year has been the first in-person exams after the disruption of the pandemic. We have seen the huge pressures school staff have been under. Recovery across the UK has not been even, which I fear will increase levels of inequality for future generations. There is a clear divide between London and the north, which has been seen clearly in this year’s GCSE results. This is part of a trend, since 2019, the percentage of entries awarded grade 9-7 in the Capital has increased by almost 7% compared to between 4% and 5% in most regions across the country. This inequality continues into higher education and cannot be allowed to continue. Some colleges such as Lucy Cavendish College have made efforts to diversify their student cohort but so far initiatives like this are the exception rather than the rule.


Reforming Examinations

Another area we can reform is examinations, and after the disruption of the last two years it is surely time to have a discussion on them, rather than go blindly back to what was before. A year ago, Ofqual, signalled its ambition for results to come back in line with standards in 2019, by 2023. This year results saw a move back in that direction. This is the time to be bold and open up a wider conversation – with teachers, students, parents and employers – on how students are examined and what actually works. Exams in their current form negatively impact STEM subjects particularly, they do not lend themselves well to a sit-down exam with a pen and paper.


What is more, condensing two years’ worth of learning into one exam is unfair and leads to greater stress amongst students. This can impact their grades and lead to long-term mental health issues. Exams are also just not reflective of the skills that are of value and use in today’s workforce. Exams shouldn’t be the only form of assessment, we should rather lean into teacher assessment and/or the use of coursework. I firmly believe that exams are not reflective of a person’s aptitude and do not allow a large number of young people to show what they can do.


Let’s give them the tools to show what they can achieve; it will not only benefit individuals but the world as a whole.


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