Jo Foster, Director of the Institute of Research in Schools

We can’t transform young people’s attitudes to the sciences if we don’t first change ourselves 

January 2024

There are over 300 charities in the UK working to engage young people in science, technology, engineering and maths—the STEM subjects. As the director of one such organisation, it’s clear to me we need to try new approaches to achieving the change we’re all striving for. 


STEM should be among the most exciting and engaging fields for today’s young people. They live in a society that is being reshaped by net zero, artificial intelligence and pandemic preparedness. They are more concerned with the climate crisis and sustainability than any generation that came before them. They have every reason to pursue STEM—but most aren’t. 


Charities like the one I work for have spent years trying to show young people just how fascinating and rewarding these subjects can be. The UK government put STEM research and innovation at the heart of its economic strategy—spending £990 million over a decade to address the skills gap. These investments have had an impact: STEM subjects went from 30% of A-level entries in 2013 to 35% last year, with a 23% increase in STEM A-level entries from girls over the same period. 


However, these figures mask some alarming and persistent trends when it comes to specific subjects. Take physics, for example: Last year, fewer than 8,000 girls took an A-level in the subject, compared to over 26,000 boys. While more and more students take computer science, boys made up 85% of last year’s A-level cohort. Despite STEM subjects being the most impactful in terms of wage returns and social mobility, disadvantaged students are less likely to pursue them. 


By now, we have a crystal-clear understanding of why young people don’t pursue STEM. We know how stereotypes put whole groups off, how only the ‘clever’ boys sign up for the after-school club, how inner-city pupils don’t go to the science museums on their doorsteps. We know that a child’s aspirations in a subject can be squashed early on by subtle suggestions that it’s not for them. 


We also understand the costs of young people’s lack of engagement. The country’s STEM skills gap was estimated in 2018 to cost us £1.5bn a year. Over the longer term, the lack of diversity seriously undermines our ability to innovate and respond to emerging challenges, as young people turn away from careers that could be rewarding, improving their lives and the communities around them. 


Our organisations, large and small, have responded to these challenges with concrete action. We’ve trialled approaches as varied as organising girls’ coding workshops, sending STEM ambassadors from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences into schools and supporting students in carrying out original research. Our work has transformed the prospects of individual students and even whole cohorts. But what we see in national data are still flat lines—or at best, the slightest of upticks. 


There are stubborn, persistent aspects to the STEM engagement problem that our interventions haven’t been able to address. Towards the end of last year, reports were published that shed light on some of these bigger systemic problems, and they should give all of us working in education cause for concern: 


  • The UK’s science score fell once again in the most recent PISA results, continuing a decade-long downward trend. The drop in the score between the previous report in 2018 and today equates to a loss of six months’ progress for a young person, which can only partly be explained by lockdowns. Within the UK, the gap between the highest and lowest performers in science (which was already greater than the OECD average) has widened. 


  • ASPIRES3, part of a longitudinal study by UCL’s Institute of Education into the factors that shape student progression in STEM subjects, found that ‘despite many years of interventions, key communities such as women, racially minoritised and working-class people remain persistently and acutely underrepresented’ in these fields. 


  • A House of Lords inquiry into whether the skills needed for a digital and green economy were being taught in English secondary schools saw peers ‘in no doubt of the need for urgent action’. They called for a curriculum overhaul that allows for a broader range of technical and vocational skills as well as practical, applied forms of learning. 


For those of us working to promote STEM, these findings may not be shocking—but nor are they acceptable. We’ve become immune to the way stats are churned into positive headlines, as if education is nothing more than a PR exercise. We don’t always notice when our own activities or events inadvertently replicate or reinforce the same stereotypes that affect student outlooks. But it’s not for nothing that we invest our energies into improving education, and it falls on us to confront the realities in these reports. 


We can’t hope to overcome these problems, so engrained in STEM education and wider society, by tinkering around the edges. What is needed is something greater than the sum of our efforts: systemic change. This means first understanding what impact we, as a sector, want to have, and then pooling our efforts and expertise into a strategy that packs more punch. If that sounds ambitious, there are a few things we could be doing as a start. 


We need to collaborate more. When we’re all tackling the same problems, there’s no need for everyone to reinvent the wheel. We should share best practices, build strategies in common and amplify our collective impact. We have a vested interest in the success of each other’s efforts. Working together, we also make it easier for schools, universities and industries to partner with us and to give our work a more permanent basis in the curriculum.  


We need to be consistent about what needs to change, and how. So many organisations tackling the same challenges run the risk of drowning each other out. But if we all get behind the same message, we stand a much better chance of being heard. We can then lead the conversation, advising government bodies, curriculum designers and school leadership teams. We can collectively set the agenda and ensure that the necessary changes happen. 


Finally, if we’re serious about changing STEM education, we need to change ourselves. What we’ve been doing for the past 20 years isn’t enough. Our young people still feel shut out of these fields just because they don’t look right, there isn’t a scientist in their families, or they were told physics is only for the clever students. We don’t need more reports to confirm what we already know. Are we ready to confront the data, and do something about it? 


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