Widening STEM access is necessary and far from impossible

May 2022

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

Controversial comments from the social mobility tsar aside, STEM has a diversity problem and there’s plenty we can do about it.


The days are getting longer and sunnier, and that can only mean one thing for secondaries: exam season. This summative period often causes us to reflect on the past year and how to create positive changes in the years ahead. And given the furore over comments from social mobility tsar Katharine Birbalsingh to the Science and Technology Committee last month, it feels like as good a time as any tomake a case for doing things a little differently in STEM.


Too many students still feel that science is just not for them, and we need to look to the evidence to overcome that, rather than perpetuate myths. On a positive note, the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds studying STEM in higher education has increased over the past year. However, the number of girls and those from a BAME background are still disproportionately low, at 41 and seven per cent respectively.


There are significant barriers to engaging with STEM subjects, ranging from access to technology at home to a shortage of diverse role models. As a result, views and attitudes towards STEM are unlikely to change without a shift in approach from educators.


In response, our Research and Innovation Framework shows that science can be for everyone and outlines how STEM can flourish in secondary schools. It has been designed by teachers and school leaders, bringing together best practice from across the STEM sector and forming a toolkit for developing research and innovation opportunities in schools and classrooms.

We need to look to the evidence, rather than perpetuate myths.

Teachers are a school’s most important asset in terms of student outcomes, and we know they are working harder than ever. That’s why our framework is intended to complement, not replace, the incredible work that goes on in our classrooms. The programme is about making the time that teachers are already spending on STEM even more impactful. Strengthening engagement in STEM makes teaching more enjoyable and makes the clock at the back of the classroom turn faster. Time does fly when you’re having fun, and this framework is a tool for teachers to supercharge their lessons and extracurricular activities rather than bury them under more bureaucracy. There is already a wealth of STEM enrichment activities taking place in many schools – from CREST awards to Greenpower car clubs to extended and higher project qualifications. The framework makes it easy for teachers and school leaders to choose the most highimpact activities and, rather than implementing them as a series of one-offs, shows how to knit these together to pack a more powerful punch.


We have also seen first-hand that a greater emphasis on research creates a sense of momentum in lessons, motivating students and teachers alike. Approximately 97 per cent of teachers involved in IRIS projects say their students are more engaged and motivated by science after taking part in projects. Over one-third say they are more likely to stay in teaching because of the impact of these projects. Not enough young people are going into science, and too many talented young people are lost to the sector because they see no career path in STEM. What’s more, our vital subjects perennially suffer from teacher recruitment shortages. But when students understand science – not only the theory but where it fits in the real world – they become active citizens empowered to solve some of the most pressing issues we face. The Department for Education has recently published its sustainability and climate strategy.


This is a fantastic and timely initiative, which can only stand a much better chance of success with a wave of citizen scientists teaching and learning in our schools, rather than passively looking at textbooks.


At this time of reflection, we have a choice: to accept that unequal access to STEM is normal and unalterable, or to try evidence-based approaches to widen our subjects’ appeal. With our new framework, sticking with the myths no longer has to be the more comfortable option.


Our plan to help schools capture the imagination and talent of the next generation of scientists.


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IRIS projects support students and teachers, wherever they are on their research journey.


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