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Equity in STEM Education

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM aims to promote the inclusion and progression of people from diverse backgrounds in STEM, and to encourage government, parliamentarians, academics, businesses and other stakeholders to work towards a STEM sector that is representative of the population.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM Inquiry

There is great inequity in the provision of STEM education across different age groups, with those from poorer backgrounds or minoritised ethnic groups being left out of taking the top qualifications. While the problems are clear, the solutions are not obvious, and this inquiry aims to explore the potential solutions and their impact on different aspects of the education system. It will consider the systems in the devolved nations and in other countries, as well as how different types of STEM qualifications are perceived by universities and other bodies.

The aim of the inquiry is to understand the evidence and lived experience of those going through and administrating STEM education, so that the AAPG Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM can ascertain whether there are issues that could be resolved with policy change.

Key questions

  • Where is there inequity across different characteristics within the STEM education system in the UK, at any age?
  • What can we learn from approaches in other countries or across the devolved nations?
  • What policy change could alleviate this inequity?
  • What other implications could a change in policy have, and who would be affected?

The submission made by the Society can be read below.

The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience and a major international Earth science publisher with about 12,500 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia, regulatory agencies and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.

The Society has been active in the area of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) and it has formed a key component of our events, policy and outreach programmes in recent years.

What do you think are the main issues affecting access to STEM Education for diverse groups?

It is widely reported that the UK STEM community has been reporting major difficulties in recruiting people with the requisite Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills to embark on a rewarding career within this area. This extends to the geoscience community where a number of skills gaps are maintained and developing, as highlighted on the Shortage Occupation List maintained by the Home Office. Coupling this with up-to-date projections on the current STEM pipeline, a major outcome we are beginning to witness is a deficit in recruitment numbers within STEM industries.

This, as time goes on, will have significant negative effects on UK economic growth and will hamper the delivery of many of the Government’s key policy initiatives, including efforts to increase R&D spend to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. In 2014, the CBI estimated that 39% of businesses seeking STEM employees have experienced difficulties in recruiting staff.

Concerning statistics such as this will no doubt continue to be the case unless adequate action is taken to address the root causes. With this gap looking set to widen in the coming years and coupled with forthcoming changes associated with the Immigration Bill, we could see further reduction in the supply of skilled STEM workers in the UK.

In order for the UK to thrive in an increasingly competitive world, it must strive to develop a high-value, knowledge-intensive economy. One of the most significant ways to achieve this is to focus its efforts on increasing the flow of skilled students entering STEM-related subjects' post-secondary education.

Part of the solution to this would be to tap into underutilised and underrepresented sections of the UK population; those form diverse groups and especially low-income backgrounds. According to the Social Mobility Commission’s 2016 State of the Nation Report, children receiving free school meals are 25% less likely to study one or more STEM A-Level, 19% less likely to undertake a University degree course and 22% less likely to study a STEM subject at degree level.

Addressing this would have a sizable impact on meeting the demand from STEM employers in the UK, a positive economic effect on the UK economy and on the ability to address significant societal challenges such as preventing dangerous climate change and the energy transition that that will require.

Another less discussed potential outcome would see an increase in science literacy in those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, allowing for greater engagement and participation in civic society.

Equality of access to GCSE Double and Triple Award Science

When changes to the GCSE were made in 2006, one of the aims was to generate an improvement in the number of students undertaking science subjects, going some way to increasing the UK’s STEM pipeline. However, in recent years research has highlighted that the Triple Science route is not serving the country’s STEM requirements.

The ASPIRES 2 project (a longitudinal research project at UCL studying young people's science and career aspirations) has highlighted a number of issues that have arisen from the changes contributing to unequal educational outcomes. Students from low-income backgrounds are 2.5 times less likely to study Triple Science when compared to their more affluent peers. The majority of students do not choose to undertake Triple Science themselves. It is in fact chosen for them by their schools in 61% of cases, sometimes with school results playing a significant factor in this decision. (This was acknowledged by the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, last year, during a speech at the Association for Science Education in 2018.)

This suggests that:

  • There are fewer specialist science teachers to cope with single science. Science teachers are at premium, even in more affluent schools, and often these teachers can only cope with the exam classes, with non-specialised teachers (and even technicians) having to introduce science in the early years. This can have a detrimental effect on students’ perception of science and limit uptake later on.  
  • Single science also takes up more time in an already crowded curriculum and prevents students tackling a wider curriculum.

This has led to a perception that only the smartest students are capable of studying STEM subjects. This is the case even in schools in more affluent areas where the opportunity for single science exists, which is inaccurate but goes some way to further ingraining and perpetuating the negative stereotypes currently associated with STEM subjects from a significant subsection of the population. Discouraging students’ aspirations before they are allowed to begin is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of the UK’s education system.

Additionally, the provision of Triple Science varies from school to school, inconsistent resources results in students in deprived areas being much less likely to attend a school that offers this option. (Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of the Sutton Trust, said these were "very worrying findings" and “highlight even more the bleak correlation between educational opportunities and geography".) Furthermore, this disparity can lead to young people from lower-income backgrounds, who are unaware of the range of possible science careers, to see it as too high-risk to pursue, particularly from a financial point of view. Fees could be a massive deterrent to those who grow up in families that have to worry about the basic level of income.

If the aim is to prepare students for university STEM degrees, schools and teachers must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to effectively deliver this.

Currently in the UK, many schools lack the capacity to deliver diverse curricula, with some struggling to offer core subjects. This creates an inequity before other current contributors to inequality in the UK are taken into account. Continuing in this vein will no doubt lead to further disparities in access to geology, at both GCSE and A-levels. When GCSE or A-level geology is taught in schools (more often by enthusiastic specialists) this often leads to impressive results with a high proportion going onto further study at HE (44% of students who gained an A-Level in geology that went on to university studied for a geoscience degree).

Leaving this unaddressed will have many negative consequences, hindering students’ development and exposure to important topics that potential future geoscientists will need to effectively address societal challenges such as urbanisation, climate change, energy transition, decarbonisation etc. Additionally, if the UK geoscience community is to adequately engage with and contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a STEM-literate society is of paramount importance. However, the skills and knowledge required to make an effective and positive contribution to the sustainable development goals are often missing from the traditional education setup.

To help mitigate this in our community, the Geological Society established the Geoscience Education Academy (GEA) to support UK secondary teachers and PGCE students in understanding how to teach the geoscience component of the curriculum if it is not their principal subject, as well as existing Earth science teachers who may need a refresher and some new material. It provides curriculum-led training and support for science and geography teachers across the UK. Initiatives such as this need to be championed throughout the entire STEM community, not just for Earth science.

The introduction of a common science qualification at GCSE level (similar to the Republic of Ireland, where science at the GCSE-level equivalent incorporates an equal amount of Biology, Chemistry and Physics with all students sitting the same exam) would go some way to addressing this issue and would create a level playing field for all students interested in pursuing a career in STEM.

Social mobility

The failure of STEM education to reach all backgrounds will not only squander talent, but also increasingly isolate science from society, something that is becoming ever more important to address especially when we consider the myriad challenges likely to impact us in the future, as outlined earlier in this response. A scientifically literate population will play a pivotal role in addressing such challenges.

STEM careers information

The National Audit Office (NAO) conducted surveys with c. 1,200 young people, the results of which suggest that careers information and guidance plays a key role in familiarising students with the prospects of a STEM career. The NAO also noted that careers information and guidance in schools is ‘patchy’, with a mere 18% of those surveyed being satisfied with the advice on offer.

The importance of effective careers guidance cannot be understated. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) provide an excellent argument highlighting its importance. Patchy careers guidance is an obstacle to social mobility, with students from deprived areas needing more access to high-quality careers guidance and HE information in general. The Geological Society took measures in 2016 to alleviate this by launching our own interactive education and careers website: “Geology Career Pathways”. This website, aimed at both students and teachers, offers those interested an in-depth and uniquely tailored guide to the range of studying options and diverse array of careers in geology.

Improved access to careers advice also forms part of The Sutton Trust’s recommendations to address underrepresentation of students from low-income backgrounds. These include:

  • Improvements in HE-related information, advice and guidance provision in schools and colleges
  • HE admissions policies being published and accessible to applicants (physically and electronically)
  • Schools and higher education providers should offer all students the opportunity to visit an HE campus during primary or at the early secondary school phase

A progress report by the Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty echoed these sentiments while offering other recommendations:

  • Exposure to STEM at an early start, ideally before GCSE choices have been made
  • Structured and sustained programme of relatively intense engagement, as opposed to a series of disparate and superficial interventions
  • The use of summer schools, allowing students to experience HE rather than simply hear about it
  • Placing the interests and aspirations of the student first and foremost
  • Providing clear guidance on pathways towards achieving specific ambitions

Often parents play a significant role in the career choice of their children especially from underrepresented groups, something that is often overlooked. Attitudes to STEM careers can also be affected in this way. Various reports suggest that unfamiliarity with the potential career paths STEM has to offer means that students are guided, by parents, towards more well-established career paths (e.g. media, health and public services etc.). The perception of STEM careers are sometimes seen as less prestigious and financially rewarding as say law or finance.

Potential actions to help mitigate this could be to:

  • Ensure that parents are made aware of the full range of benefits a STEM degree can produce
  • Delivering HE outreach directed at parents in geographically disadvantaged areas
  • Improving access to mentoring programmes

Developing science capital

Raising the significance of science capital, a concept developed by the ASPIRES 2 team, whereby the more science capital a young person has, the higher the likelihood that they are to engage with STEM in a wider context more than simply passing an exam. Encouraging them in this way to pursue STEM education and careers is of paramount importance for wider society. There are eight key dimensions of science capital:

  • Scientific literacy
  • Science-related attitudes, values and dispositions
  • Knowledge about the transferability of science
  • Science media consumption
  • Participation in out-of-school science learning contexts
  • Family science skills, knowledge and qualifications
  • Knowing people in science-related roles
  • Talking about science in everyday life

Improvements in these areas will have far-reaching positive outcomes for students, schools, society and the economy for future generations.

The role of mentoring and role models

One-to-one support presents another opportunity for the transfer of science capital from those who already have it to those who do not. Currently, this is most successfully carried out by third sector organisations who offer mentoring or role model programmes for socio-economically disadvantaged students.

The aim of these programmes is to inspire and support young people’s science capital, as well as to offset poor career guidance advice and work experiences which currently lead to a worrying number of young people from low-income backgrounds deciding not to pursue a university education. 

Many prospective students make the decision not to pursue third-level education due in part to the lack of career guidance and having no suitable person(s) in their lives to discuss matters such as this. This is most evident in the case of white males from socio-economically deprived areas, who are often hidden in higher education participation statistics by their middle and upper class white male peers.

It can be difficult for young people without the necessary science capital to identify someone in a relevant area of interest to help. This is why it is becoming ever more important to recognise the impact of organisations such as:

Organisations like these, participating in this area of work, need to be well funded to support current activities but also to expand their operations in tackling social mobility throughout the United Kingdom.

The Society has developed a successful working relationship with STEM Ambassadors whereby over 150 of our Fellows have signed up to the scheme as volunteers offering their time and enthusiasm to help bring STEM subjects to students in geographical areas that would otherwise go without. Initiatives such as this are paramount if we are to increase the science capital of underrepresented groups. 

Encouraging activities such as those outlined in this response will lead to a stronger, more diverse STEM community and in turn a stronger UK economy underpinned by a highly skilled workforce for many years to come.

31 May 2019