Students from more diverse backgrounds - either ethnic minority groups or those from a lower socioeconomic community - should have access to role models and inspiring experiences, in order to boost the take up of STEM subjects. More support and opportunities also need to be provided to those students that do pursue STEM subjects, in order to attract them into teaching, so as to inspire the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and computer engineers.
This was the view provided by experts giving evidence to MPs on the Science and Technology Committee today, which is exploring the challenge of diversity and inclusion in STEM education. The overarching theme is that these challenges cannot be tackled in isolation - attracting students from diverse backgrounds to STEM subjects also requires supporting STEM teachers from diverse backgrounds, in order to keep them in the profession and not lose them to the corporate world.
The UK doesn’t attract enough students into STEM subjects as it is - and there is likely a huge opportunity to attract talent from ethnic minority groups and people living in lower income communities, which are often even less likely to pursue the field due to structural and funding constraints.
Russell Hobby, CEO of Teach First, said:
Our job is to place people in schools serving lower income communities, and they are much less likely to get people who have degree level specialisms in the science subjects. The challenges that we face there is that we're competing with employers across the marketplace.
It's the job of Teach First to attract people who might go into other career routes. And of course the salaries, the career prospects, the opportunities for people with STEM qualifications are enormous. But if we don’t get some of them to divert their career plans from the big tech companies and go into teaching, we won't have another generation of graduates that can fulfil that. So we do need to make sure the prestige of the teaching profession and the starting salaries are at least competitive with other options.
First hand experience
Also addressing the Committee was Claudenia Williams, an assistant principal at Kingsley Academy, and also a Teach First alumni. Williams is a young black woman and has first hand experience of how access to role models and wider opportunities can impact career choices.
Williams said that funding and costs and also be an extremely prohibiting factor. She explained:
Thinking about my own context, I simply wouldn't have been able to afford to go and do PGCE by myself, so I think a barrier is funding. Teach First appealed to me because of the leadership qualities that I would develop. Initially, I was thinking about going into the corporate world and if I think more widely about my colleagues and friends at university, money is a barrier.
If you're coming from a background and you are forking out money to be able to get a degree, it needs to pay off. I'm thinking about my students now who have this decision in front of them. Student loans are a lot higher now - lots of these students have other options, for example, apprenticeships in the corporate world.
We have to ensure that there are equal opportunities for these students to be able to study STEM. And at the moment, I would say it's important that they can see themselves represented in the classroom. I think of myself as a teacher and as a student, it's still not as diverse as it could be.
I don’t think our schools yet represent the children in our buildings. Also we have to pay attention to how we are recruiting teachers who are coming from lower income backgrounds, or students who are coming from low income backgrounds, when there are other competitive options.
Williams added that some students simply may not have access to experiences that show them what a career in STEM or STEM education may be like, which is why mentorship and role models can be hugely important. She added:
I think really early on some students will have access to universities or parents who might have gone to university. So therefore they are making informed decisions about what they need to go on to do.
If I take the context of my school, we have a lot of students who come from backgrounds where they their parents wouldn't have gone to university and might not have a full understanding of what it means to study a stem subject or know which options to pick in Year 9, to be able to go on to progress.
So I think for us, it's really important that we give both parents and students really good understanding of of what that means but I think also exposing them to to those opportunities. For us that's been quite a barrier. Getting students into university so they can see what this looks like they need to be able to see themselves in these prestigious universities, studying these courses.
I studied a BSc and I was one of three black people on my course. That was a shock to the system. So I think being able to prepare students for what that really looks like in real terms, and also recognising that it is possible, and that we have teachers championing to do that. Ithink it's about a ensuring that students the option to have access to role models who are in stem that look like them
Commenting on her own experience, Williams said she was identified as exceptionally talented whilst at school and received some government funding and opportunities that really broadened her view of options. She added:
I was exposed to lawyers for the first time - I got to intern in a Magic Circle firm. Now for me, I had no no idea that this world even existed. You know, my dad had come from Jamaica, so did my mom - so this opened up a door. And this is what I mean in terms of how important it is to have representation. For some of our students, they simply just don't know that these opportunities exist, and they have to physically be there to see it.
Curriculum and specialist teachers
In addition to the above points, there are some other broader structural reforms that could be introduced to attract people into STEM subjects - some of them being simpler than others.
For instance, Sam Freedman, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, noted that financial barriers to teacher training will likely be diverting potential teachers towards other careers that have a higher, quicker return. Freedman would like to see the Treasury scrap loans for teacher training courses (PGCE). He said:
The first thing I would do is I would scrap the need to get a loan to do a PGCE or to do any training. It is quite mad that we that we force people to get loans to do a PGCE, because, apart from any else, there's no financial benefit to the Treasury. They never get paid back. Your your average teacher will never earn enough to pay back both an undergraduate loan and postgraduate Loan.
So there's no financial benefit to the government from demanding that people take a loan and yet it puts people off doing doing a PGCE, so it's doubly pointless.
But my understanding is that the Treasury have repeatedly refused dropping [loans] on the grounds that it would create a precedent for other other careers and other other student loan reductions elsewhere. But that’s just a very obvious thing you could do with no cost or very, very little cost. And that would make it a lot more attractive for people to to go into teaching - particularly for people from more underrepresented backgrounds.
Williams also said that having specialist teachers in STEM subjects in schools is critically important for students to develop a deeper understanding of the subjects, even at a younger age. Supply teachers or teachers in other fields shouldn’t be being used to teach subjects such as physics. She said:
I've worked in a number of schools now. And science teachers and maths teachers are really hard to recruit for. It just means that there are a number of schools who do not have a specialist sitting in front of them. And that is devastating. It's not good enough.
And if we're talking about improving the pipeline of STEM and really having an impact here, then we need to have students who have access to high quality teachers and a high quality curriculum. I think the main impact will be on student outcomes when they either having a supply teacher in front of them or another teacher who doesn't have the same level of specialism - someone who can really bring the depth of knowledge that students need in order to prepare for an A level or a degree in a STEM subject. I think that's probably the most significant area.
And finally, Teach First CEO Russell Hobby said that the curriculum needs to represent the students that are being taught - something that is currently lacking. He explained:
One low cost measure for this would be to look at representation in elements of the national curriculum as well. I don't think we need to change the national curriculum itself - stability there would be very valuable - but we could create resources for example, that allowed people to see themselves in scientific discoveries, in the story of mathematics and engineering, and so on. And there are schools working on this already. So we could take those resources and make them more widely available.
For example, in elements of the science curriculum, there are no female scientists that are referenced. And so very simply, we could steer that and create resources which showed some of the work of female scientists. It doesn't need major changes to the specification. And the same is true for what we put in the exam spec.