'FE cannot afford to waste any more time in promoting STEM'

5th January 2015 at 12:15

Fintan Donohue, chief executive of the Gazelle Colleges Group, writes:

The FE sector recognises that prioritising STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is crucial to the continued growth of our country’s economy. With the growing need for skilled workers, our sector must seize the opportunity to fill the annual shortfall of 40,000 that was highlighted in the recent report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

STEM is now at the forefront of the national agenda and is being addressed, with its importance advocated by a range of organisations from across the public and private sectors. Yet the STEM debate is dominated by secondary education, the focus being on encouraging GCSE and A-level students to study subjects such as physics and maths. FE has not yet responded accordingly and we cannot afford to waste any more time.

There is now a need across the FE sector for a more coherent strategy to be formulated. A survey carried out by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills last year found that 146,200 job vacancies (22 per cent) were vacant as a result of inadequate skills. The raison d’etre of FE is to ensure that students possess the qualities required by employers, and the sector needs to stand up, take control and become a real contender in equipping young people with the necessary skills for the ever-changing workplace.

Part of the challenge is defining the skill set that companies require from their employees, which is changing at an increasing speed.

Dave Coplin of Microsoft UK recently said that we are fast moving towards a world where technology will be central to everything we do, including our careers. The FE sector needs to rise to this challenge and adapt to the jobs of the future, which will be ultimately based around technology and digital skills.

The way that STEM is currently being encouraged makes it the preserver of the academic – but it is no longer confined to the elite. Jobs requiring STEM skills are diverse and wide ranging, with opportunities for students with different strengths and abilities. We need to help students realize that an A-level in chemistry or a PhD in astrophysics is not the only way to succeed within the STEM sector. Only when we make the link between subject areas and career paths can we continue to make a difference to both the economy and the lives of young people by boosting their employability.

Many young people desire to be successful, start their own business and be their own boss. Therefore, one way to integrate STEM into the sector is to teach FE students about STEM entrepreneurs, such as Daniel Elk, founder of Spotify, and how they are changing the world with ideas and innovation. They need to be taught about the STEM skills fuelling the world’s business titans.

STEM skills not only open doors to a range of exciting career sectors such as gaming and app development, but are valuable in every sphere of life. The connection between learning the skills and the opportunities they can lead to needs to be stressed and young people must be drawn away from the perception that studying STEM is all about life in a lab, wearing a white coat, or using test tubes. STEM is beginning to be a crucial part of every industry, including sectors such as fashion and music where their growth is reliant on technological innovations.

In the Gazelle Colleges Group, we are working to integrate STEM fully into our national strategy in order to equip students with the skills needed to flourish in the unpredictable world of work.

Hands-on learning and gaining experience of "real-life" business scenarios in the STEM sector will be key, as has been emphasised by Nicky Morgan MP, secretary of state for education, who said: “The subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are STEM subjects.”

Gazelle is running a series of projects that put STEM at the forefront of FE. Earlier this year, we delivered a one-day coding workshop in which digital training experts Decoded provided students with an accelerated learning experience that taught them how to build their own app in a day.

A STEM centre model is being adopted across the Gazelle college network to increase the interest of these subjects amongst young people. Our centres bring together the teaching of STEM subjects into interactive applied learning scenarios. Students have the opportunity to learn through themed activities, including those based on the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, through which they are taught the skills and processes behind crime-scene analysis and finger-print testing.

STEM is everywhere and will soon become the heartbeat of every industry. With the growing importance of STEM to Britain’s economy, FE has been presented with an opportunity that needs to be grasped in order to produce the future leaders of our country.


Related stories:

'Sticking bananas in liquid nitrogen doesn't work' - January 2015

Quality of post-16 STEM courses 'undermined' by lack of staff training time - July 2014


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