This year, less than 1 per cent of students in the UK took an A level in computing and only 15 per cent studied a Stem (science, technology, engineering or maths) subject. Of the students studying IT, only 9.8 per cent were female. By comparison, there is now very little gender difference in take-up of and achievement in core Stem GCSE subjects. Looking forward, teachers and the business community must work together to encourage students to take these key subjects beyond 16 and continue to build on the small but encouraging progress that has been made in the past few years.
The low number of students taking Stem subjects at A level underlines an issue for employers and the UK. Not only are these skills a huge driver of growth (the digital economy alone contributes £97 billion a year, up 30 per cent in five years), they also offer improved opportunities, with Stem graduates earning 20 per cent more than their peers, on average. Yet there is a huge, economy-damaging shortage in candidates for technology, science and data jobs. In fact, a third of employers currently have problems recruiting for these positions, rising to two-thirds for engineers. For both business people and teachers, it is clear that more needs to be done.
Business leaders can help these children understand the world of work they will enter. We know that 40 per cent of pupils have difficulty relating the science they learn in the classroom to everyday life. These encounters show students how the subjects they study are connected to future opportunities and, as a result, students are three times more likely to consider studying a Stem subject. It also provides insight into the hiring process, the importance of teamwork and leadership skills. Teachers are not specialists in the world of work outside of their industry and cannot be expected to have personal networks of individuals they can call on to provide careers guidance. This is where partnerships between the business community and education can play a part.
The skills gap in Stem subjects
These encounters can take very different forms – for example, one school, the UCL Academy in North London, has over the past three years incorporated these encounters into its school year as an annual activity: in 2014 it ran two events inviting five business leaders to speak to 150 students. Building on the success of this event, in 2015 assistant principal Diarmuid Molloy invited 15 female entrepreneurs to speak to students as part of a week-long event celebrating women in Stem. Other schools deliver these experiences as more specific year-group interactions – Brentford School for Girls in West London, for example, marks the start of the academic year with a visit from business people to the Year 11 class. It has welcomed the likes of Dana Tobak, founder of Hyperoptic; Simon Kelly, director at Linkedin; and William Rowe, founder of Protein.
It is valuable that students meet with people from companies of all different sizes and industries, exposing them to the broad range of opportunities. This also means that there is an opportunity for every organisation to get involved. Essentially, if a company employs people, it should be engaging with careers activities and making connections with students and educators.
To remain competitive, the UK must extend its technological lead and grow relevant skills in local labour markets. This will, in turn, contribute to economic prosperity and enable us to stand apart from other nations. To achieve this, business leaders, Stem experts and educators must join together to urgently address the skills gaps in Stem subjects before us. There are already promising developments, including the government's commitment to a Digital Skills Partnership, as well as the work of not-for-profit organisations such as Founders4Schools, Stemettes and WISE. Through these organisations, business people can play their part in empowering school-age children to gain the skills required for the jobs of the future, while continued government support will support teachers in gaining and sharing digital skills to help educate children about the rapidly changing work environment.
Sherry Coutu CBE is founder and chairman of Founders4Schools