Government departments are not making sufficient progress in addressing the gender imbalance in many areas of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) learning and work including apprenticeships, according to a government committee.
In a new report published today, the Commons Public Accounts Committee says this is “particularly troubling given the committee’s previous concerns”. The report, entitled Delivering Stem Skills for the Economy, states that when the committee examined the apprenticeships programme in late 2016, it recommended that the Department for Education should set up performance measures for the programme that included whether it is delivering improved access to under-represented groups across all occupations.
“Performance measures have been established for the number of black and minority ethnic apprentices and those with learning disabilities. The DfE did not introduce a target relating to female apprentices, because it was satisfied with the fact that women made up over 50 per cent of apprenticeship starts overall.”
However, the report highlights that only 8 per cent of Stem apprenticeship starts are undertaken by women. “The gender imbalance is also apparent for A levels, where women and girls are well represented in biology, but little progress has been made in increasing the numbers in subjects like computing and physics.”
The committee calls on the government to start to monitor progress against specific targets relating to the involvement of girls and women in key Stem learning programmes such as apprenticeships by the end of this year.
The group of MPs also says it is concerned about the quality of careers advice in schools and colleges. “It is clear that many young people perceive Stem subjects to be too challenging, and conclude that Stem-related careers are therefore not suitable for them. The government’s efforts to boost Stem skills in the workplace will fail if these perceptions continue and not enough children choose to study Stem subjects.”
According to the committee, government departments have allowed poor quality provision – especially in apprenticeships – to continue for too long without being addressed. “DfE should ensure it has effective monitoring systems in place to quickly identify apprenticeship programmes that are not fit-for-purpose, along with poor quality provision, and the action it will take in each case,” the report urges.
It also states that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the DfE do not currently have sufficient understanding of what specific skills businesses really need, "or how Brexit will affect the already difficult task of ensuring the supply of Stem skills in the workforce". “We remain to be convinced that the proposed Skills Advisory Panels will properly understand national and global skills issues,” MPs say, adding their concerns that government Stem boards and working groups do not include enough practical industry or commercial experience to spot key problems and deliver effective solutions.
According to the report, the current education funding model will make it difficult for new types of learning institution, such as the institutes of technology, to establish themselves. “The new institutes of technology are intended to provide an alternative ‘offer’ from that delivered by school sixth forms, but they will face a major challenge to persuade pupils to leave the school environment," it says, adding: "University technology colleges (UTCs) are a case in point; they have been in existence since 2010 but many have struggled to attract enough students to be financially viable. The DfE risks wasting time, effort and money if it does not learn lessons quickly from past initiatives.”
Committee chair Meg Hillier MP said: “Warm words about the economic benefits of Stem skills are worth little if they are not supported by a coherent plan to deliver them.” She said the government had to take a strategic view, “properly informed by the requirements of industry and the anticipated impact of Brexit on the UK’s skills mix”.
She added: “But the government also needs to sharpen its focus on the details, from providing sound advice to pupils through to ensuring schools have the right skills in the classroom and Stem-focused institutions are properly supported.
“Poor-quality apprenticeships must be weeded out and there is still much work required to address the striking gender imbalance in Stem apprenticeships. This is a challenging and long-term project but there are practical steps the government can and should be taking now.”