STEM - Getting to the root of the STEM problem

20th May 2011 at 01:00
Business and industry continue to demand more employees with STEM skills, but the education system is struggling to provide them. James Berressem reports

Over the past 350 years, the UK has built up an enviable record in scientific discoveries and innovations. From Sir Isaac Newton's fundamental work on the three universal laws of motion published in 1687, through James Watt's improved steam engine, developed in 1775, to Sir William Henry Perkin's discovery of the first synthetic dye in 1856 and the subsequent launch of science-based industry, Britain's history is populated by giants of science. The roll call of British inventors who have shaped the technology we take for granted today include Sir Frank Whittle of jet-engine fame, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the worldwide web, and Jonathan Ive, designer of the iPod and iPhone.

Currently, researchers and industry in the UK are looking to offer solutions to the grand challenges of the 21st century such as developing low-carbon energy technologies and providing effective healthcare for an ageing population. STEM industries are also of strategic importance to the UK. They contribute over #163;68 billion a year to the economy and account for over a third of all UK exports. But, despite a long-term Government strategy to develop a UK workforce with STEM skills (see timeline, page 8), the international competitiveness of UK STEM research and related industries is under threat because of a lack of students going from schools to STEM-related degree courses or apprenticeships.

The CBIEDI education and skills survey for 2010, Ready to Grow, identifies an undersupply of STEM skills at all levels (see graph, overleaf). And the problem is likely to get worse. "Over the next three years, more than half of all employers predict difficulty finding the STEM talent they need, which could act as a barrier to business growth in key areas such as low-carbon manufacturing and the creative industries," says Leo Ringer, CBI policy adviser on education and skills.

Employers in the UK's video-games and visual-effects industries voiced their concerns about a skills shortage in the Next Gen skills review, published by NESTA (National Endowment of Science, Technology and the Arts) in February. A survey of parents, young people and teachers, gauging their views on the skills and subjects required to work in these two industries, found "a lack of understanding of the importance of maths, physics and art". The report concludes that the education system falls short of delivering what is required to maintain the UK's status as a world leader in the creative industries.

Ian Livingstone, one of the report authors, feels passionately about the missed opportunities in training people for this multibil- lion-pound industry. "The video-games industry offers young people exciting careers right here in the UK. Yet too few young people, parents and teachers are aware that STEM subjects, including computer programming, are vital to succeed in this industry.

"Given that the new online world is being transformed by creative technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and video games companies, it seems incredible that so few children are taught such an essential STEM skill as programming at school. In the 1980s, programmes such as the BBC's Computer Literacy Project meant that there was a thirst for creative computing both in the home and in schools. But this is no longer the case, and the UK has gone backwards."

The shortages are not just in computing. Traditional UK science-based industries such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals are concerned too. Dr Richard Barker, outgoing director general of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, says: "The UK pharmaceutical industry is highly successful and presents exciting opportunities for young people with the right skills. But we are facing a skills shortage in some areas, even allowing for global recruitment. The sector contributed a trade surplus of #163;7 billion to the UK economy in 2009. It offers a varied array of career opportunities and it is rewarding both financially and in terms of job satisfaction."

According to a Chemical Industries Association (CIA) spokesman: "There is a predicted shortfall of 40,000 key workers at technical and operational level across our sector and related industries. This shortfall is added to by a lack of graduates." To address this skills shortage, the CIA wants to see the education system revised across secondary schools and further and higher education to include, among other things, revamped vocational education at 14-19, more specialist STEM-qualified teachers, new academies with science specialisms and an overhaul of CPD for science teachers.

A comparison between Scotland and the rest of the UK offers some insight into the issues surrounding post-16 science and maths education. A Royal Society report published in February, the last instalment of four "state of the nation" reviews of science and maths education, highlights the different trends in study in Scotland, based on post-16 school-leaving exams in 200405, 200607 and 200809. In Scotland around 50 per cent of students taking Highers or Advanced Highers are choosing to study core sciences (with or without maths), whereas for England, Wales and Northern Ireland this figure drops to 28, 27 and 37 per cent.

According to Professor Sally Brown, vice-convener of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's education committee: "Scotland has more young people going through to study the sciences and maths post-16 because our educational culture focuses on maintaining breadth of study. The choice offered post-16 has always left options for young people much more open. This flexibility enables our young people, who if forced into a decision at 16 might not have seen themselves as becoming part of the STEM community, to make up their minds later."

The Royal Society report recommends that, "in undertaking reforms to A-level and equivalent qualifications in England, the Department for Education should consider modifying their structure to enable students to study a wider range and increased number of subjects than is usually the case now".

Its study also shows that Scottish students are more inclined to take subject combinations involving two sciences and maths as part of their suite of five Highers than students studying three A-levels. According to the report Choosing the Right Degree Course, published by science education umbrella body SCORE in December 2009, an additional science or maths A-level, in support of any prerequisite science subject, is highly valued by HE admissions tutors when considering candidates for places on STEM-related degree courses. The tendency for students to take just one science as part of their A-level combinations therefore limits their opportunities to progress.

"This trend raises concerns that students are not getting access to appropriate information, advice and guidance to make informed choices on what subjects they need at A-level to go on to study STEM degrees," says Libby Steele, head of education at the Royal Society. "And students who have no heritage of university study within their family will suffer most."

Recruitment and retention of more specialist teachers throughout all phases of five to 19 science education is also vital to increasing the quantity and quality of the post-16 cohort, according to the Royal Society study. Many in the science community cite Scotland's commitment to subject specialists teaching at Standard Grade (KS4) as an important factor in inspiring students to pursue science Highers. "The biggest barrier to sustained improvement in A-level physics numbers is the recruitment and retention of specialist teachers," says Peter Main, education and science director at the Institute of Physics (IoP).

The Government, for the first time, has provided the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) with subject-specific targets for science teacher recruitment. Education secretary Michael Gove wants institutions to recruit 925 physics specialists each year, almost double this year's intake of 518. But with an annual pool of just 2,000 graduates, it's hard to see how a quick remedy will be found.

Professor Main suggests more should be done to recruit an extra few hundred physics teachers per year from the much larger pool of engineering graduates. "The IoP wants to see more flexibility for graduates to train so that they can teach physics and maths or possibly computer science in schools or colleges. Most engineering graduates would be comfortable teaching A-level maths," he says.

However, there are barriers to this route. "Current TDA rules don't allow someone to train to teach physics with maths as a subsidiary subject. If graduates want to teach physics they also have to develop knowledge and skills to teach biology and chemistry," says Professor Main. The traditional managerial set-ups within schools and colleges also make it difficult for someone to bridge two departments effectively. In the short term, subjects that have a shortage of specialist teachers, like chemistry and physics, will have to rely on subject-specific CPD programmes such as the Science Additional Specialism Programme, designed to give non-specialist science teachers the confidence to deliver lessons.

On the issue of the workforce in schools and colleges, Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education (ASE), adds that the need for more science technicians must not be overlooked. "Valuable support from experienced technicians can help to build the confidence of newly qualified teachers to run practicals and deliver the curriculum in an engaging manner," she says.

The review of the national curriculum, announced by Mr Gove in January, offers the STEM community the chance to take stock and contribute to the development of more dynamic science and maths curriculums. For science, the review offers the opportunity to address issues such as how to effectively assess the "How Science Works" element, which the ASE insists is a critical component to the science curriculum. The ASE wants a new science curriculum to allow teachers to use their professionalism to create a learning experience, based on the national curriculum, that is rounded, interesting and appropriate to their students. "That's the route to the best programme of study for any young person," says Ms Smith.

Whatever form the new national curriculum takes, the teaching of STEM subjects in schools will remain high on the agenda for the coalition Government as it aims to boost the UK economy. However, the supply of qualified young people with suitable STEM skills will only increase when the progression routes to further study are open and transparent, allowing them to make informed decisions on how best to achieve their aspirations.


Late 1980s to early 2000s

Following the introduction of the national curriculum and double science, the sciences and maths suffer a long decline in England

April 2002

The SET for Success review of the supply of STEM skills throughout the education system identifies the beginnings of a "skills shortage"

July 2004

The Government announces its science and innovation investment framework 2004-14. Aims include "improving the quality and quantity of science teachers, improving results for pupils studying maths and science, and increasing the numbers taking related subjects in post-16 and higher education"

March 2006

Next Steps, the follow-up document to the science and innovation investment framework 2004-14, sets targets for 2014 in the sciences and maths, including increasing the number of students taking A-levels in chemistry, physics and maths

The UK on the international stage

The UK's young people have continued to perform above the overall average in international comparisons of science and maths skills such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment). Pisa assesses 15-year-olds' ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. The main focus of Pisa 2009 was students' reading skills, but science and maths skills were also assessed.

UK students performed statistically significantly above the OECD average in their science tests, earning the nation 16th place out of 65 countries. Meanwhile, despite matching the OECD average for attainment in maths, the UK's 28th place league finish sparked media coverage as the nation remained behind competitors such as France (22nd) and Germany (16th) and slipped further back from the top-performing Shanghai in China.

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