Role models can only set the ball rolling

23rd January 2015 at 00:00

The circuits were fine and there was nothing wrong when Major Tim exited his tin can last Friday to float in a most peculiar way and confirm that Planet Earth was, indeed, blue.

Watching a human being defy our terrestrial origins to potter about in space is – when you give it even a moment’s thought – genuinely awe-inspiring. And there has been much fevered discussion about the potential legacy bequeathed by Tim Peake, the first astronaut representing the UK to ever go on a spacewalk.

Will he leave behind a long trail of young scientists, inspired to pursue a career in Stem by his pioneering exploits? Maybe, but it’s far from a given.

Role models are a commonly proposed solution to teenage ennui, but this is no new phenomenon. The idea that an inspiring sage can divert the path of a young person’s life is a story handed down the ages, retold by each generation in its own way.

This is what has provided the Star Wars saga with its beguiling and enduring power: it is less sci-fi than the recreation of an ancient myth. Obi-Wan Kenobi was preceded by Athena, Merlin and Gandalf (and has been succeeded by Mr Miyagi, Dumbledore and that teacher from School of Rock).

Some dispute the impact of role models in real life, however; what drives archetypal narratives may not be as potent in the realm of careers advice.

Teachers know all too well the limitations of inspirational figures. How many have walked away buzzing from a CPD session with some jet-setting educational guru, only for the excitement to fizzle out back at school? That realisation has made the motivational speaker a rarer sight in Scottish education in recent years, with schools looking instead for professional development that has a sustained effect.

The idea of role models remains powerful, however. Liz Cameron, Glasgow City Council’s new executive member for children, young people and lifelong learning, believes they are key to encouraging more girls into science (see pages 12-13).

She cites luminaries such as astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, but also believes that having more female science teachers in schools would help girls to better see the “glamour” of the sciences.

Ms Cameron thinks, too, that science should be presented differently to girls, with an emphasis on compelling stories about how it changes the world and on myriad career possibilities far removed from the stereotype of a laboratory-bound boffin.

It’s an uphill battle to get girls into science. A recent survey suggests that more than half of 12-year-old girls in the UK have already decided that science and maths are too difficult to learn (bit.ly/GirlsStem).

Those attitudes will not be countered simply by providing role models and teaching science a bit differently; they are symptomatic of deep-rooted societal attitudes to gender roles.

We still live in a world where men provide the bulk of our politicians; where women are the default child-rearers because paternity leave is so short; where the Miss World contest provokes an outcry because a bungling presenter named the wrong winner – not because it reminds us that women remain more likely to be defined by their looks than men.

In short, the battle for women to gain equality of opportunity with men is far from over, and extends far beyond science careers. That’s not a job for schools – it’s a job for society.

@Henry_Hepburn

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