Women with Stem skills 'lost to the economy because of A-level gender gap'

Spending watchdog the National Audit Office calls on the Department for Education to come up with coordinated plan tackle the Stem skills problem

Eleanor Busby

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A gender gap in most science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects at A level means that a number of skilled young women are “being lost to the economy”, according to a new official report.

Some of the Department for Education’s success – such as the 2.6 per cent rise in Stem take-up at A level – “masks some ongoing problems”, the government's spending watchdog warned today.

The National Audit Office (NAO) report highlights the fact that females made up only 42 per cent of all Stem A-level entries last year - and females regularly outperform their male peers in many Stem subjects.

Female A-level students made up only 9.4 per cent of entries in computing, 21.2 per cent in physics and 39 per cent in mathematics last year.

“This participation gap shows that young women represent a pool of potential Stem-skilled people that is currently being lost to the economy,” the report says.

The gender disparity continues into higher education, where females made up 38.3 per cent of undergraduate Stem enrolments in 2016, despite accounting for 56.4 per cent of enrolments overall.

On Monday, a separate study of more than 100,000 sixth-formers reported that girls were still not as interested in studying sciences at university as boys, despite a rise in popularity of Stem subjects at A level.

'Stem skills mismatch'

Today the NAO also warns of “a Stem skills mismatch” with shortages of Stem skills at technician level but an oversupply of biological science graduates, who are then often underemployed in an economy in which they are not in high demand.

And the report notes that female students are more likely to take up biology at A level – they make up 61.8 per cent of A-level entries in the subject – and are more likely to take biological sciences at university.

The NAO says a coordinated plan for tackling the Stem skills problem is needed before the government can demonstrate value for money. 

Today's report says the DfE and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) "face a complex challenge to improve the quality of teaching and student take-up in key Stem subjects".

It adds: "Some of their initiatives are achieving positive results but there remains an urgent need for a shared vision of what they are trying to achieve and coordinated plans across government."

The watchdog said the absence of a precise understanding of the Stem skills problem has meant the efforts are “not well prioritised” and a better approach is needed.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said today: “The government faces a complex challenge in encouraging the education pipeline to produce more people with the right Stem skills.

“Some initiatives are getting positive results but there is an urgent need for the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to coordinate plans and set out what they are trying to achieve.

“A more precise understanding of the challenge would allow the departments to better target and prioritise their efforts to deliver the Stem skills the economy needs.”

A government spokesperson said: “As the NAO report recognises, the government has a number of initiatives in place which are boosting participation in Stem subjects, with the number of entries to Stem A levels by girls increasing by 17 per cent since 2010.

"We will carefully review the NAO’s recommendations and respond in due course.”

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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