Gazing into the economic abyss has concentrated minds wonderfully and brought about a welcome consensus on the importance of STEM subjects.
It is now a truth universally acknowledged that a country that seeks to enjoy a healthy economy must make things and must train a skilled workforce capable of making things.
That realisation has galvanised activity on a number of fronts leading to a renewed focus on STEM and to new educational bodies being established.
These are exciting developments and are likely to do much to close the skills gap but, as always when there is a burst of enthusiasm, there is a danger that some efforts may be misdirected and key areas neglected.
It is accepted that in order to teach STEM effectively, schools need teachers who are competent and qualified in those subjects. Indeed, the government has launched a drive to get more physics and maths graduates into teaching with a support package that includes £15,000 for students to help with their university costs in return for them teaching for three years after graduating; fast-track retraining for professionals already working in medicine and engineering; and one-to-one support for those who have already trained as teachers and are considering returning.
A recent report from the Education Datalab uses information about pupils’ grades from the National Pupil Database. It interrogates the data in a number of ways and one of the questions it asks is whether having physics specialists in schools actually improves attainment in science.
It could find no relationship between higher-than-average scores in science and the presence of physics specialists, nor could it find any overall relationship between a physics contextual value-added score and the number of physics specialists in the school.
The report says: “All our intuitions tell us that teachers with physics degrees should be better at teaching physics than those without. This is akin to saying that teachers with the greatest mastery of the subject should be the greatest teachers. Once we generalise to this level, we can draw on the wealth of evidence that suggests teacher quality appears to be largely unrelated to academic credentials.
“It is a surprising and little-understood finding – it seems that the ability to engage and impart knowledge is quite a different skill than the ability to understand and store information yourself. With this in mind, why should physics teaching be any different?’’
Perhaps this is not so surprising. Those who excel in a subject are not necessarily those who are best at teaching it. It may be that they have become so expert as to lose empathy with, and understanding of, those who have yet to grasp the basics.
Certainly this report should remind us that there is more to driving the STEM agenda than just having qualified teachers. We also need teachers who can teach.
Another report – this one by the EEF – also draws attention to an aspect of STEM teaching that should not be neglected. Traditional teaching methods may have much to recommend them, but one way in which they did not seem to produce results, was in encouraging females to pursue STEM subjects and subsequently careers in engineering and manufacturing.
Admittedly social attitudes and expectations were probably more to blame than teaching methods but the fact remains that a huge amount of talent was wasted in the past and we cannot afford to make the same mistake again.
Women now account for 23% of all board seats in FTSE 100 manufacturers – up from 19% in 2013 and 21% last year – according to the EEF report Women in Manufacturing.
Two consecutive increases in the female share of directorships have kept Britain’s leading manufacturers in line with the wider FTSE 100 and on track to meet the minimum 25% female board representation recommended by Lord Davies in his 2011 Women on Boards report.
In total, women hold 64 out of 279 directorships in FTSE 100 manufacturers and, for the second year running, all these companies – 25 in total – have at least one woman on their board. At the same time, the percentage of new board appointments going to women has increased to 25% (up from 19% last year), a step in the right direction if FTSE 100 manufacturers are to achieve the one-third new appointments target recommended by Lord Davies.
However, while the female share of non-executive roles has increased (up from 25% last year to 28% today), their share of executive roles remains static at 8%. Only five of the 25 FTSE 100 manufacturing companies have a female executive director.
The report points to this being a symptom of a wider challenge. Women accounted for only 7% of those starting an engineering and manufacturing technologies apprenticeship in 2012/13 and they continue to make up only 23% of the manufacturing workforce.
Liz Mayes, North East Region director at EEF, says: “The imbalance in our sector between the number of women in executive and non-executive roles is a symptom of a wider challenge. It tells us that we are failing to tap into the entire talent pool and must strive to not only build and maintain a satisfactory pipeline of talent, but also address the worryingly low number of women within it.
“Until we attract more female apprentices, graduates and other new entrants we will continue to see women under represented at all levels in manufacturing, including the boardroom. Failing to tap into this rich resource is a wasted opportunity given our sector’s pressing and long term need for skills.’’
Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, who worked as a telecoms engineer for 23 years before becoming an MP, pointed out in a House of Commons debate that when she started her degree, 12% of her fellow electrical engineering students were women.
While women now make up 43% of GPs, 41% of solicitors and 22% of MPs, the proportion of female engineering students has not increased at all. She shared more depressing statistics with the House:
Chi wrote to 10 leading companies to ask what they were doing to improve the situation.
She said: “Most firms thought that the main problem was a lack of qualified female candidates in ICT, engineering and science and all the firms said that getting more women in these fields was a corporate priority.
Most outlined steps taken to redress this, from overhauling corporate procedures – for example, making sure women are on interview panels – to intervening early in schools to steer girls towards STEM subjects and careers.’’
She added: “We know that engaging girls at a young age and before preconceptions have formed is critical, by the time they are taking their GCSEs they may already have ruled themselves out of ICT.’’
Chi Onwurah was addressing the House of Commons and she is a politician but the
point she makes is not a party political one. UTCs and other STEM initiatives enjoy cross party support and this must surely extend to the importance of the subjects for girls as
well as boys.
The message on the sexes and on teachers must be clear. We all agree on the importance of STEM, now let’s ensure that efforts are thought through and targeted.