MPs demand action on STEM skills gap

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier/MA Education

A range of barriers to effective STEM education have been highlighted by a cross-party committee of MPs. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee is concerned about the quality of careers advice, the impact of teacher training bursaries, the STEM gender gap, and problems with poorly designed Apprenticeships.

A report published on Friday (June 22) focuses on growing concern about the STEM skills gap in the UK, which it says could be further affected by exit from the European Union next year.

Part of the report focuses on the role of education, where one of the key problems continues to be the gender gap in STEM study.

It states: “Girls and women are under-represented in most STEM subject areas at every stage of the STEM skills pipeline. For example, while girls made up 61.8 per cent of A level entries in biology in 2016/17, they represented just 9.4 per cent of entries in computing, 21.2 per cent in physics, and 39 per cent in mathematics. In addition, only eight per cent of STEM Apprenticeship starts are undertaken by girls and women, despite making up over 50 per cent of Apprenticeship starts overall.”

The committee is calling for specific targets to be put in place by the end of this year relating to the involvement of girls and women in STEM education, including Apprenticeships.
The MPs are also worried about the quality of careers advice and want to see the Department for Education (DfE) making better use of data on careers and salaries to incentivise young people to consider STEM pathways. The DfE should also work with Ofsted “to consider rating the quality of advice provided in schools”, it adds.

The report states: “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. 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.

“Careers guidance is one of many elements that Ofsted may examine when inspecting secondary schools. But Ofsted does not give those schools an explicit rating that indicates the quality of careers guidance offered.”

The report also admonishes the DfE for not having a full understanding of the impact of the financial incentives offered for teacher training in key STEM subjects.

The DfE offers increased payments to trainee teachers in a range of high-demand subjects. For the academic year 2018/19, the DfE will offer up to £28,000 of additional funding for trainee teachers in physics, chemistry and computing, and up to £26,000 for trainees in biology. It has also introduced a total payment of up to £32,000 to mathematics trainees.

However, the report concludes: “The DfE does not know whether people given financial incentives to undertake teacher training are remaining in the profession … and therefore cannot say whether these incentives are achieving the desired outcomes.”

The report also highlights poor quality STEM education provision – especially in Apprenticeships – that has “been allowed to continue for too long without being addressed”.

It adds: “Many of the old-style Apprenticeship ‘frameworks’ delivered poorly designed and inadequate programmes of learning for several years. Some stakeholders have claimed that a significant proportion of the programmes of learning do not constitute real Apprenticeships.”

The DfE says its new, employer-designed standards will result in better quality packages of learning for apprentices, but the report wants ministers to ensure effective monitoring. It adds: “It is unclear whether DfE has systems in place to identify poor-quality provision in a timely way, and take appropriate action.

“The 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.”

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, 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.

“Government must take a strategic view, properly informed by the requirements of industry and the anticipated impact of Brexit on the UK’s skills mix.

“But 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.”


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