Governors driving STEM


With the national focus on encouraging take-up of STEM subjects, Ellie Howarth reports on a framework of questions that has been compiled to help governors drive forward this important agenda.

The importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects in giving pupils the best future career options is widely acknowledged. Once armed with good qualifications in these subjects, doors can open to a wide range of high-flying and highly paid careers.

Statistics show that, on average, students who take A level maths earn up to 10 per cent more than similarly skilled workers who do not have the qualification. It is therefore unsurprising that increasing the number of young people who take, and do well at, science and maths has been a priority for both the education sector and government. 

A number of initiatives have been implemented to tackle this problem – for example, for the past few years the government has invested in bursaries to attract the best science and maths graduates to train as teachers. It has also funded bursaries for Subject Knowledge Enhancement courses, which give non-specialist graduates the knowledge they need to teach STEM subjects. 

More recently, the women and equalities minister, Jenny Willott, has launched a joint project with the Institute of Physics called Opening Doors, which aims to increase the number of girls taking physics. This is largely in response to research by the institute that collated national subject choice trends, suggesting that the vast majority of schools do little to counter gender prejudices. 

And in May the chancellor George Osborne, launched a new campaign entitled Your Life, which in partnership with business, educators and others aims to increase participation in mathematics, physics, technology and engineering.

These are just a selection of examples from the hive of activity aiming to get more young people, and in particular young women, to study science and maths. Such efforts have seen some degree of success, as over the past few years the number of pupils taking A levels in science and maths subjects has steadily increased. 

In 2012/13, a total of 80,567 pupils were entered for A level maths, compared to 78,077 in 2011/12 and 75,546 in 2010/11. 

However, there is still work to be done, especially with regards to the gender imbalance of entries to A level maths and physics – girls made up only a fifth of all pupils entered for A level physics in 2012/13, and two fifths of those entered for A level maths. This may partly be achieved by national initiatives, but what can schools themselves do to address the problem?

In order to secure sustainable success in science and maths education, schools need to take a strategic approach. The ever-changing education landscape of today encourages a predilection for short-term initiatives – quick fixes that promise immediate results. 

However, even when these initiatives achieve the desired results, they are often short-lived and disappear as soon as the next big thing comes along. So it is important to think long-term, and such strategic planning is the domain of the governing board. 

The Department for Education’s Governors’ Handbook lists “ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction” as one of three core functions for governing boards, but it is often the one governors struggle most with. 

Governors also have a responsibility to hold the headteacher to account for the performance of the school, commonly referred to as being a “critical friend”. 

This is something we have seen governors getting much better at over the past few years, but effective challenge often depends on governors asking the right questions. 

As many governors do not come from a STEM background, this can be particularly difficult when looking at science and maths provision in the school. 

Enter the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. As part of its remit the Wellcome Trust is committed to improving science education, and in recent years this has involved projects focusing on school governance. 

One of the key resources that has evolved from this work is a framework of questions for governors to ask about science and maths education in their school. 

This is a free resource which is currently only available for secondary school governors in England, although additional versions for primary schools and schools in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are in the pipeline. 

The framework has been produced in consultation with the National Governors’ Association (NGA) as well as experts from scientific, mathematics and education communities, including the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, Education Endowment Foundation, Gatsby Charitable Foundation, Institute of Physics, National Science Learning Centre, Royal Society of Chemistry and many others. 

The questions aim to support governing boards to identify areas to celebrate or challenge in science and maths, enabling them to work with their senior leaders to drive improvement. Each question begins with information about why it is important, setting the national and school level context which often draws on research evidence. 

This is followed by benchmarking data, allowing governors to measure their school against national averages. The purpose of this is to give governors an overview of how their school’s performance measures up nationally, as a basis for discussions with the headteacher and other leaders. 

We would expect the governing board to use this data as a springboard for more in-depth monitoring where necessary. 

These first two sections allow governors to build up a picture of what science and maths currently look like in the school. Finally, there are ideas for what the school might do to improve its performance – these include ideas for actions governors could take, and those for senior or subject leaders. 

This final section is particularly important to help the governing board and senior leaders develop a strategic plan for science and maths.

The questions focus on five over-arching areas: teaching, results, choices, facilities and enrichment. Splitting the questions into sections enables governors to focus on particular priority areas where appropriate. 

It is also intended to discourage enthusiastic governors from presenting the whole list to the headteacher and demanding an immediate response – this should be keenly avoided. 

Indeed, just as important as the questions themselves is making sure that both governors and teachers are clear in what they are being used for. In some cases it will take a while to collect the information needed to answer a question. A suggested approach to using the questions can also be found on the website. 

The NGA is currently running a pilot of the questions, and we want feedback from secondary school governing bodies in England about how they have used the resource and how it could be improved. 

We are asking participating schools to use the questions as they see fit over the next term, and then complete an evaluation survey towards the end of the autumn term. If your school is interested in taking part, register your details on the website (see below). Once signed up you will receive regular updates on the project, including the final evaluation survey.

  • Ellie Howarth is research and information officer at the National Governors’ Association.

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