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1.1      What is STEM?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. When used in an educational context, the term generally means the study of these subjects, either exclusively or in combination. It might also refer to the study of ICT, computing, or design and technology.

In employment, STEM refers to jobs requiring the application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, or a qualification completed in a relevant subject, industry, or sector. It can also be used to refer to occupations related to medicine and health.

1.2      STEM in schools: impact of Coronavirus pandemic

School trips and participation in external events

Schools in England are currently fully open. However, the DfE currently advises against any educational trips and visits.[1] This has been the position for much of the pandemic, although schools were able to resume domestic daytime visits at the beginning of the autumn term in 2020, subject to risk assessment.

The Department for Education has published guidance for out-of-school education providers.

Financial support for providers affected by pandemic restrictions on school trips

The Government set out the support available to science and discovery centres affected by the pandemic in response to an October 2020 parliamentary question:

  • Science and Discovery Centres in England have access to the unprecedented support the Government has announced for business and workers, to protect them against the current economic emergency. Many are also part of museum groups or are heritage sites. Museums and heritage organisations can access over £200 million of coronavirus support schemes from Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Some centres may also be eligible for support from the £1.57 billion investment to protect cultural and heritage organisations announced by Government on 5 July.[2]

Also in October 2020, the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (UKASDC) co-ordinated an open letter to the Government, calling for £25 million of emergency financial support for the sector. The letter, signed by 157 STEM professionals, said the sector was at “imminent risk”. It continued:

  • As things stand today, 96% of Science and Discovery Centres say they cannot cover costs when they reopen as their capacities are reduced by up to 75% to enable social distancing [..]
  • We, like so many UK businesses, have benefited from the government’s valued job retention scheme and reduced VAT. Many Science Centres have made significant staff redundancies and taken out loans. However, Science Centres are also charities, with science and environmental education and public engagement missions. Surely we want to protect this precious national asset to continue to engage young people with science for years to come, contributing to the future success of the UK.
  • It was deeply disappointing to learn that Science and Discovery Centres had been largely excluded from the remarkable government support being made available to other cultural organisations in similar dire straits. Science and Discovery Centres work to place science at the heart of our culture in the UK, and yet were largely excluded from the arts, heritage and culture rescue package of £1.57 billion. […][3]

A data sheet published alongside the letter states:

  • Over 25 million people each year visit UK science centres and museums annually. Of these, more than half were women and girls.
  • Around 8 million school-age children and adults annually visit “the Science and Discovery Centres that are excluded from applying for central government grants (those open to heritage, museums, theatres and the arts) and are at risk.”[4]

1.3      STEM A-Level entries

On 13 August 2020, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, which represents over 115 scientific organisations, published an analysis of 2020 A-level entries. It found that the core STEM subjects of biology, chemistry and physics saw a small drop in entries but still remain among the most popular subjects. Maths remained the most popular subject for students and saw an increase in the number of entries.

In England the proportion of A-level students entering any maths or science subject increased from 35% in 2015/16 to 46% in 2019/20. The proportion studying three or more of these subjects at A level went from 15% to 19% over the same period. There were increases in all individual subjects. Boys were more likely to study one or more maths or science subject; 55% did so in 2019/20 compared to 39% of girls. The only major science subject with more girls than boys is biology, although the entry rate for chemistry was only slightly lower for boys. Boys were around eight times as likely to study computing at A level than girls and more than four times as likely to study Physics.[5]

1.4      Further Education White Paper: Skills for Jobs

On 21 January 2021, the Government published a white paper setting out reforms to post-16 technical education and training: Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth. It contained a number of proposals related to STEM, including the continuation of the roll-out of T Levels and the expansion of the Institutes of Technology programme. An overview of the white paper can be found in the Library briefing FE white paper: Skills for Jobs for Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth, 28 January 2021.

T levels are qualifications based on employer-led standards that offer a technical alternative to A Levels for 16 to 19 year olds. Three T Levels in the Health and Science route will be available in 2021-22 (Health, Healthcare Science, Science). During the 2-year programme, students will develop the core knowledge and skills that are needed for entry to a range of science occupations. The library briefing T Levels: Reforms to Technical Education, 16 December 2019 gives an overview of T-Levels.

Institutes of Technology are collaborations between further education colleges, universities, and employers. Their objective is to deliver higher-level technical education with a clear route to high-skilled employment focusing on STEM skills in areas like advanced manufacturing, infrastructure, digital, and life sciences. They aim to target disadvantaged groups in their local areas and increase the representation of women in STEM in order to help close skills gaps.

1.5      Skills shortages

On 24 October 2019, the Industrial Strategy Council published a research paper titled UK Skills Mismatch 2030. It noted that there will be “acute shortages of specialist skills in STEM and health services by 2030.”[6] The paper argues that these shortages are “likely to show up in terms of both knowledge (for example, mathematics) and workplace skills (for example, scientific research and development (R&D), and advanced IT skills)”.[7]

A 2020 report published by the Confederation of British Industry demonstrates that “upskilling and retraining people to give them the skills they will need to succeed will cost an additional £130billion by 2030.”[8]

In 2018, STEM Learning, which provides education and careers support across the UK, found that existing shortages in STEM skills are costing businesses £1.5 billion a year in recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries, and additional training costs.

1.6      STEM in Higher Education

STEM subjects are recognised as having strategic importance in higher education (HE) for the economy and employers. The Office for Students distributes extra government funding to Higher Education Providers (HEPs) in England for the study of STEM subjects:

  • We provide institutions with funding for high-cost subjects. These are subjects where the tuition fee alone is not enough to meet the full costs of its delivery.
  • High-cost subjects include laboratory-based science, engineering and technology subjects. In addition, we have provided funding to help secure the provision of four very high-cost STEM subjects, chemistry, physics, chemical engineering, and mineral, metallurgy and materials engineering

Many HEPs offer summer schools and outreach programmes to give young people the experience of studying a STEM subject at university, including the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and the University of Sheffield.

1.7      Equity in STEM

On 23 June 2020, The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM published a report titled Equity in STEM education. It followed a 15-month inquiry on whether the education system and schools provide equal opportunities for students of all ages to learn STEM subjects in England. The report made six recommendations:

  • A Minister responsible for addressing inequity within the education system
  • STEM education that is more relevant to the lives of all young people
  • Greater action to address teacher shortages in STEM subjects
  • Full implementation of changes to careers support and guidance, as suggested by the Careers Strategy for England (2017)
  • Steps to address the existing inequalities in provision of Double Award and Triple Science at GCSE
  • A review of fundamental changes to STEM GCSEs which considers equity issues.

The APPG is currently undertaking an inquiry into equity in the UK STEM workforce. A final report will be published in summer 2021. Prior to the inquiry, the APPG published a Data Analysis Brief on the diversity of the STEM (including health) workforce as it stood in 2019. The key findings include:

  • 18% of the UK workforce work in STEM occupations
  • 65% of the STEM workforce are white men
  • The STEM workforce has a lower share of female workers than the rest of the workforce (27% vs. 52%)
  • The share of ethnic minority workers in STEM is on a par with the rest of the economy.

[1]      Department for Education, Actions for schools during the coronavirus outbreak, 16 March 2021.

[2]      PQ HL8714, 19 October 2020.

[3]      UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, Open letter to Prime Minister, Chancellor and Secretary of State to ask for Resilience Funding for Science Centres, October 2020.

[4]      UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, data sheet, undated.

[5]      A level and other 16 to 18 results 2019/20, DfE

[6] Industrial Strategy Council, UK Skills Mismatch 2030, 24 October 2019, p28.

[7] Industrial Strategy Council, UK Skills Mismatch 2030, 24 October 2019, p29.

[8] CBI, Learning for Life: Funding a world-class adult education system, October 2020, p8.

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