Science is key to creating new jobs and putting money in our pockets

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society
(Dimbleby Lecture 2012)

In his Dimbleby Lecture, Sir Paul Nurse called for ‘a new Enlightenment for the 21st century’, a requirement for which was a ‘vision to think big … and to imagine where we want to be in the future’. Last year, under his Presidency, the Royal Society published its Vision for science and mathematics education, which set an ambitious 20 year plan to transform UK education.

So the Renaissance Suite at Brighton’s Waterfront Hotel was an aptly named venue for a Labour Party fringe debate on one of the key messages of the Society’s Vision, the need for businesses and schools to build strong and lasting partnerships that will ensure teachers and their students can consistently engage with cutting-edge science and engineering.

Labour Party conference panel discussion

 

It is fair to say that there was strong agreement in the room that such partnerships were valuable, particularly in:

  • professionally developing teachers and enabling them to provide better information on the range of STEM careers available;
  • offering young people the chance to work with scientists and engineers, raise their awareness of career opportunities and develop essential employability skills; and
  • enabling businesses to raise their profile, provide their employees with career development opportunities and helps ensure they have a hand in developing the skilled labour force they require.

Among the panellists were two students from the Sir Robert Woodard Academy (SRWA), who described how they have benefited from ‘eye-opening’ experiences as a result of the school’s partnership with local firm Ricardo plc, the multinational engineering giant. And while it was clear from teacher Mark Jackson, and Jonathan Brown, Chief Engineer at Ricardo, that meaningful partnerships can result only when there is enormous commitment from both parties, enabling young people to see for themselves how their classroom learning relates to the buzz of real-life scientific and technological inquiry is invaluable.

Yet it was clear that the sorts of opportunities that students at SRWA are afforded are not commonplace. Adam Marshall, from the British Chambers of Commerce, was quick to point out that across England and the UK as a whole such opportunities are all too rare, and Ruth Smeeth, the newly elected MP for Stoke-on-Trent North was incredulous. ‘Nothing’, she said, ‘like what you’re talking about happens in Stoke’, where she said this year 50% of young people failed to obtain 5 A*–C GCSE grades, including in English and maths.

Her observations had particular resonance, especially in the light of the statistics quoted by Professor Adrian Sutton FRS, Deputy Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, which drew attention to the gulf between the UK’s requirement for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals and the numbers of STEM graduates it is producing.

The Royal Academy of Engineering has said we need to produce 135,000 STEM professionals in the UK for each of the next 5 years, but that would require a 50% increase in the current numbers of STEM graduates being produced annually. And given that, respectively, 24% of maths and 36% of physics teachers in England lack a post A-level qualification in the subject, it is not surprising that just 4.5% of girls who were entered for at least one A-level last year chose to take physics.

The debate showed that concerted and cohesive action is required across the education and business communities.  Otherwise we risk the very real possibility that we will fail to overcome the challenges we face in the UK in seeking to ensure that all young people benefit from a similarly high quality education and build a resilient and globally competitive economy.

Key to this is the need to generate greater ‘science capital’. This catchy term is used by researchers to describe a person’s scientific literacy and connectivity to science, and as Ian Duffy, BP’s Community Development Manager and Adam Marshall asserted, it needs to be built from an early age.

It is clear that by enriching the quality of school science education the business community has a tremendous role in building the nation’s ‘science capital’ and that this will pay economic dividends, particularly as scientific discovery and technological innovation will be essential for developing a flourishing economy. This debate showed that the business community can do more, particularly investing greater effort and energy into reaching teachers and students in deprived areas.

But, as the panel also acknowledged, increased business engagement in education needs to be complemented by a suite of other reforms and investments. Among those discussed were:

  • structural changes, such as revising the accountability framework so that it supports teachers to teach their subject(s) creatively;
  • continued investment in research, such as the ongoing ASPIRES project, to understand more about when and why so many young people turn their backs on science;
  • and continued efforts to remove the damaging misconceptions and barriers that deter girls from pursuing STEM careers.

Finally, there was the notion that all of us are role models and that we share the responsibility for contributing directly to enhancing the quality of education in our schools, eg by serving as governors. Ruth Smeeth summed this up neatly. ‘We need’, she urged, to be ‘community political’.

  • behrfacts

    Interesting post. There needs to be coherence across the whole STEM education and career development pathway from child to established practitioner. Vision set out some principles for this but now we need the detail and clearly employers and business groups can assist with the pragmatics as long as they have the right incentives in place.