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STEM skills, gender imbalance and Brexit

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Public Accounts Committee, report, STEM skills, apprenticeships, Brexit, gender imbalance, DfE‘There is still much work required to address the striking gender imbalance in STEM apprenticeships’.

A Public Accounts Committee report published last week, Delivering STEM skills for the economy, has warned of potential impact of Brexit – and calls for action on gender imbalances.

STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and maths) are crucial for the UK’s productivity, and a shortage of STEM skills in the workforce is one of the UK’s key economic problems.

And the effectiveness of the future workforce relies on many more children and young people being encouraged to take STEM subjects and enter STEM careers.

But the government, the Committee has concluded, is not well placed to understand the extent of the challenge and ensure the supply of STEM skills, especially in the context of withdrawal from the European Union.

In particular, the continuing marked gender imbalances in several areas of STEM learning and work needs to be addressed — as demonstrated, for example, by the fact that only 8 per cent of STEM apprenticeship starts are undertaken by women.

When the Committee examined the apprenticeships programme in late 2016, it recommended that the Department for Education (DfE) should set up performance measures for the programme that included whether it is delivering improved access to under-represented groups across all occupations.

Performance measures have been established for the number of black and minority ethnic apprentices and those with learning disabilities.

The DfE did not introduce a target relating to female apprentices, because it was satisfied with the fact that women made up over 50 per cent of apprenticeship starts overall. But only 8 per cent of STEM apprenticeship starts are undertaken by women.

The gender imbalance is also apparent for ‘A’ levels, where women and girls are well represented in biology, but little progress has been made in increasing the numbers in subjects like computing and physics.

And the quality of careers advice in schools is patchy at best, perpetuating misconceptions about STEM careers.

In addition, the way that schools are currently being funded restricts the likelihood of pupils moving to other more STEM-focused learning providers, such as the new institutes of technology.

Schools are funded per pupil and so have a clear financial incentive to retain their existing students, rather than encouraging them to move to learning institutions that provide vocational skills.

And many parents and young people regard academic learning as inherently superior to the acquisition of vocational skills.

The new institutes of technology are intended to provide an alternative offer from that delivered by school sixth forms, but they will face a major challenge to persuade pupils to leave the school environment.

University technology colleges (UTCs) are a case in point. Schools for 14-19 year-olds that deliver technical education as well as core curriculum subjects, they have been in existence since 2010 but many have struggled to attract enough students to be financially viable.

The DfE risks wasting time, effort and money if it does not learn lessons quickly from past initiatives.

And to make better-informed decisions, departments also need to tackle the apparent lack of industry and commercial experience on their STEM boards and in working groups.

Meg Hillier MP, the Public Accounts Committee’s chair, 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.

The government, she continued, “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 the 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.”

To read the full report, click here.

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