by Katherine Mathieson, Director of Education at the British Science Association
Last week, I went to a screening of a new social action film called GirlRising  produced by Holly Gordon  as part of the 10x10 campaign  to improve the education of girls. The film depicted the stories of 10 girls and young women from around the world, interspersed with facts about the positive effects that educating girls can have in developing countries. For example, the World Bank reports  that each additional year of education can increase a girl’s future earnings by at least 10%. Yet around 66 million girls are currently not enrolled in education (UNESCO 2012 ).
I was particularly struck by Senna’s story: Senna is 14 and lives in La Rinconada , the world’s highest town, in the Andean mountains of Peru. Her goal is to be an engineer, so she can work in the town’s gold mine and provide for her family. Her passion is for poetry: she recites and composes her own poetry and has even won a prize at school.
This powerful and often moving film made me think again about the value we place on education. Many of the girls featured in GirlRising overcome huge challenges in order to go to school, and many more can’t go but dream about the opportunity.
The film’s partners are working hard to use the film as a stimulus for social action on the issue of educating girls in developing countries. In the US, anyone can request  a screening of the film, and if there are 100 or more requests in one area, they will get to see it. But there’s currently no similar model for the UK – at the event, the film’s producer issued a plea for film distributors who might be able to help.
Sarah Brown does a Plan Talk with Jude Kelly at BAFTA (Credit: Alison Baskerville/Plan UK)
Last week’s screening was prefaced by a Plan Talk  featuring Sarah Brown (Founding Chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education) in conversation with Jude Kelly, Southbank Centre Director. Sarah talked about the importance of her own education in shaping and fuelling her ambitions as a ‘social activist’ – or as she described it, being “professionally noisy”. The film’s partners  are hoping that the film will lead to more volunteers, activists and donations to help them carry out their valuable work. Those in the UK can contribute via the charity Plan UK .
The issue in the UK is rather different. While almost all girls go to school, many are opting out of science-based subjects from early in their secondary education. GirlGuiding’s 2011 study  of girls’ attitudes to careers found that only 1% wanted a career in engineering; the top choice was hairdressing.
School is one of the key influencers on young people’s career aims, according to the findings of the ASPIRES research group . Schools can tap into a range of activities and resources to help them provide balanced messages about careers. Some are specially designed to appeal to girls (such as Computer Clubs 4 Girls , Stemettes  and ScienceGrrl ). Others are able to attract equal numbers of boys and girls (such as the Association’s own CREST Awards  programme for 11 to 18-year-olds). There are also schemes for schools to find activity providers  or request role models  who can visit schools.
Going to the screening of the GirlRising is one example of how stepping outside my comfort zone from time to time can provide a different perspective that revitalises my commitment to the ‘day job’.
For example, I once went along to a meeting of music educators. A group of around 50 people debated their chief concerns over the state of music education  in this country. I’m no expert but it seemed that their main worry was the position of music within the National Curriculum  in England. Music seemed to be in grave danger of being dropped from the list of things that schools had to cover. There was a great deal of discussion about how to make a case for music’s importance as a curriculum subject. None of the speakers raised enjoyment as a problem – it seemed that young people not enjoying the subject was not really an issue.
This seemed to be the polar opposite of the issues faced by those working in science education: we know that science will always be a core curriculum subject, but our main concern  is working out how to make the subject enjoyable and relevant so that more students choose to engage for longer.
I think it’s good to refresh my thinking once in a while by going along to an event or a meeting that’s outside my regular experience. Most of my meetings are about young people and science subjects (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths – STEM – to the insiders). I listen and talk about ways of providing young people with exciting, hands-on experiences that encourage them to develop a passion for science. I work mostly in partnership with colleagues from within the British Science Association  and partners like EngineeringUK , the Royal Institution , STEMNET , Young Engineers  and many others. Over time, we develop our practice and expertise through discussions that continue, intermittently, over months and years. I find this absorbing and valuable.
Sometimes, though, it’s good to get a completely different perspective, and the Plan Talks/Girl Rising event was indeed an insight into a very different work. Intel , the film’s founding sponsor, and other partners are working hard to try to spread the GirlRising film’s important message. I hope they succeed.