Our first meeting was on Wednesday 23 May. Below is a summary of the speeches and points from the attendees.

Siena Castellon, 15-year-old autism and neurodiversity advocate

Difficulties for neurodiverse students

As a high-ability autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic secondary student, my disabilities have presented unique educational challenges. High-ability disabled students often fall through the cracks because we perform well at school. Teachers often focus on deficits, rather than strengths related to disability. Students might be excellent in some areas and struggling in others.

High-ability autistic students are also likely to be bullied in secondary school, pushing them out of the education system and preventing them pursuing STEM further. The home education system is full of students like this.

What should change?

We need to nurture high-ability SEN students from an early age to increase neurodiversity in STEM education and careers. This process must begin at secondary school and involve a more comprehensive approach to identifying high-ability students, whose talents may mask their disability.

The UK needs more programmes like those in the USA, such as Stanford University’s Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes, where high-ability SEN students can go and develop the areas where they excel – this will help young people like me excel and move into STEM careers.

Schools need to be able to deal with and prevent bullying, and the education system needs to be changed so that all students feel safe and supported at school.

In summary, the education system needs to:

  • Create more opportunities for SEN secondary students to take part in STEM apprenticeships and work placements – particularly ones designed specifically with SEN students in mind
  • Develop joined-up services to provide autistic students with support during the transition from school to higher education. This will reduce drop-out rates by autistic university students
  • Identify and promote disabled STEM role models
  • Develop STEM-specific peer mentoring schemes – for example, one that matches autistic university students with autistic secondary students
  • Universities need to provide more support for SEN university students; often universities have a diversity and inclusion strategy, but SEN people are commonly overlooked in these strategies and lack support.

Professor Louise Archer, UCL Institute of Education

Louise conducts the ASPIRES research into what motivates young people to take part in science. It’s a ten-year study looking at over 40,000 young people. Louise and her team have created the Science Capital Teaching Approach to help teachers embed the research in the classroom.

What influences science career decisions?

  • We often think that if we just make science more interesting, more young people will study it, but we’ve found that most young people already find it interesting. Even in GCSEs there are still high levels of interest
  • Up to age 16, most parents tell their children that it’s important to learn science and it’s valuable for future careers
  • It’s not that young people hold negative stereotypes of scientists – most think scientists do valuable work and earn a lot of money
  • But this does not translate into wanting to be a scientist, as the graph below shows:

Graph showing low interest in science careers compared to strong beliefs in value of science.

  • Our young people are deciding they don’t want to be a scientist by the age of 10
  • Young people aspire to other careers, particularly business careers, because they’re seen as more open

Why don’t more young people want to work in science?

Our education system is partly to blame:

  • We force our students to specialise early into a small number of subjects at A-Level
  • We have tough entry criteria and marking for subjects like A-Level Physics
  • Double and Triple Science GCSE are not equally available to all students

What’s the problem with Triple Science GCSE?

We feel the time is right to review current system because this stratification of science education is preventing a broader group from getting involved.

Triple Science GCSE is seen as the gold standard qualification, but we’ve found that the likelihood of doing it depends on several factors. Your gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status all affect whether you are likely to do Triple Science. Our research shows that this is particularly bad for Black students, girls and those from poorer areas. Schools in deprived areas are often less able to run Triple Science and are sometimes forced to hold it as an extracurricular activity. This is educational rationing.

The choice is often made by the school, so it depends on the resources available, and any selection criteria are usually strict. One of our study participants said:

“I was quite gutted that I didn’t get triple science [...] Because I was planning on doing triple science and then obviously going on and doing a science career, but I didn’t get triple science, I didn’t get picked for it”

Triple Science students are more likely to do STEM A-Levels, but when schools make this decision for their students, it forces them down a specific route, and worsens social inequalities.

More information on the inequity of Triple Science is available in this blog post and this academic paper.

Lord David Willetts, Chair of the British Science Association

Lord Willetts is former Minister for Universities and Science, and has just published ‘A University Education’, which considers the British university system.

What’s the problem with early specialisation?

  • In the UK, students are asked to decide on their future careers at age 16 by selecting only three A-Level subjects
  • In a modern civilised society, we should not have such large numbers of people dropping science at 16
  • Science is too important to be left to professional scientists - all of us should have the confidence to join debate and assess the evidence available
  • And we need scientists who have knowledge of history and other parts of society – many scientists cannot speak a second language, which hinders their ability to collaborate internationally

Why do we specialise so early?

Universities are primarily responsible for the A-Level system. Historically, elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge used entry exams that were shaped around individual courses. Grammar schools trying to get students into certain subjects educated them in those specialisms, and this approach evolved into the A-Levels we have today.

Degree course leaders also have significant control over entry requirements, so they ask for students with high levels of knowledge. This makes it easier for them to teach students to a higher level, but it also means that young people are tied into a specific career path much earlier than in other countries.

How do other countries work?

In the USA, the largest single subject on degree entry is ‘undeclared’ because students sample several subjects in their first year and decide to specialise in their second year. These students are deciding at age 20 what the UK's choose at age 16. This system also puts competitive pressure on lecturers to enthuse students about their subject, while teachers in the UK are under less pressure to perform well.

How does early specialisation affect diversity in STEM?

We have an unusual problem in medicine, which receives many more applications from girls than boys. To study medicine, you need A-Levels in biology, maths and chemistry – you don’t need physics, so many girls interested in science drop physics at A-Level. However, the Government sets a limit on the number of medical students each year, so girls applying to medicine are among the most dissatisfied groups. And then, in a final cruel twist, because they haven’t taken A-Level physics, these girls aren’t able to choose a huge number of degrees that require it.

These girls can’t choose engineering, as most universities require physics, and we have a serious shortage of female engineers. Only 7% of young people choose the A-Levels at age 16 required to become engineers. No other country narrows their potential engineers down so early on.

What’s the solution?

  • We need our young people to study a broader range of subjects to age 18 – let’s make A-Levels more manageable and allow people to study far more subjects
  • Universities should stop setting such high criteria for required A-Level grades
  • We can learn from the Classics – the number of students taking Greek and Latin A-Level fell, so they allowed people without them to take their Classics degrees. We need to do this in STEM too

Discussion points

Primary teaching

  • To convince young girls to get involved in STEM, we need to engage children at primary level because they are making decisions very early on.
  • We lack primary teachers with STEM experience – partly due to the early specialisation that we force people into, and this means there is a lack of diverse role models.
  • At primary level, young people from different backgrounds need to see the relevance of STEM to their lives – so it’s important how teachers and ambassadors present it.

Early specialisation

  • To make engineering more inclusive, we need to teach it to people with previous low levels of attainment. For instance, if they don’t have the necessary grades, the first year at university could be used to get people up to speed. Having to choose a specific area of engineering before you even start university doesn’t help
  • University of Loughborough and others have dropped A-Level requirements for engineering to include more people, and apprenticeships are a viable option because they require far fewer qualifications.
  • Some organisations are creating apprenticeships that do not require STEM subjects, including the National Physical Laboratory.
  • AS-Levels were supposed to stop this specialising but the number of subjects that can be studied at AS-Level is now restricted


  • STEM Ambassadors are important, but according to a paper from the Wellcome Trust, short-term engagement has little impact, so the intervention needs to be longer-term to have an impact.
  • Many young people think they are not smart enough to study STEM because it is associated with natural intelligence and not hard work, and this view is more common in those with less science capital. Careers guidance is underfunded and patchy – poorer students who would benefit most are the least likely to get it.
  • We should tell young people about the diversity of stem careers and embed the message that STEM gives you options. The formal education system is working against us, but we can solve these problems with long-term work.
  • We need to make STEM glamorous to get those on the outside into the conversation.
  • We need the media onside to raise the profile of STEM.
  • Career guidance at secondary school often falls on teachers. Many girls aren’t aware of STEM careers other than medicine.


  • We are rightly working on getting people into the pipeline, but we need to consider retention of students and teachers.
  • Research on LGBT+ people in STEM shows poor retention – more research is needed to understand why. Postnote: Nature research finds 57% of American LGBT researchers are 'out' in the lab. New research published in Science Advances shows that sexual minority students were eight percent less likely to be retained in STEM compared to their heterosexual peers. 
  • People returning from parenting leave often struggle to reintegrate as STEM progresses so quickly and we do not help people enough when they come back to work.

Bigger picture

  • The government is uniquely positioned to tackle these problems and they need to look at the bigger picture.
  • We need to coordinate extracurricular activities because it can be too hard for teachers and students to choose between them.
  • Technologies are often not assessed by a diverse group of people, which means they are sometimes not suitable for everyone.

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All-Party Parliamentary Groups are informal groups of members of both houses with a common interest in particular issues. The views expressed in these webpages are those of the group.