Our fourth meeting was on Monday 3rd December 2018. Below are transcripts and summaries of the speeches and points from attendees.

Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee

The Select Committee hasn’t yet looked at diversity and inclusion in STEM subjects, but I am keen that we do. We’ve started conversations and we need to design an inquiry that fully considers these issues.­­­­­­­­

We need to look at this because it is vitally important that every adult and child is given the same opportunity to flourish.

Women and people from poorer backgrounds currently don’t get the same chance to make the most of their talents in STEM, and that cannot continue on moral grounds. On top of that, from an economic perspective, the pool of people we’re selecting to do science careers from is stupidly limited. If we limit opportunities only to white men in the population, we limit the human capital of our country. For fairness and for the economy, the topics this group addresses are of vital importance.

The Royal Society’s research has found that socioeconomic background has a strong effect on an individual’s ability to enter the STEM workforce.

The Education Endowment Foundation found from research using the National Pupil Database that educational attainment in science is weaker for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, all the way from Key Stage 1 to A-Level. It gets worse as you advance through school, and by the time science is an optional part of the curriculum, poorer students are even less likely to do science.

There is also an issue in the regional distribution of STEM opportunity. 41% of public funding for research and development is spent within the ‘golden triangle’ of London, Cambridge and Oxford. This causes a dearth of investment in other areas.

We need to consider policy interventions that address these wider issues, and this could involve the whole education system.

We need to carefully design an inquiry to really understand what will open up excitement in STEM for everyone from all backgrounds!

Graham Randles, Managing Director, NEF Consulting

The New Economics Foundation works for an economy that works for people and the planet and is concerned with lots of economic issues that ensure the economy works for everyone and not just the privileged few.

NEF Consulting works with a wide range of programmes, including evaluating the impact of government programmes. We look at the process, how it is progressing, and analyse the costs and benefits. I’m currently looking at the Opportunity Areas programme conducted by the Department for Education and we have several important findings. The programme runs in several of the more deprived areas of the UK, including Blackpool, Derby, North Yorkshire, Somerset and Norwich.

  1. Waiting until after school is too late. We need to start before Key Stage 1 to truly engage people with STEM and other subjects.
  2. It’s vital to improve teaching and subject skills for teachers and enhance professional development opportunities. We also need increased teacher capacity.
  3. We need to get parents involved in education and try to prevent exclusion from school in as many cases as possible.
  4. We need to provide links to the programme across the spectrum of age ranges and through to university. And with other programmes across Government.

Opportunity Area case study: Ipswich

Each area in the programme chooses their own aims based on a set of priorities. In Ipswich, it was decided that the teaching profession needed to be strengthened by providing world class support and development. Teacher retention is Ipswich is very poor and vacancy rates are high – twice as many state secondary schools have vacancies. A workforce development strategy was created that attempted to address the high vacancy rate in STEM subjects. STEM Learning provided a professional development programme with money from the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund. This supports specialist and non-specialist science teachers.

Ipswich also aims to equip young people with the skills and guidance they need to create a good career. Disadvantaged pupils are less likely to be in a sustained career destination, and only 26% of Ipswich’s young people went to one of the top universities, compared to 44% nationally. The programme has a goal that every child leaves primary school inspired by the world of work, and we hope that will have a significant impact in the future.

Dr Jo Littler, social mobility academic, City, University of London

My work focuses on social mobility and the concept of meritocracy, so I’m going to talk a bit about that. Our understanding of work is closely related to our ideas about meritocracy, and I argue that this is hugely problematic for society.

We are told that the ladder of social mobility is there for us if we activate our talent and climb to the top of the pile. The idea is based on fairness – that we all have a chance to get to the top. It’s seen as right that the system doesn’t discriminate.

But the idea of a meritocracy is consistently used to service agendas that aim to perpetuate entrenched privilege and inequality. The use of this word has arisen during a period of rapid privatisation and concentration of wealth – 1% of the world now owns 82% of global wealth.

The idea of meritocracy carries mystification that we need to look at, and I have five main points to get across to you.

  1. Meritocracy needs failure to function. It is a competitive process and requires some to fail. Social mobility is almost always thought of as an upward trajectory, but we don’t often talk of downward social mobility and its impact. These ideas are part of a system that involves disproportionate rewards for those at the top, who then pass them on to their children, completely disregarding the meritocratic ideal – it just doesn’t make sense.
  2. Competitive individualism stops us collaborating – it prevents progress because we’re all trying to beat one another.
  3. Meritocracy assumes talent is inbuilt from birth, but you may have a talent for music or IT that you don’t have a chance to develop because of your circumstances.
  4. Meritocracy is linked with a hierarchical ranking of status by type of career. Some professions are put at the top of the pile, but why? Being a singer or an entrepreneur are much more aspired to than a research chemist or engineer. We need a range of roles - all celebrated - to have a prosperous society.
  5. Social mobility functions as a narrative that encourages us to have faith in a ladder system when it’s not the reality. This system blames oppressed people if they don’t make it.

The evolution of meritocracy

In its first use, meritocracy was used as a term of abuse. Why would you give economic reward to the already gifted? Many people agreed at the time, but the term shifted in values so by the 1980s it was being used by right-wing think tanks to justify cuts to services.

It’s the most powerful people who believe meritocracy exists – it’s a narrative of self-justification for the privileged to remain privileged. People that inherit millions, like Donald Trump for example, say that they deserve it because they work hard, but the idea of a level playing field is being used to justify changes that make the situation worse.

Vital changes

We need to campaign for greater levels of equality, including a cap on pay, provision of top-quality science education, reversing austerity cuts and reinstating funding for high quality education for all. We also need fair and unbiased processes for job interviews, conferences and courses. It all needs to be open and without prejudice.

Discussion Points


  • It was suggested that while there may be opportunities created, how can people access those opportunities without transport links? It was asked to what extent is a lack of aspiration tied to a lack of transport links.
  • It was suggested that HS2, while being hailed as a way of increasing opportunity in the North and the Midlands, will only lead to more jobs based in London. People will end up commuting in from Birmingham and Manchester. This will only reinforce the existing economic system. It would be more effective to have jobs created in more rural areas or areas often overlooked such as Norfolk.
  • Transport is often unaffordable even if it exists; the costs of buses and trains create another barrier for people to overcome. In breaking down inequality, it will take more than one change and transport is another example of these barriers that need to be addressed.

Stereotypes and role models

  • The topic of stereotypes was raised often, with audience members suggesting that these harmed young people’s perceptions and aspirations of STEM careers.
  • There was concern that many schools and teachers were still perpetrating these stereotypes and that this created a misunderstanding of what options were available to pupils. For example, there are less traditional routes to becoming an engineer than going the academic route through university. This is not always known.
  • The importance of role models was discussed with many audience members sharing their experience of going into schools or sharing anecdotes of engaging with teachers.
  • It was suggested that schools are key places for intervention in a child’s life as it’s the only place that’s consistent to all people’s lives. It was pointed out frequently that these interventions need to be made very early in a child’s life as often by later years the attainment gap has widened based on socio-economic status.
  • David Chambers’ study was mentioned which asked children to draw a scientist. 90% of children drew a man. While this is decreasing, it is still used an insight into the way children perceive the world.
  • There’s a perception from girls that they need to excel at STEM or achieve higher grades to pursue it. This did not exist with boys. For example, girls feel that they have to achieve As and A*s to apply for STEM subjects whereas boys will apply with lower grades.


  • The topic of aspiration was raised frequently, with suggestions that within working class communities there’s often a culture of low aspiration. This was responded to with the suggestion that it is hard for people to break generational inequality and that there was a danger of blaming parents for what is essentially beyond their control.
  • Role models from unrepresented audiences who have entered STEM professions are often presented as ‘normal’, ignoring the structural barriers that they have worked to overcome. People are then made to feel bad for not ‘achieving’ without the acknowledgment that the system is against them. For example, grammar schools are presented as a system of meritocracy and a way to create opportunity but are filled with middle class children whose families can afford tutors to enable them to pass the entrance exams.
  • There needs to be opportunity for people to aspire to. If there’s no pathway available, then how can people aspire to it?

Online submissions

The Royal Society of Chemistry submitted their policy note on social mobility, which is available to read here.

We also had one anonymous online submission, below.

There are a number of compounding issues affecting the access to STEM for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds:

  • Teacher recruitment, this is an issue across the country but it is exacerbated in poorer areas. Science teachers are in demand, and schools in more deprived areas can (but not always) be much more difficult to teach in due to resource cuts, overworked staff, poorer facilities and sometimes poorer discipline. They are not always the most attractive places to work. Schools are also struggling to retain teachers due to the same problems. This results in many science departments being chronically understaffed and students being taught by non-subject specialists, resulting in fewer role models for those students, and a lower standard of education.
  • Career advice - students across the UK are not exposed to, or aware of, the number of careers available in STEM. Career advice often falls on already overworked teaching staff who themselves may not be aware of the wide opportunities available across STEM. Therefore, students often do not see science as a viable career option for them, they have no knowledge of what is out there or how to navigate them. They are not able to rely on their parents for career advice in the same way pupils from higher income families are, as their parents may have no idea themselves on the careers available in STEM, or the opportunities afforded through higher education. In addition, schools often measure their success on an arbitrary number of pupils going on to study at higher education, and other routes into STEM such as degree apprenticeships or other technical qualifications are not promoted.
  • Financial reasons - a career in STEM in the long-term can be very profitable, but in the short term it requires a lot of money up-front. Tuition fees and maintenance loans aside, many careers in STEM require significant work experience and post-graduate qualifications. Work experience, and internships are often undertaken in the summer holidays between term, and often are low-paying or unpaid. Students from lower income backgrounds are excluded from these opportunities because they simply cannot afford to move away from home in the short term and work for free between term time as the majority rely on part-time jobs in bars and in retail to fund themselves through university. Poor access to STEM for people from lower income backgrounds in terms of education is a result of education failings, a significant lack of role models and career advice and financial challenges. Pursuing the significant education required for a career in STEM is a daunting prospect for those people who come from families and areas who are financially struggling.

Cuts to education and schools needs to be reversed. There are bursaries to incentivize people into the teaching profession, but retainment is incredibly poor. England has the youngest average age of teachers across the profession of any country in Europe. Teachers need to be offered career progression opportunities and opportunities to develop their skills. Schools need more money to ensure that opportunities are available to develop their staff and ensure they are not overworked. A centralized initiative for career advice. Whether that is rotating careers advisors who go into schools across local authorities or permanent members of staff. All schools and students should have access to a national standard of career advice as a matter of policy. Teachers should be given the opportunity (and time!) to pursue sabbaticals in industry, research or another profession related to their subject. This not only provides development for staff, but they can also use their experience to help inform their students. Increased financial support for those from lower socioeconomic areas to access work placements and internships and pursue under-graduate and post-graduate study.

Some quotes and responses have been edited for clarity.

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