The British Science Association’s (BSA) vision is a future where science is more relevant, representative, and connected to society. In other words, we want to see a world where everyone knows science is for them. And we mean everyone.

This is a vision for the future because unfortunately, that is not how the world looks today. Certain groups in society are marginalised and underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) higher education and the STEM workforce. We have covered this issue in various blogs on the lack of educational equity among different socio-economic groups, discrimination against LGBTQ+ people working STEM, and the patterns of exclusions rates of Black children in school and the underrepresentation of Black people in the STEM workforce.

Another section of society whose relative exclusion from the STEM world means our vision is still one we need to work towards, is people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The figures for people with SEND in STEM higher education and people without are starkly different. A study conducted on behalf of the Royal Society found that, “The percentage of entrants with a known disability is lower for students studying STEM subjects than non-STEM at both first degree and postgraduate level”, and that STEM-leavers with a disability are more likely than those without a disability to be unemployed six months after graduation.

Some graduates with SEND do move into a STEM industry, but inequality still reigns. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, for which the BSA is the secretariat, found that just 11% of the STEM workforce is disabled*. This is a significant underrepresentation, when you consider that 20% of the working-age population in the UK are classed as disabled.

These are pressing concerns that need to be addressed. Science is not representative of society if any group is partially excluded from higher education and industry.

These are areas where the engagement with STEM is quantifiable. We can look at the figures of university enrollment and employment rates. And while these are of course incredibly important, science being relevant and connected to society includes people who don’t work in or study STEM. It is also about everyday engagement.

A positive relationship with science starts in childhood, predominantly in an educational setting, and this is equally true for children with SEND. SEND is of course a huge spectrum, and some children have severe conditions that mean a career in STEM may not be possible, but a fulfilling science education is still essential.

There are barriers and rewards for teachers and students working and learning in SEND schools. A report by Strata on supporting children with SEND in science, identified that students may have challenges around things like literacy and numeracy, memory skills, communication skills and motor skills, which can impact STEM learning.

There are some supportive resources out there. The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) developed training toolkits for teachers to support inclusion of pupils with SEND in science. Their recommendations have focused on creating inclusive, accessible learning environments, alongside using multi-sensory approaches, so all pupils can participate regardless of their needs.

Part of our work at the BSA is to offer funding to schools in challenging circumstances to support them to put the advice such as the above into practice, and allow all children to enjoy our programmes. We give out Kick Start grants of up to £700 a few months in advance of British Science Week to schools meeting certain criteria, to fund activities and events they might want to hold.

Bardwell Special School in Oxfordshire, a school for children with SEND, received a Kick Start grant, and we spoke to Rebecca Lees, a teacher at Bardwell about her experiences of STEM education, and their British Science Week event.

Lees explained that a major challenge is that, while all the children in any given class are in the same age group, they will have different needs and different ability levels. To ensure that the information is absorbed, she explained:

We repeat lessons weekly for a whole term, so rather than teaching 12 different lessons around one theme or one content, we might teach one lesson, then teach that same thing and work on the real skills-based aspect of it. So actually, across a year we’ll only teach effectively three science lessons, or six science lessons depending on how your school structures it.”

This means teachers at SEND schools have to be selective with the topics they choose, as, Lees explained, the “science curriculum is just really, really broad”.

In spite of all the challenges, however, Lees has proved that no barrier is too large. Her school ran a successful British Science Week event, which she described as, “really exciting – it was a really cool day. Everybody thought it was great, even the professionals who came in said it was a fantastic day.”

Bardwell’s event focused on diversity and raising awareness amongst the students of science-based careers. The advantage of this is that so many careers are based or related to science, so you can get a wide range of attendees. Lees, for instance, looked at various careers including audiology, emergency services, nurses, dentists, opticians, physiotherapists, policemen and firefighters. Each of these attendees brought in equipment and activities for the students, so through role play, students were introduced to a wide variety of different environments, all from their own school premises, ensuring accessibility was not an issue. The event also tied in the idea of a multi-sensory approach, as each attendee brought in equipment for the students to use.

Bardwell’s commitment to showcasing the multidimensional aspects of science follows a key message promoted by the BSA – that science can be cross-curricular, and feed into many other subjects and lessons teachers can provide. Lees told us:

“When we teach science, we’re actually teaching fundamental skills, so you might teach auditory discrimination, you might teach categorising, so that fits in really well with science. Like categorising animals, body parts. We did visual perception, there’s so many different fundamental skills that our students need pre-teaching that actually, although you’re teaching it through science, it doesn’t have to necessarily be science, you could be having a communication theme, or a PHSE theme, independent skills theme.”

The BSA has also worked with BeyondAutism, a national charity, to develop a unique adaptation of our feedback forms. These have now been especially adapted to better suit the needs of SEN students, so we can better receive the feedback and incorporate their views into future events.

We will continue working with SEND students and supporting schools to ensure a future where science is truly representative, relevant and connected to society, leaving no one behind.