Those working and studying in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education system have lifted the lid on the reality of teacher shortages, in the wake of a report into the system in England.

The recently released inquiry report on Equity in STEM education has highlighted significant shortcomings across the education system. It was released by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM in June 2020 - the group for which the BSA acts as Secretariat.

Among the five findings are the need to strengthen STEM-specific teaching and a more joined-up approach by Government to tackle the causes in inequity in STEM education.

Will Mackintosh (pictured above), who has recently finished as secondary headteacher at Ark St John’s Academy says the shortage means it is likely STEM departments across the country are staffed by non-specialists that ultimately dilute the potential student experience.

He says some schools also make financial compromises to fill vacancies.

“I know schools have also spent considerable sums of money on agency fees, money which could be much better spent elsewhere, in order to recruit STEM specialists.”

The financial implications were significant, but the lack of quality teaching would continue to create inequities in the system, he says.

“If we don’t have great, well trained STEM specialists, it will reduce the chances of pupils having the grades and desire to study these crucial subjects further.”

For some students, the complete absence of specialist STEM subjects directly impacted what they studied beyond secondary school.

Women of the Future award winner Vanessa Madu (left) had an early eye for coding and technology, but the lack of a computer science department at her school meant this talent would go unfostered. She eventually turned her hand to mathematics after some important advice from one of her teachers.

“I had a teacher that didn’t want me to waste my talent for maths, so he pushed me to keep doing maths,” she said.

However, a lack of teachers in advanced mathematics meant she had to self-teach some areas for her A levels.

“I got to a point during my A levels where my physics teacher told me that I was doing some areas of maths at a higher level than my teachers. How do you get better when the people that are supposed to be stretching and pushing you to get better aren’t?”.

She persevered and eventually went to Imperial College London to study mathematics and was blown away at the opportunities available to her.

It was there where she discovered a love for technology that had stalled due to the computer science subject shortages at secondary school.

Spurred on by her own experience, Vanessa created Hello World Hack, a hacking competition aimed at introducing computer science to young girls.

“I was so mad as to why I hadn’t been properly exposed to technology and how useful it is. I had to make sure nobody else missed out.”

Vanessa’s story is a reminder of the potential talent falling through the cracks due to an inequitable STEM education system.

Another key finding noted in the inquiry report was an urgency to take a wider, more holistic view of inequity beyond the lens of gender, economic disadvantage or ethnicity.  

This is something that rings true for Young, Gifted and STEM founder Genevieve Bent (right).

“There is a lot of focus on gender diversity in STEM and not enough to increase wider diversity regarding ethnicity. This needs to be addressed.”

The Co-ordinator of Science at a Harris Federation Academy says there are fantastic initiatives that are encouraging young people into STEM, such as the WISE Campaign and the Stemettes.

“But STEM education isn’t necessarily a focus filtering down from the Government through to schools. The focus is being done on an individual basis by schools or leaders, and so there isn’t much of an all-rounded approach.

“I believe that whilst there are some great things happening, it does not feel as if all of these [Government] initiatives are easily accessible for all. Whilst some underrepresented groups such as girls are being elevated and actively encouraged, the same cannot be said for other groups like Black Caribbean.”

While the APPG's inquiry report offers five findings, it also provides some hope with six key recommendations. They include calling for a minister responsible for addressing inequity within the education system, making STEM education more relevant to young people, and more action to address teacher shortages in STEM subjects. 

The other three recommendations include the full implementation and follow up of changes to careers support and guidance, addressing inequities in Double Award and Triple Science at GCSE, and a review of fundamental changes to STEM GCSEs.

Genevieve says organisations and companies also have a role to play by providing opportunities for young Black and Minority students to all types of careers.

“If equity in STEM is going to be achieved, then more resources need to be available for schools/communities/areas to actively engage and promote STEM as an exciting, achievable, and viable career for students.”

Vanessa says there also needs to be a cultural and societal shift in how teaching is appreciated.

“That’s what needs to happen for teachers more generally, but it’s most difficult for sciences. For STEM students at top universities like me, the world is our oyster, so we aren’t wanting to do what feels like a step backwards into teaching because we have so many other options.”

“So there needs to be more incentive there, but we also need to overhaul what it means to be a teacher.”

Her sentiments are echoed by Will, who says the country needs to elevate the status and positive press around teaching.

“Going into STEM teaching is an enormously fulfilling and valuable career. Teaching is challenging, interesting, variable and fun, and genuinely impacts the life chances of the pupils you work with.”

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