By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


It is sad but true that opportunities in education are not divvied out equally. A child or young person’s socio-economic background shouldn’t determine whether they have access to these opportunities and the chance excel in their chosen field. But in reality, it does. What does this mean for how young people experience education, and what are the impacts beyond the school system?

From early years to university 

In September 2021 we published a blog that looked at a report by The Sutton Trust on early years education. It found that children from more affluent families were being granted the 15 additional hours of free early years education, rolled out by the Government in 2017, at a higher rate than children of less affluent families. We discussed research that established the importance of quality early years education, and how its benefits can be seen all the way up to GCSE level. This means that when children start the very first year of primary school aged four, when any future should still be available to them, the playing field is in fact already uneven. And this inequality runs right through to higher education.

As the deadline for UCAS applications for 2022 entry approaches, Lee Elliot Major, a Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, criticised the use of personal statements in UCAS application forms in a conversation in The Times, explaining that they have “become a systematic disadvantage to poorer students”. He continued:

“Studies of personal statements have revealed a chasm in quality and style between independent and state school applicants. Independent school applicants were more likely to have well-written statements, with fewer grammatical errors, while state school pupils struggled to draw on suitable work and life experiences. The time has come to ask fundamental questions about their educational worth and the unfairness they create.

"It is increasingly clear they are more a reflection of how much support candidates benefit from rather than genuinely indicating an individual’s passion for their subject.”

Is this impacting university demographics?

So, inequality bookmarks the school education system. What impact does this have on the demographics of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) higher education?

Of course, it is not possible to point fingers at definitive causal links between inequalities in school education, and inequalities in the world beyond; there are a myriad of reasons for today’s STEM landscape. However, this is not to say education inequalities play no role, and that correlations should be ignored.

At four of the top five universities in the UK to study a STEM subject, fewer than 70% of the students attended a state school. When this statistic is placed in the context that 93% of the UK population attended a state school, the issue becomes clear. The differing levels of support in writing a personal statement for a university application, of opportunity to do extra-curricular activities to write about, and other things children from more affluent background might enjoy such as smaller class sizes, may well be contributing to the statistics above.

Possible knock-on effects in the STEM workforce

One of the main reasons young people go to university is to gain the qualifications they need for their chosen career. A lot of STEM professions do require university degrees, so is the fact that opportunities in higher education seem to come easier to those from more affluent backgrounds noticeable in the demographics of the STEM workforce?

Arguably, yes. For example, according to a 2021 inquiry by EngineeringUK, “in engineering occupations, 70.9% of those from advantaged backgrounds obtained a managerial or professional position by age 30-39 compared to…48.0% of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry into Equity in the STEM Workforce, of which the British Science Association (BSA) is secretariat, also reported on data points towards  the socioeconomic inequalities:

"Research commissioned by the British Pharmacological Society (2017) indicated that in 2014, some 27% of pharmacology students came from the highest socio-economic bracket. Just 9% of life sciences professionals are from a working-class background (ONS, 2019)”.

What can we do?

It’s difficult not to imagine that a fair, equitable education system would go some way to rectifying this situation. That would require a radical overhaul, but there are steps we can take as individuals. The CREST Awards, the BSA’s education programme, allows children and young people aged 5-19 to carry out student-led investigative projects into an area of STEM that interests them most. As well as being a fantastic learning tool, CREST Awards are also a great achievement for school students to include on university applications, to demonstrate passion and aptitude in their topic.

CREST Awards can be run in any school in the UK but there is a small cost. In Wales, the government fund free CREST Awards for all ages. For schools in challenging circumstances in the other nations of the UK, we offer an underrepresented audiences grant of up to £600 to cover the cost of running CREST, to help ensure children from all backgrounds have access to this opportunity.

The deadline for CREST underrepresented audiences funding is 31 January 2022. Find out if your school is eligible.