Our first evidence session in our inquiry into Equity in STEM Education was held on Tuesday 19 March 2019. Here is a summary of the witness statements and discussion points.

Prof. Louise Archer, UCL Institute of Education

I conduct research into the aspirations of young people going into STEM careers – I welcome the inquiry as an urgent topic. Most interventions in STEM Education to date are on an individual level and framed in a deficit way – that young people need to change – but systemic and structural factors are important to consider.

The issues around Triple Science GCSE are concrete and there is a clear route to policy change. The English education system makes it hard for people to continue studying STEM even if they aspire to. Only 27% take Triple Science GCSE – it’s not a large-scale route into STEM. This means there’s very tight gatekeeping around entry to A-Level sciences, which combines to create the idea that you have to be exceptional to proceed with STEM.

There are multiple elements of bias and inequity here. There is a built-in status differential in that the two routes are not an equal offer for students, with Triple seen as the gold standard and better preparing them for A-Level. On top of that, the delivery of Triple Science is not standardised so schools in affluent areas are much more likely to offer it. Research shows Triple Science is not an option for most young people because their schools choose for them. Many young people that are interested in science are put onto Double Science and think they aren’t good enough to pursue science options beyond GCSE. The option becomes closed to them.

This all results in inequity. Students in receipt of free school meals are underrepresented on Triple Science, and only 22% of Triple Science students have low cultural capital compared to 77% high cultural capital. There is also significant inequality in the capacity of schools to offer Triple Science, which equates to educational rationing.

The status quo reinforces the inequality within STEM and reduces the number of students thinking that STEM is a viable career option. So, the streaming of students needs to be redesigned. Could you force Triple Science for all? Yes, but we would face a resourcing problem with the number of teachers required. A simpler option may be an enhanced Double Science stream for everyone.

More research is needed into the impact of these models, but we need to put equity intentionally within policy and practice is the only way to make change – the status-quo is not neutral!

Toby Osborne, Ferndown Upper School

I’m a science teacher and my personal background is that neither of my parents went beyond compulsory education. I’m passionate about maximising opportunity for students especially those from diverse backgrounds.

My school has a mainly white working-class intake and competes with grammars in the local area. When I joined, they looked at long-term interventions that would increase attainment and engagement with the sciences and found that no LEA non-selective school in England was entering all students for Triple Science GCSE. There was also a clear connection between economic background of student intake and the offering of Triple Science.

2016 data shows that if your school has 35-40% pupil premium, they do not offer Triple Science. In 2018 this has not changed, and schools are routinely filtering out students.

The aim in the 1980s was to improve uptake by streaming out the single subjects, but since 1984 female participation in single biology has dropped 34%. Many concepts are missed by students studying combined science so by only studying combined science, they miss on things that are then assumed knowledge at A-level.

In our school, we put all students through Triple Science and experienced lots of resistance because the view among teachers is that students of low ability do less well at single subject sciences (based on anecdotal evidence). We also allowed students to take other E-baccalaureate subjects to broaden their options.

We had to invest heavily in attracting science teachers – it’s an attractive offer to teachers that they can concentrate on their speciality. We noticed a huge decline in negative views towards science within the school.

We still have tiering (foundation and higher options) but we’ve also seen improved maths ability and all students progressing at least as well as before. We had to create a STEM support pathway to address lack of parental engagement and develop practical and employment skills.

Our school is an upper school, so it has intake only from year 9. There is a polarised school system in the Bournemouth area – lack of staff and lack of able students; hard to attract teachers into the area because they have limited options for their own children.

Questions and discussion

  • How can we design a curriculum with equity baked in?
  • If science GCSEs were replaced with a single route, what would it look like?
  • What barriers are created by the linear GCSE design, as opposed to modular examination?
  • How do we engage with Ofsted’s curriculum investigation?
  • Is grade severity an issue within some science options?
  • How do we design a STEM curriculum that serves those not going into science careers?