Equity in STEM education more important than ever, says Parliamentary group

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM suggests recommendations for increasing equity in education after stating coronavirus makes diversity increasingly important

Ensuring equity of education in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to develop diverse talent that reflects the public as a whole is “more important than ever”, according to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM.

The APPG – which was set up in 2018 to ensure government, Parliamentarians, academics and businesses are working towards a diverse STEM sector – has released a report outlining the problems in the education system when it comes to providing STEM education, and a number of recommendations on how this could improve.

The APPG’s chair, shadow minister for the department of digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS), Chi Onwurah, said in the report’s foreword: “When we started this inquiry in 2019, we could never have imagined that we would launch the final report in 2020 against the backdrop of blanket school closures and an enforced government lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19. This coronavirus has temporarily changed the way we live our lives in the UK and across the globe, and the role of STEM has never been more important to society.

“In 2019, the APPG on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM believed that equity in STEM education was vital for the UK to prosper in the 21st century. Arguably, it is more important than ever before, and we have taken the decision, despite the ongoing global crisis, that we must put forward our findings and recommendations to ensure the UK has a STEM education system that works for all young people of all backgrounds who will be able to tackle future global challenges, such as climate change – whether they are working in science or not.”

As well as a lack of diverse talent in the STEM sectors, the UK suffers from a technology skills gap whereby there are more open jobs in tech and digital than there is talent to fill them, with the UK shifting its focus towards developing home-grown talent as Brexit threatens some of the STEM talent pools.

The increased use of technology during the coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the importance of digital skills, with Onwurah claiming in the APPG report that STEM skills are “important to all of us in these challenging times”.

The APPG looked into evidence to ascertain whether young people from all backgrounds are given equal opportunities to take part in STEM education, and emphasised as part of its findings that young people are not at fault for any inequity in the education system, but that rather the system itself has to change.

The APPG claimed the UK needs a more joined-up approach from government to tackle issues causing inequity, and that the issue of inequity cannot just be viewed through the limited lenses of gender, ethnicity and economic background; that a focus on improving teaching will lead to better outcomes for young people; that education around careers could encourage more young people in STEM; and that how schools handle GCSE options affects equity, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

To help resolve some of these issues, the APPG has made several recommendations, such as appointing a minister responsible for keeping an eye on inequity in STEM education, preferably within the remit of the Department for Education (DfE), but with co-ordination across departments to develop appropriate policy ensuring young people can access the skills they may need for the future, regardless of whether they end up choosing a role in STEM.

It also suggested the appointed minister launch a “commission for future STEM skills”, and that the government conduct a review of stages of education to work in an informed way to develop policies which will reduce inequity in STEM education and opportunities.

In the past, more than half of 12-year-old girls claimed to be put off of STEM subject because they were too difficult, and the APPG report said equity should be given “greater weight” when looking into some of the barriers for participation in STEM subjects, including “low aspirations” in these subjects, and how grading and “perceptions of difficulty” are linked.

More should be done to make STEM education appeal to more young people, according to the APPG, which suggested steps such as ensuring it is clear all types of people from all different backgrounds do STEM.

It also suggested proper monitoring of any interventions to make STEM more appealing, and a focus on equity when looking into “barriers to the participation of students” in STEM education.

As well as a lack of computing teachers in the UK, many believe they don’t have the skills needed to teach subjects such as computing.

The APPG stated more needs to be done to increase the number of STEM teachers, as well as give teachers the skills they need to improve diversity and inclusion in those subjects.

The APPG also suggested a review into certain issues with STEM GCSEs, with the findings of the review presented to those preparing reforms to STEM GCSEs. Some of these recommendations included potentially implementing policy changes which could address the gender divide in computer science, and ensuring computer science is offered as a subject in all schools.

A long-standing issue in the UK’s STEM sectors, and in the technology industry in particular, is a lack of diversity and inclusion – research from Hired in 2019 found LGBTQ+ individuals make up just 8% of the tech sector, 3% of tech sector workers are black, 6% are mixed race, 17% are Asian, 10% considers themselves “neurodiverse”, and women account for only 18% of the tech sector.

Onwurah said: “The recent global protests on inequality have only further served to highlight that we must continually review the systems we have in place to ensure they are fit for purpose. Nowhere is this clearer than in STEM education.  
“Addressing the current inequity in STEM education now will pay dividends, as the next generation go on to plug the current STEM skills gap, ensuring the UK continues to be a world leader in scientific and technological innovation.” 

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