Consultation response: Schools that work for everyone

12 December 2016

The Government’s aspiration for a school system that extends opportunity to everyone is one that the Society shares. This submission considers the potential impact of the Government’s proposals on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, with particular reference to pupils who are eligible for free school meals (FSM).

The Royal Society believes that two aspects of social mobility are essential for the nation’s health in regard to STEM: (i) the most able pupils from every background should have the opportunity to excel, and also (ii) all pupils must be supported to reach their full potential. A number of different policy measures will be required to improve the social mobility of students with different abilities.

Education in science and mathematics develops the natural intellectual curiosity and creativity of all young people, providing knowledge and understanding of how the world works and opportunities to live rewarding lives. The UK also has a longstanding shortage of STEM skilled professionals in the face of ever rising demand. The demand for increased skills must be met by all young people having access to a curriculum encompassing vocational and academic learning across a broad range of subjects to 18 including maths and science but also the arts, social sciences and humanities.

The Government has proposed that universities should play a direct role in improving pupils’ attainment. The Society’s view is that improving the participation of young people in STEM apprenticeships, higher education and careers requires efforts to raise attainment alongside measures to increase every day engagement with science and interactions with people involved in science.

Raising attainment can best be achieved by enabling more pupils to be taught by specialist teachers, not just the most able. Inspiring teachers with a thorough understanding of their subject are fundamental to high quality STEM education. Specialist science and mathematics teachers are more able to engage pupils with their subject and motivate them towards considering a STEM career. Our response sets out ways universities and independent schools could help to increase the number and confidence of STEM teachers, but we note that state sector schools do not always have access to local universities or independent schools.

Universities can also provide access to those involved in STEM as well as supporting existing collaborative initiatives that engage young people to take part in science activities beyond the classroom. However, high-quality and effective collaboration between institutions will only be achieved with investment in time and resources for all partners.

The Society has considered existing evidence and commissioned fresh research specifically on the issue of attainment and participation in STEM subjects in selective and non-selective schools. As a result we are concerned that the approach to selective education outlined in the Green Paper may only support a small proportion of disadvantaged pupils. From the research we have commissioned, we have found no evidence to suggest that overall educational standards for STEM subjects in England would be improved by an increase in the number of places in selective schools. Nor have we found evidence that the number of students progressing to STEM subjects in higher education would increase as a result of these proposals.