STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—provides many of the key building blocks of modern society. Pursuing an interest in it can deliver lifelong benefits given the increasing demand for STEM skills in many areas of the UK workforce.
However, opportunities to gain the skills required by STEM employers are not equally distributed across society. Our inquiry heard evidence that that women, people from certain ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities, those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those who declared themselves as being LGBTQ+ were under-represented in some areas of STEM education, research and employment settings.
The nature of this under-representation varies according to the group and setting, and the reasons it exists are complex. The picture is further complicated by a fragmented approach to the collection and reporting of diversity data across different parts of society and the workforce. This prevents a full understanding of the challenge and hinders well-intentioned efforts to address it. Improved data collection and the application of lessons from it are key to addressing under-representation.
In schools, children’s experiences in the classroom shape their life choices and outcomes. In our view, it is important that all children are able to see themselves in what they learn from an early age. A diverse national curriculum—that contains female scientists, for example—is one low-cost way of ensuring this. Similarly, the careers advice and support pupils receive from the earliest years should promote diverse and inclusive role models. Children should see themselves in who they aspire to emulate, as we heard that those who were able to see themselves as scientists or engineers were more likely to pursue the required subjects.
When considering the uptake and attainment in STEM subjects, children from different backgrounds, and different STEM subjects should not be viewed as homogenous groups, as the data at GCSE and A-level indicates. There are differences between boys and girls, with the latter seemingly less inclined to pursue STEM subjects than the former. The evidence our inquiry received offered no consensus as to the reasons for this difference—male dominated-environments, and pre-existing societal expectations being suggested causes. The picture between and within different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds is similarly complex, however, pupils from some backgrounds, such as Black Caribbean, are clearly underrepresented across STEM subjects at both GCSE and A-level. Others, such as pupils from Chinese backgrounds, are often well-represented.
Access, or the lack of it, to the separate study of biology, chemistry and physics at GCSE—known as the ‘triple science’ option—is a decisive factor for many pupils in determining whether they pursue the study of STEM subjects beyond the age of 16. If the pool of students studying triple science lacks diversity, this will clearly be reflected in subsequent STEM settings: universities, research facilities, and workplaces.
The Prime Minister has outlined an ambition “to move towards all children studying some form of maths to [age] 18” but has also ruled out compulsion at A-level. We recommend the introduction of a requirement for pupils who do not continue with a STEM subject post–16 to take a Core Maths or a Core Science-type course.
There are benefits to children being taught STEM subjects by teachers with the relevant qualifications or professional experience. The Government should set a target for every child to be taught STEM subjects by teachers with qualifications or experience in that subject by 2030.
There are longstanding challenges with the recruitment and retention of STEM teachers. STEM teacher salaries must be as competitive as possible with the private sector, and the Government’s STEM-focused bursaries and other initiatives are to be welcomed. However, according to one contributor to our inquiry, “even if we recruited two thirds of everyone doing a physics degree into teaching, we would only just hit the target” for addressing teacher shortages.
Given this, and the attractiveness of many other jobs requiring STEM degrees, we do not think the amounts currently on offer in the form of bursaries and other payments will prove sufficient to fully address teacher shortages. One way of alleviating the pressure would be to increase the number of Initial Teacher Training recruits with industry experience, and we welcome the Government’s nationwide roll-out of a scheme designed in partnership with the engineering sector.
Some STEM academics told us that they have faced discrimination at work—this reflects inequities that exist more widely in society. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) should further promote diversity and inclusion across the research sector. UKRI should implement processes to determine, monitor, publicly report against, and ultimately meet targets to reduce underrepresentation in funding awards and decision-making bodies.
Ways to improve diversity and inclusion in academia include addressing the precarious nature of many contracts in STEM academia and adopting alternative funding application processes such as narrative CVs. The Government, UKRI and other research funders should also make funding available for research facilities undertaking reasonable adjustments to ensure they are fully accessible for researchers with disabilities.
Improving diversity and inclusion in STEM should be part of the mission of the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology; and the education and research sectors must follow their lead. This not only reflects the principle of fairness but will ensure the country has access to the best talent available.