To fill the STEM shortfall in UK industry, you don’t start with university – you begin with schools and the lack of science teachers.
Whatever difficulties Britain faces in the coming years, a lack of job opportunities in expanding sectors won’t be among them.
A shrinking proportion of younger workers and the likely contraction in the number of skilled people from the EU will mean a shortfall measured in hundreds of thousands.
These jobs will overwhelmingly require specialists in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Engineering UK estimates there is an annual deficit of 20,000 in engineering graduates alone – and this is reflected in other areas too.
Boosting the graduate figures requires an increase in the number of those school students studying appropriate subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics and maths.
Engineering UK estimates there is an annual deficit of 20,000 in engineering graduates alone – and this is reflected in other areas too
This year’s A Level and GCSE results suggest things are moving in the right direction.
However, as Engineering UK highlighted in its 2017 annual report: “While the number of GCSE entrants in sciences has grown over the last five years, the number of teachers teaching them has shrunk.”
A study by the Sutton Trust – the charity think tank that promotes social mobility – noted that the Government was failing to attract graduates into teaching, with the problem most serious in the sciences.
For physics, the problem is severe. During 2015/16 the number of physics graduates in teacher training was less than three quarters of the Whitehall target and barely half of school physics teachers had a relevant degree.
This will have significant negative impact on the number of students progressing to A Level and thus degrees, with the situation predictably worst among the poorest.
If kids don’t see charismatic, competent enthusiasts devoted to the subject then they, in turn, are not drawn to science teaching
Susan Elkin, education journalist and author
Addressing the problem of teacher shortage means tackling the causes and these are several: too few graduates overall, too little incentive (financial and otherwise) for schools to compete with research and industry, plus a high turnover rate of recruits entering then quitting.
Education journalist and author Susan Elkin, herself a former secondary school teacher, says: “It is generally harder to recruit good science teachers than, say, historians because too few people want to do it. So science teachers can be very picky about which schools they accept jobs in.
“If kids don’t see charismatic, competent enthusiasts devoted to the subject then they, in turn, are not drawn to science teaching. And it spirals further downwards.”
Elkin’s recommendation to attract the best brains is a portfolio approach familiar to many outside education: “A fine scientist might, say, work in a research lab for three days a week and teach in a secondary school for the rest. You could even make one conditional on the other.”
It’s part of a continuing personal development (CPD) issue that is not only about providing career opportunities for teachers but also ensuring they convey their subject as well as understand it.
Performance skills are too rarely emphasised in the science teacher’s repertoire but bodies such as the Royal Institution have been addressing this for years in their Science in Schools sessions.
Proving it works is the increasing popularity of quality YouTube demos by the likes of London schoolteacher Christopher Thornton [@mrthorntonuk] and colleagues, featured on Top Ten Teacher site’s shortlist at www.toptenteacher.co.uk/gcse-science-youtube-channels.
Perhaps this is where many head teachers need to start.