During the Conservative Party conference a few weeks ago, MPs outlined a vision of the UK as a “science superpower“, a global leader in exploration and innovation. This is music to the ears of people like me who have devoted years to teaching the subject. But bold statements and soaring rhetoric alone will not get us there. What we need is a comprehensive plan that inspires our scientists of tomorrow.
Research and development is undoubtedly crucial to the UK’s profile as a leader in science. Investment in university-level research is now at the highest in real terms it has been for the past 40 years. And this is set to continue with the government’s pledge to increase spending in research to £22 billion by 2025. This is clearly a positive step; however, an increase in science research and development investment must be met with a comparable uplift in the number of people in the STEM workforce.
To provide this, we need to go back to basics and look again at how we can provide an inclusive pathway for students to take up apprenticeships in STEM industries.
At present we face an uphill struggle: data on apprenticeships shows that over the past two years only 200 students in England have started an apprenticeship in either science or maths. In 2018, more students commenced an apprenticeship in equine grooming than in science and maths combined.
The gap between reality and our hopes of being a leader in science could not be starker. While this state of affairs might do wonders for the UK’s position globally in the equestrian world, it does precious little to boost our journey to becoming the science superpower vaunted by government.
In the vast majority of UK schools, the apprenticeship route is often seen as “second best”. Most teachers are not even aware that it is possible to achieve an MA in science through the apprenticeship route while earning on the job.
We need schools to make a better effort to raise awareness of apprenticeships. Systemically, from year 7, students should be made aware of the career possibilities they open up.
But schools can’t do this alone. At present, the layout of the school year often discourages high-quality candidates applying for apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are advertised in April, a full term after year 13 students have already completed their UCAS forms.
And because demand is being kept artificially low in this way, when apprenticeship opportunities are published, there are very few of them. To address this, the calendar must be changed so students can express an interest in an apprenticeship and secure one at the same time as university applications are being written and processed. There is no good reason for university and apprenticeship applications to be mutually exclusive.
Finally, we must strengthen the apprenticeship pipeline as a whole. The UCAS career finder service is a start, but does too little to demystify apprenticeships. One solution could be a “matchmaking” service for students and businesses to proactively engage those who are interested, as well as to support SMEs through the process.
Conference season was an open goal to discuss reform of apprenticeships. But it was missed. Private school students often have a clear route into apprenticeships where they can earn while studying. Meanwhile, state school children who are interested in a career in science often find their opportunities limited by a system that shepherds them towards costly university degrees. This is not levelling up, and it can’t continue.
We are fortunate to have a wealth of science talent in our schools, teachers and students. But we are being held back by a lack of understanding of the opportunities that exist in STEM sectors. Apprenticeships are key to building back better, and when schools are empowered to promote them, we will know we are on our way to becoming a science superpower.