How to close the maths and science ‘enjoyment gap’

New research reveals stark disparities in teenagers’ enjoyment of maths and science – a regional gap we must close to be a science superpower

New research reveals stark disparities in teenagers’ enjoyment of maths and science – a regional gap we must close to be a science superpower

17 Mar 2024, 17:00

Today marks the end of British Science Week, a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) across the UK. But despite this being a nationwide event, new research has found a stark “enjoyment gap” between London and the rest of Britain when it comes to learning maths and science in school.

A YouGov survey of more than 1,000 11-to-16-year-olds commissioned by Teach First found that 83 per cent of young people in London enjoy learning science compared to just 68 per cent outside of the capital. The gap is even wider for maths, with 79.5 per cent of London-based 11-to-16-year-olds enjoying the subject, against just 57 per cent of those living in the rest of Britain.

This is because disadvantage looks different in different parts of the country.

I used to teach in central London. We had prestigious STEM employers queuing up to meet our pupils. Children saw the opportunities that would be open to them if they did well in maths and science, and I can think numerous cases where this sparked a deeply held interest.

Sadly, roles in new and emerging STEM industries are “disproportionately concentrated in London and the southeast”. Britain is attracting investment in AI from the world’s best firms, but again these jobs tend to be in London. It’s just harder to be excited about jobs that you don’t get to see and understand.

The differing nature of disadvantage affects educational outcomes too. London outperforms the rest of the country in exams, including in STEM. This has been variously attributed to school improvement interventions like the London Challenge, and to the impact of immigration. Either way, there is a correlation between achievement and enjoyment; pupils are more likely to enjoy things they are doing well at.

It’s harder to be excited about jobs you don’t see

We cannot continue to accept this situation. It lets children down, and it lets our country down. An estimated shortage of 173,000 STEM workers is costing our economy £1.5 billion a year. So how do we engage all young people with the joys of STEM?

First, we need more young people to realise the STEM careers that are on offer. Our careers education has to bring this knowledge to pupils in all communities, even those without high-profile STEM employers. Children in rural and coastal communities could benefit from blended work experience placements provided online, for example. And in an age of remote work, geography shouldn’t be a barrier to success in STEM careers.

Second, we need every child to be taught STEM by a well-qualified teacher. Last year, just 17 per cent of the physics teachers, 36 per cent of the computing teachers and 63 per cent of the maths teachers we needed were hired. Without proper guidance from an inspiring teacher, we risk letting down a generation of young people – especially those from disadvantaged communities where teacher shortages are biting hardest.

Finally, regional inequalities exist, but there is also a negative perception of maths nationwide that we must address.

Research by Axiom Maths, the charity I lead, has found that perceptions of maths among pupils take a negative hit as they move from year 6 into secondary school.

Twice as many of the highest attainers from year 6 are likely to think maths is boring in year 7, and while the lowest attainers in year 6 do enjoy maths more in year 7, by year 9 their positive attitudes towards the subject are declining again. This means by year 9, a lot of pupils who could have pursued maths to a higher level have decided it’s not for them.

To keep pupils engaged in maths, we at Axiom are offering to partner with secondary schools to fund maths champions to identify and nurture promising mathematicians. They run maths circles, where pupils leave stress and tests behind and take part in maths for the sheer joy of it.

But if we are to truly shift the dial, we must widen opportunity beyond London and ensure all children can appreciate the joys of learning STEM. Only then will we be able to realise the UK’s ambition of becoming a science superpower.

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