Getting more girls in STEM is everyone’s business, and we all benefit from the outcomes, writes Shamsa Mahmood. Here’s how we’ve done it in a school once tarred by the Trojan horse scandal
It is encouraging to see that more and more women are now employed in core STEM roles in the UK. The WISE campaign group rightly calls for educators to be a part of the solution to the long-term under-representation of women in the sciences, but how exactly can schools do this? At Rockwood Academy, it’s a question we’ve been trying to answer.
When I first joined in 2017, our female students were predominantly choosing humanities subjects, and in 2018 only 29 per cent took a STEM subject at A-level. Since then, raising girls’ aspirations in science has been a central facet of my work.
Our parents want their children to progress into higher education, but the ethnic make-up of our community means that boys often have an advantage over girls. That means that if we want to develop the academic skills of all our students, we have to work all the harder to empower our female students. To achieve that, we work closely with the community to reassure them that their girls are just as able and deserve the same support.
Embedding a curriculum that encourages our students to develop a love of science was key to the success we have seen, but promoting STEM subjects to female students has taken effort from the school leadership team and our science department alike.
For starters, they struggled with a lack of female role models, especially in physics. Having a female head of department helped to break down stereotypes, as did seeing women like Dawn Fitt, president of the Women’s Engineering Society and Bedford College engineering apprenticeship training coordinator, being celebrated with an OBE recently for the essential work she is doing in this area.
If the vision comes first, results will follow
And it’s a goal we couldn’t achieve alone, so we partnered with an international engineering and design company on a project that saw our students work across two briefs – one linked to HS2 and another to the Commonwealth Games. The intervention group we selected was made up of 60 per cent female students.
That project ran across the academic year, not separate from the curriculum but embedded in it, with students meeting engineers monthly and visiting the company’s headquarters. It enabled them to put their academic learning into a real-world context, working with the kinds of professionals they can now aspire to be. Engineers assisted in the design stages. HR teams helped refine the presentations and supported CV-writing workshops.
For students – who now happily describe themselves as “passionate” about a career in science – these opportunities are invaluable. They have insight into the reality of the sector, which has developed their confidence, prepared them for college applications and highlighted the options available.
We provide internal enrichment opportunities too, and all that focus is working. When our weekly science club launched in 2018, it had fewer girls than boys. It is now made up of 55 per cent girls. Last year, 41 per cent of our female students took an A-level in a science subject. Of the leavers, 21 out of 52 girls (40 per cent) applied for STEM courses. What’s more, the 2019 GCSE cohort performed fantastically across the sciences, with half of our grades in biology and chemistry achieving grades 7 to 9, and 92 per cent of all students achieving a grade 5 or above.
The previous year, we didn’t even have a cohort for triple science, and the proportion of students getting grades 4 to 9 in combined science was only 55.4 per cent.
A recent school leaver – a young woman pursuing an engineering career – puts her passion for science down to her experiences at school, which she says gave her the courage and conviction to follow her dreams. If we are serious about gender balance in STEM, our example shows that if vision comes first, results will follow. Leadership, teachers, community and industry are equally important to making that happen.