Full STEAM Ahead

The interactive data visualisation shows the popularity of STEAM and other subject combinations among students who take Scottish Highers.

The STEAM movement

The ‘STEAM movement’ advocates adding arts to STEM, where STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Most often this involves encouraging students to combine STEM and art subjects at secondary school and university.[1] Supporters reason that the arts (in its broadest sense) are unique in aiding the development of creative skills. They cite a growing demand for creative workers from the STEM industries and point to successful individuals who embody this ideal. The movement also attempts to counter the idea that the arts are in some way ‘soft options’ that should be avoided by those wishing to attend top universities.[2]

Although the term ‘STEAM’ has been used in public discourse since at least 2010, it has recently begun to gain wide-spread attention.[3] Last year Culture Secretary Maria Miller said that “the arts also have to be central in a child’s education. And why I agree with those who say an A belongs in STEM.”[4] And in November last year the House of Lords held a debate to consider the case for arts education within schools.[5]

An evidence gap

Despite growing support for STEAM, there is a lack of evidence around the take-up of STEAM within UK secondary schools. If we accept the STEAM argument, then this evidence gap has to be filled before any consideration is given to investing resources in promoting STEAM.

One reason for the gap may be a lack of data on combinations of subject choices; the most readily available statistics report the popularity of individual subjects. Sutch (2014) is the only recent study to have looked at subject combinations. Among students in England who took at least three AS levels (excluding General Studies) he found that 33% combined at least one ‘arts or language’ with at least one ‘science or maths’ in 2012/13. This should be viewed as an upper bound for STEAM take-up as it includes those who combine a language with a ‘science or maths’, and the definition of arts here includes physical education. Interestingly, there has only been a slight decline in this combination, of 1.7 percentage points, since 2006/07. Over the same period there has been a much larger decline, of 6.2 percentage points, in students who take at least one arts subject. This shows that we cannot rely on statistics that relate only to STEM, or only to the arts, when measuring the popularity of STEAM.

STEAM in Scotland

As a first step towards filling the evidence gap, we have used three years of data (2011-2013) from the Scottish Qualifications Authority to examine the take-up of STEAM combinations by students sitting Scottish Highers. Students take Highers in the final two years of secondary school.[6] Typically students need four or five Highers to gain entry to a Scottish university, with at least three taken in a single year. The visualisation shows the popularity of different subject combinations. A STEAM combination must include at least one arts subject and one STEM subject. We define the arts to include fine arts, design, drama, dance, music and fashion.

The visualisation shows that the percentage of students taking at least one STEM subject ranges from 57% for those taking three subjects to 94% for those taking five subjects. Meanwhile, the percentage taking STEAM combinations ranges from 13% for three subjects to 31% for five subjects. While 13% is much lower than the 33% reported for English students (Sutch, 2014), we have adopted a narrower definition of STEAM, by excluding languages and physical education.

The most popular STEAM combination is physics, mathematics and graphic communication, and indeed that STEAM mix (plus English) is the fourth most popular combination among all students taking four subjects. Students who take at least one STEM subject are also more likely to take an arts subject than a language. That said, students who take five Highers are slightly less likely to take one arts subject, than those who take four Highers.

The visualisation also reveals the small percentage of students who take a language (predominantly French), which ranges between just 10% and 25%. This may reflect a small number of languages on offer at schools. Another noticeable result is the sharp drop in ‘other’ subjects (which tend to be applied, such as Early Education), from 21% to 11%, as we move from four subjects to five subjects. This may reflect the prioritisation of academic subjects by students wishing to attend university.

Next steps

While this visualisation provides a first glance, it does not tell us about the types of students who are more or less likely to choose STEAM combinations. It may also underestimate STEAM tendency, if students take STEM Highers in one year and arts Highers in the following year.

Over the coming year, we hope to provide more evidence on the take-up of STEAM in secondary schools throughout England and Scotland and measure the variation within both countries. Crucially, we aim to examine how the take-up of STEAM varies by student characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity and level of deprivation. Our aim is to inform the STEAM debate. If you are interested in this research or have views on the findings please contact: [email protected] or [email protected].


[1] It may also refer to the use of arts’ pedagogies and delivery methods in teaching STEM subjects.

[2] The list of ‘facilitating subjects’ published by the Russell Group universities does not include any arts subjects.

[3] An article from 2010 describing the origins of STEAM.

[4] Transcript of speech.

[5] 'Peers consider case for arts education'

[6] In their final year students may also take Advanced Highers.

Part of
Future skills


Cath Sleeman

Cath Sleeman

Cath Sleeman

Head of Data Discovery, Data Analytics Practice

Dr Cath Sleeman is the Head of Data Discovery.

View profile
George Windsor

George Windsor

George Windsor

Senior Policy Researcher

George was a Senior Policy Researcher in the Creative and Digital Economy team.

View profile