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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

STEM Skills: Time for radical action?

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths; all key areas to the UK economy, and areas of significant opportunities to young people. Despite some rises in the numbers of young people studying these subjects, the demand for STEM skills is rising faster than the supply. There is also still a significant gender imbalance in those studying STEM subjects.

Is it time for radical action?

On 26th September, Nesta and the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills convened an event to explore what directions we could take next to meet the challenges faced in this area. We brought together a wide range of people from those working with primary and secondary schools, linked to further and higher education, and companies and groups representing employers engage with areas needing STEM skills.

We were joined by three speakers who set out the scope of the challenges we face in this area. Chris Lockwood, special advisor to the Prime Minister, spoke of the importance of STEM skills for the UK workforce and the appetite in government to address that challenge, particularly that of the gender imbalance in this field. Hasan Bhakshi, Director of Creative and Digital Economy at Nesta, shared the work his team have been doing on the creative industries, exploring the importance of interdisciplinary skills and creativity for an innovative economy. Ross Broad from the Behavioral Insights Team also took us through work they have been doing on the choices people make to engage with STEM skills, and how we might ‘nudge’ young people to choose to explore such subjects in more depth at key points in their lives.

The groups explored a range of challenges, with themes cutting across all of them being the sometimes poor or unrealistic perceptions of STEM subjects or careers and the issues with a much lower proportion of women than men following these routes.

We split into groups to consider the challenges at different levels, and explore recommendations for action.

Primary and Secondary Education

Promote positive and realistic attitudes towards STEM subjects throughout the school system

  • Promote links between schools and those ‘in the field’ through further support for schemes such as STEMNET ambassadors, and exploring the development of ‘Scientists in Residence’ in schools. There was a strong feeling in this group that while there may be a temptation to focus on STEM pathways through exam choices later on, it is early in the school system when attitudes of children are shaped.
  • Support those with successful STEM careers to transition into teaching as well as the incentives that have been offered for new graduates to train to teach.
  • Explore how STEM subjects could be linked through project based learning, and greater coherence between different subject exams. Promote the concept of interdisciplinary approaches in the way learning in schools takes place.

Support CPD for existing teachers

The group felt that too often the shortage of STEM teachers is framed as a need to get more graduates into teaching. There is significant attrition from the teaching profession, and there was a feeling that much could be done to encourage STEM teachers to stay in the profession by valuing and continuing to develop their skills: 

  • A requirement for teachers to update their skills and take part in accredited CPD. Whilst a great many teachers do this proactively or informally, a requirement would mean the school system having to implement the time and support for them to do so. 
  • Links drawn between existing initiatives aimed at young people such as STEM ambassadors and their potential to support teachers with CPD.
  • Wider promotion of the opportunities provided by Science Learning Centres, Science Learning and Discovery Centres and the museums sector.

Explore avenues for both new graduates and career changers training to teach

  • Could a ‘Teach Next’ scheme help to build a culture of those with industry experience moving to teaching as ‘Teach First’ has with a section of graduates who were previously under represented in the profession?

Further and Higher Education

Optimise the employability of students

  • Create effective feedback loops between FE and HE providers and employers to identify skills gaps and provide young people with opportunities to develop them.
  • Support students further to develop non-cognitive and employability skills building on existing good practice by many providers and spreading across disciplines.
  • Blur boundaries between providers and industry exploring tax breaks for businesses providing placements, financing academic staff to spend time in industry and exploring co-financing of research with industry and institutions.

Supporting multiple routes into STEM employment 

  • Promote the brand of apprenticeships further, potentially integrating them with the UCAS system for Higher Education application.
  • Provide comparable information on apprenticeships and other routes alongside information about degree studies.
  • Improve the quality of careers advice provided on apprenticeships.


Extra support and national coordination to allow quality SME engagement with schools

  • There is a desire from both sides for industry and schools to work together, but it can be a challenge to link up. A national scheme would provide structures and momentum for this to happen.

Develop the knowledge and capacity of schools to offer career advice

  • This reaches beyond the area of STEM, but the field would be supported by clear, realistic and extensive advice for young people on how the study choices they make can relate to careers.

National campaigns such as a ‘STEM week’

  • Building on many similar initiatives that already exist but with government support to scale.

A ‘Teach too’ route to allow industry professionals to train and teach part time

  • Bringing the influence of recent industry experience to classrooms in a sustained and ongoing way.

Many of the ideas undoubtedly raise significant questions and challenges, as do many early stage ideas to address such long term challenges. However, there are some perspectives here that could result in radical action that just might provide the kind of significant shifts needed to significantly develop the STEM skills situation.

At the very least they provide useful discussion points on how we might want to try to influence policy moving forward.

How would you address the shortage of young people studying STEM subjects and moving into STEM careers? Your comments are very welcome below.


Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs via Compfight cc


Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Head of Impact and Research, Raspberry Pi Foundation

Oliver was a programme manager for Nesta’s digital education projects. He is now Head of Impact and Research at the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

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