Back to school: How Britain can lead the technological revolution

Edwina Dunn
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Government Plans Education Summit
There is a STEM worker shortfall of 40,000 per year (Source: Getty)

“For the first time in decades, Britain is genuinely at the forefront of the technological revolution,” chancellor Philip Hammond asserted in the Budget last month.

In many ways, Hammond is right. The UK’s technology industry is world-leading, and we certainly have many great global success stories to celebrate.

But the reality is that the jobs of the future, that will power such a “technological revolution”, may well go unfilled – because not enough young people are studying STEM subjects at school. Today, the CBI estimates that there is a STEM worker shortfall of 40,000 per year – and that number is estimated to keep rising.

Read more: A lack of diversity in engineering could hold up the industrial strategy

That much-cited skills gap hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially in the context of the ongoing migration debate. But while access to skills from abroad is important, it is even more crucial that we up our game in developing homegrown talent.

It was heartening to learn of the £600 incentive per maths pupil available to schools, and of plans to triple the number of computer science teachers in the Budget. This is a significant investment, but the magnitude of the STEM crisis won’t be so easily fixed.

Policymakers have spent the last two decades searching for solutions, but so far, initiatives have failed to meet the scale of the problem.

Over the last three years, I’ve played my own role in tackling the skills crisis as the chair of Your Life, a national STEM campaign. We are trying to take a different approach to top-down policy, instead giving young people a direct channel and voice – in a debate they’re too often left out of.

Initial research commissioned with AT Kearney demonstrated that engagement with maths and science declines dramatically during secondary school, with a significant gender-skew. Among girls, interest in STEM subjects declines by 74 per cent during in secondary school, and by 56 per cent among boys.

The government’s plans to reward schools for each maths pupil will be a critical driver, but we won’t find success unless we tackle young people’s disengagement with STEM subjects at its roots – and expose them to the fast-growth, highly-paid careers available.

Industry has a crucial role to play in countering that disengagement. Businesses can do much more to strengthen their relationships with education, to help prepare tomorrow’s talent.

We have found that just one visit to a business can make a seismic difference. Across the last three years, we have arranged trips for students to dynamic companies like Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Shazam. After a single visit, we found that 77 per cent of students would consider studying STEM subjects.

This change in mindset must be met by reforms in our school system too. Right now, schools are have a disincentive to provide STEM subjects to students – due to the relentless focus on grades, they may urge pupils away from subjects that are seen as challenging, towards seemingly easier options. We must turn that trend around by giving extra weighting for maths and physics when measuring school’s success.

According to research from Starcount, nearly 50 per cent of the UK’s schools are failing to achieve the target 25 per cent of A-Level entries in STEM subjects. However, if we can improve that performance to just halfway towards this goal, we could achieve 33,000 more A-level entries per year. That would just about fill the current gap in the STEM talent pipeline.

There is a long way to go, but we know that collaboration and action is key. If we can encourage schools to work together, if we can encourage businesses to work closely with educators, we can build a powerful network that will enable the next generation of UK innovators to thrive.

The technological revolution Hammond is so keen to champion begins in our schools.

Read more: Let’s get serious about leading the fourth industrial revolution

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