Your Life: Government aims to halt STEM decline

Apprenticeship scheme gains industry support, but long-term questions remain about science and technology teaching

The decline in science and technology skills in the UK is a familiar complaint among CIOs, CTOs and technology companies.

Science and technology have failed to attract graduates as a career, and undergraduate courses in technology, computer science, and engineering have found it harder, over the last few years, to attract applicants.

But the problem goes deeper. Children are shunning the sciences and mathematics the so-called STEM subjects and enrolment has dropped, especially at A-level. This is having a knock-on effect across education and industry.

The latest government initiative aims to, at least, reduce the decline in student numbers in science and physics, but also create new opportunities in industry, in particular through apprenticeships. 

This is perhaps not the most novel approach but then, it is not a new problem. A skills gap in the UK has been building up for a decade or more; student numbers have fallen, at a time when the skills gained through studying a STEM subject computing know-how, analytics and statistical skills, the ability to code, as well as knowledge of physics and chemistry are in demand.

Nor is the analysis of the causes of the skills gap novel. STEM subjects are seen as hard; schools wanting good results play safe and steer students towards easier subjects, more likely to deliver the grades. Careers for STEM graduates are seen as dull, and the gender balance on university STEM courses is, frankly, awful. According to government figures, just 15 per cent of science and technology students are women.

Unfortunately for ministers, there are no quick fixes, as the problem really seems to start as far back as primary school level. Some good work is being done, for example initiatives to encourage children to code, or to try out devices such as the Raspberry Pi.

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