Skills balance in Stem is ‘wrong’
Curriculum chair recommends apprenticeships over science degrees as a route into employment
Just this month, the government announced its ambition to make the UK “the best place in the world to do science”, calling for the creation of new institutions dedicated to postgraduate research. But, in contentious comments, the man leading a review of the national curriculum has said there are already too many school leavers opting to study science at university.
Tim Oates, chair of the curriculum review expert panel, has called for an overhaul of the education system to steer more bright school leavers into apprenticeships instead of higher education. At a time of record youth unemployment, Mr Oates said that investing in apprenticeships would help more people to find work.
“Of course, there are degrees that offer a good route into employment,” Mr Oates told an Association for Science Education conference. “But a proportion of students who begin Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) and other degrees think the courses will automatically unlock highly paid employment for them - and this is not happening.”
Mr Oates, who is also director of assessment at Cambridge Assessment, criticised “serious neglect” of apprenticeships and said that the focus on degrees to train scientists for the labour market was a mistake.
“We have an acute shortage of sub-degree-level Stem workers,” said Mr Oates. “Apprenticeships would give the country the work-readiness skills the CBI says employers are looking for.
“I’m not sure that we’ve got the balance right. Comparisons with other systems suggest that it’s wrong that so much of our Stem supply comes from higher education.”
Mr Oates’ role as chair of the national curriculum review gives him a high degree of influence over the shape the curriculum takes in the coming years. The review’s recommendations are due to be introduced in 2014 - a year later than previously planned to allow for a radical rethink of how subjects are taught.
According to the National Apprenticeship Service, throughout the UK there are currently only 70 people on higher level apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing technologies, including places in the nuclear industry and for science technicians.
Mr Oates praised the current “direction of travel” towards creating more opportunities, but said that not enough had been done to develop the qualifications in “times of plenty” when the economy was strong.
“Apprenticeships offer a good mutual deal for both the young person and the employer, but … the government will still find it difficult to persuade companies to run such programmes because of the state of the economy,” he said.
The coalition government has sent out contradictory messages about the need to encourage school leavers to study science at university.
Business secretary Vince Cable, whose department oversees universities, has said that there are shortages of Stem graduates, blaming in part a lack of qualified specialist maths and physics teachers in schools.
But universities minister David Willetts said last year that the UK already produces more science graduates than many other developed countries, including Japan, Germany and the US.
The call by Mr Oates to steer more school leavers into apprenticeships has met with a mixed response.
Diana Garnham, chief executive of the Science Council, said that many Stem graduates already had the skills needed for work. “There will always be a demand for graduates and a vast array of businesses in other sectors also want to employ people with a science mindset,” she said.
“We are keen to develop apprenticeships as an option, but we are also looking at foundation degrees for people with weaker A-level and GCSE results, which could also be a route in.”
Daniel Sandford Smith, director of programmes in the education team at the Gatsby Foundation, which funds scientific projects, said that apprenticeships had an image problem.
“There’s still quite a big financial payback in going to university, but it’s not clear if, as a country, people are qualifying with the right skills base,” he said. “We’ve got to start getting the message across in schools and colleges that you can be a scientist even if you don’t have a degree.”
The academic route
70 people started higher level apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing technologies in 2010/11.
615,980 people were studying on full-time science degree courses, including medicine, biology and maths, in 2010/11 - up 3 per cent on 2009/10.
212,965 people graduated with undergraduate science degrees in 2010/11.
62,041 pupils in the UK took biology A-level exams in 2011, while 48,082 took chemistry and 32,860 took physics.
Original headline: Focus on science degrees is a mistake, says curriculum chair