Special Needs

STEM: How to Bridge the Attainment Gap for Disadvantaged Pupils

Panagiota Letsou describes a unique project to engage children from disadvantaged communities in science and technology.

Our society is becoming increasingly dependent on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). From climate change to our reliance on the latest technologies, we are undeniably living in a world that is dominated by STEM-based issues and is destined to grow ever more so. As such, it is not a leap to suggest that those who build a solid foundation in STEM subjects and learning throughout their studies will not only be more employable in the future, but in fact more equipped for the future in general. 

Unfortunately, there is a significant attainment gap between young people from more advantaged backgrounds compared to disadvantaged backgrounds when it comes to STEM subjects. In recent years this attainment gap has consistently been around 20 per cent. There is also a noticeable divide between those that elect to take STEM subjects on at a higher level – with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds being less likely to choose science either at sixth form or at degree stage. 

This is in part due to young people’s perceptions and attitudes towards science. Many young people regard STEM topics as more academic and therefore harder to achieve in compared to other subjects. There is also significant evidence to suggest that although young people see the benefits of studying science at a higher level, many don’t believe they are able to or capable of continuing with STEM. Arguably, this is also in large part to do with the lack of diverse role models within the STEM industry. The lack of representation further creates a barrier to aspiration within the sector. It is understandably harder for young people to envision themselves in these career paths when they do not see people like themselves in these roles. 

It is critical that students of all backgrounds and all abilities are engaged with STEM subjects, given the large role it will play in both their personal and professional lives. Therefore, the question arises, how do we change the current attitudes and disparities within STEM learning and create opportunities that benefit all young people – not just those who will go on to have a career in science?

At the British Science Association (BSA), we believe that the experiences that young people have at school need to go beyond curriculum-based learning. School learning should be geared towards equipping all young people with the skills and knowledge necessary for a fulfilled life after school – and science should be a part of that experience. It is unlikely that all young people will want to pursue a career in STEM; balance will always be key and we do not want to lose the diversity of interests and career paths that students take. However, the proven benefits of being offered the opportunity to think and behave like a scientist and engineer whilst at school are undoubtable. 

The BSA’s flagship education programme, the CREST Awards, has this principal at its core. By participating in a project-based learning (PBL) programme, students’ engagement in STEM is boosted, while developing their teamwork, communication and project management skills. PBL encourages interdisciplinary and student-led learning, allowing for students to personalise their own projects so that they can feel greater ownership over the learning process. 

Designing a Skateboard

For example, if a student were more inclined towards the arts, they might incorporate more design techniques – or alternatively, if a student was far more interested in skating than they were in their science, they could undertake a CREST project to design the perfect skateboard. It is both understandable and important that all students have different interests and perspectives, and it is vital that we do not attempt to try and make these fit a one size fits all mould – we  can harness these different perspectives and show them how STEM learning fits into their aspirations and interests. 

PBL, and CREST in particular, helps facilitate this, as students get to take ownership of their project from start to finish – which is a far more effective means of ensuring students engage with a subject effectively, as they can adopt a sense of responsibility over their own learning. It also enables young people to see first-hand how STEM learning relates to their wider interests and day to day lives, helping breakdown the perception of STEM subjects as overly academic. Through bolstering engagement in a subject, you can also bolster attainment; if a student is more interested in a subject, they are likely to do better. 

At the BSA, we ran a study to see if our awards programme truly did make the difference in attainment that we believed it would. We have evaluated whether taking part in the CREST Awards bolsters attainment and engagement in students who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM). We found that students who do CREST achieved better across their studies and were more likely to take STEM subjects on at A Level and beyond. In fact, when measured against their peers who were non-FSM, students who had taken part in CREST and were eligible for free school meals at any point in the six years before their GCSEs had a larger difference in their highest science GCSE points score (4.2 points) than those CREST students who had not been eligible for free school meals (3.2). This demonstrated that student-led, project-based STEM learning can make a real difference for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Pedagogical techniques to improve engagement and attainment in children from disadvantaged backgrounds are beneficial but it certainly cannot tackle the problem alone. Vitally, there needs to be active measures taken to help students from less affluent backgrounds gain the same access to STEM learning and activities that their peers do. At CREST we have given over £100K to groups in challenging circumstances in the last three years and we will continue to offer these grants to all schools that have students that require them, not just a select few. It is important that these measures aren’t simply taken for the highest achieving disadvantaged students. It is not our goal for the brightest disadvantaged kids to go to top Universities. We want kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to be excited about science and become active, knowledgeable citizens – whether they follow a career in STEM or not. This means, making an active effort to raise awareness to the funding available to schemes such as the CREST Awards and opening up access to even more schemes.  

Arguably, we are facing a future that will be hard to navigate or even participate in efficiently without a solid foundation in STEM subjects. As such it is vital that young people from all backgrounds are engaged in STEM subjects – not just because it will inevitably play a large role in their futures, but also because we are in need of diverse minds and skillsets within STEM industries and beyond. Therefore, it is crucial that we are doing everything possible within the education sector to ensure that we are bridging the STEM attainment gap for students from less advantaged backgrounds. The CREST awards are just one method we can employ in tackling this. 

Panagiota Letsou is CREST Product Manager within the Education Team of the British Science Association.