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Wednesday 24th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Young women aren’t being given opportunities in science, and society is the poorer for that, says MAX HYDE

MY CAREFULLY thought-out career plan goes something like this — I have a degree in molecular science. I love science. I think children and young people are fabulous. I will be a science teacher.

So since 1977 I have been a teacher of chemistry and physics and a member of the National Union of Teachers — two excellent decisions, absolutely no regrets.

Education is a right and a public good. It opened up my life chances. 

I was the first in my family to take exams, to stay on at school and to go to university. 

Because of free state education, I have had some wonderful opportunities and met many inspirational people.

Science and mathematics are at the heart of modern life. They help us make sense of the world and to provide elegant, sustainable solutions to the global and local problems we face. 

We need scientists, and we need scientists from all backgrounds — women and men, black and white, disabled or not, all sexual orientations and gender identities, privileged backgrounds or disadvantaged ones. Diversity enriches us all.

However, today I worry about the life chances of young people from backgrounds similar to mine. 

Some dreadful things are being done in the name of educational reform, damaging our children and grandchildren and driving teachers from the profession that they love.

State education has become a relentless series of hurdles marked by simplistic tests that are nothing to do with real learning. 

This encapsulates why we must fight on for an education for our children and grandchildren. 

Education that is not about being told facts and rote learning without understanding but one that is about investigating, questioning, critical thinking and problem-solving. 

All these are attractive to girls and essential for scientists. We need a wider vision of learning and achievement.

Of particular concern to me is that the coalition government has not looked at the effect of curriculum and assessment reforms on girls. 

The new curriculum was described as “gender blind” (sic) and women and girls were not mentioned once. 

The way forward was to go backwards, away from coursework and practical work to linear final exams — a system that has been shown to disadvantage girls and definitely not a system that encourages the skills that are needed in either business or scientific research. 

Britain needs more scientists, engineers and technologists at every level — for economic recovery and to develop innovation capacity and increase the knowledge economy and the manufacturing sector.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that girls and young women are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem). 

Women currently make up just 13 per cent of the total workforce in Stem careers, a loss of talent and innovation. Just 15 per cent of ICT professionals and only 5.5 per cent of engineering professionals are female.

Young women are missing out on opportunities, and society is the poorer for that. We do not need yet more evidence. It is time to act. 

Here are some things that would make a real difference:

  • Tackling stereotypes benefits all girls and all boys, and the earlier the better. 

It is essential to allow children to expand their horizons. Our children deserve a better curriculum, not one that is constantly changing, and where there is space for teachers to innovate. 

Teachers should have an entitlement to training about equalities so that they can help girls — and all children — develop their potential. There is no one-size “British standard child.” 

  • Stem subjects are important, but so are arts, humanities and social sciences. 

All children should have a rich diet of knowledge and experience which will help them become rounded human beings as well as helping them make informed choices about their future direction in life. 

The Royal Society agrees, and this is at the heart of its excellent vision for science and mathematics education. 

  • Children also have an entitlement to high-quality sex and relationship education that allows girls and boys to explore what good relationships mean. Treating young women with dignity and respect is part of that. 
  • Good careers education is essential. Up-to-date careers information, unbiased advice and guidance should be an entitlement for girls and all young people. 

This is also helpful for parents, to increase awareness of the opportunities for girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the varying career paths or entry points available. 

Alongside this, the scientific community has a wealth of role models that can come in to schools if space is created in the curriculum to allow this. 

  • And very importantly, make sure our girls are being taught by qualified teachers throughout their schooling, including by specialist science and maths teachers in secondary schools. 

The current policy on teacher supply appears to be: recruit, wreck and replace teachers. 

The coalition government is neither attracting nor keeping enough teachers in front of our children, especially teachers of science and mathematics. 

Let’s make teaching an attractive profession. There are changes the government could make that would cost nothing and let teachers teach. 

Max Hyde is president of the National Union of Teachers.

Further resources

The NUT has published free resources for use in primary schools: Breaking the Mould, It’s Child’s Play, Stereotypes Stop You Doing Stuff and Boys’ Things and Girls’ Things:

The Royal Society’s vision for science and mathematics education:

The trade union Prospect has some wonderful images of women in male-dominated careers:

How the government can improve the education sector for both children and teachers: