“For a lot of our girls the harder the maths the better! They relish an opportunity to delve into problems beyond the standard curriculum and to enrich themselves”
At the GDST, we are proud to be able to run groundbreaking initiatives that result in statistics to buck the trend and break the stereotypes when it comes to encouraging young women into STEM.
Recent comments from government’s social mobility commissioner Katharine Birbalsingh around the perception that girls choose not to do Physics because ‘there’s a lot of hard maths in there that …they would rather not do’ are at odds with the culture we build and nurture at the GDST. As pioneers in girls’ education, embracing challenges and going beyond is art the heart of what we do.
In a year in which we will launch our new Space Technology Programme in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire, and the NASA STEM Engagement & Educator Development Collaborative (EPDC), on offer to our Y12 students across our family of 24 senior schools from September 2022, there has never been a better time to study Maths and Physics in a GDST school.
“GDST alumnae around the world are building a more equitable scientific community that is more innovative, impactful and exciting.”
Rebecca Brown, Trust Consultant Teacher for Maths, believes that Ms Birbalsingh’s comment does not help to change the conversation about STEM subjects being the preserve of boys. ‘A lot of hard maths that girls would rather not do?!’ she exclaims, ‘What message does this send to the women of the future? It’s quite the opposite for girls at the GDST: for many of our students, the harder the maths the better! They relish an opportunity to delve into challenges and enrich themselves in problems beyond the standard curriculum.’
One such example is the Sheffield Girls’ GDST collaboration with Porsche. Year 11 and Year 13 students explored themes of emancipation, women’s rights and ‘reclaiming the narrative’ to inspire their collaborative design during this partnership project. Nina Gunson, Head of Sheffield Girls’, explains: ‘This partnership project has given our students the opportunity to collaborate with an iconic brand and challenge thinking, as well as find out more about the huge range of careers open to women in the automotive industry.’
“Girls and young women are often simply put off choosing maths and science because of external influences around toxic stereotyping: but the fact remains that numbers of girls choosing science subjects is far greater at girls-only schools.”
Indeed, it is such opportunities on offer in our schools that allow students to realise there is nothing holding them back from pursuing STEM subjects such as Physics at A-level and degree level if they so choose. Dr Kevin Stannard, the GDST’s Director of Learning & Innovation explains. ‘There is plenty of evidence to show that girls and young women are often put off choosing maths and science, often at an early age, because of external influences, around toxic stereotyping,’ he says. ‘The closest thing to a control sample is the fact that numbers of girls choosing science subjects is far greater at girls-only schools. Recent research also shows quite clearly that, when they choose science subjects at schools, girls typically do better than boys.’ In 2021, 60.8% of Year 13 girls across the GDST schools sat A-levels in one or more STEM subject. 39% of all GDST students took Maths, with 54% of these gaining A*, which, under the new specifications is reserved only for those who show a true in-depth knowledge of the subject’s application.
In September 2022, we launch our pilot of the GDST Space Technology Programme created by Sutton High School Physics teacher Nicola Buttigieg and launched in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire, and the NASA STEM Engagement & Educator Development Collaborative (EPDC). We are working to produce modules with institutions such as NASA Langley Research Center, University of Leicester (Space Park), University of Warwick Satellite Programme and UK National Centre for Earth Observation. ‘The elements of Computer Science in space programming revolve around creative solutions using logic to make something work,’ explains Nicola, ‘with students making sense of patterns and combinations of text. It is not all just ‘maths’. This programme will engage and challenge students and hopefully show the diverse range of ways in which they can apply and enjoy STEM.’
We are proud to count physicists such as Imperial College’s Dr Jess Wade amongst our alumnae, whose work to challenge gender stereotypes in the world of Science included a campaign to lobby Wikipedia to more proactively recognise women’s historic contributions to Science. ‘Historically, the people who do science haven’t looked like the societies they serve,’ Dr Wade points out. ‘All around the world GDST alumnae are changing that: building a more equitable scientific community that is also more innovative, impactful and exciting.’ Similarly, the inclusive approach we take to STEM across the GDST means encouraging our students to get comfortable with failure, trying again and precisely not being put off: perhaps another reason for our higher than average uptake in Science. ‘Science is not just about those eureka moments,’ agrees Dr Emily Grossman, South Hampstead High School alumna. ‘It’s about getting curious, asking questions and not being afraid of making mistakes.’
Rebecca Brown summarises: ‘All girls can be great at Maths,’ she says, ‘and in the GDST we don’t have to work hard to change the stereotype that girls are not mathematicians, because our girls have brilliant role models as teachers who instil a love of maths in our students, as well as classrooms devoid of harmful stereotypes holding them back.’