We need to talk about STEM: putting rocket boosters under girls’ ambitions

We recently received two reminders that the progress that has been made in girls’ education cannot be taken for granted. In case you missed it, new analysis from insights company dataHE found that there has been a record fall in the number of women applying for university places, with around 10,000 fewer applications for September 2023, compared to the previous year.

girls education

Granted, a traditional university degree is by no means the only measure of success for our students, or for their teachers. But every day, across our schools, we aim to give our girls the space and confidence to make their own choices, free of any sense that the script has been written for them.

As young women carve out their own paths to becoming change makers, it is vital that we make them aware of the wide range of opportunities available to help them to achieve their own definition of career success. From traditional apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships and work that leads to a professional qualification, less rigid routes to attainment are becoming more appealing to today’s young women, and rightfully so.  The prospect of starting out after university with up to £50,000 worth of debt may well be playing into this equation more than ever too.

Highlighting this diversity of choice was one of the motivations behind our partnership with the London School of Economics to develop our Leadership and Enterprise Advanced Diploma, GDST LEAD. The programme allows young women to develop the transferable skills necessary to be future leaders and entrepreneurs. Working together in teams, the girls are guided by industry experts to create their own social enterprise start-ups, to build their business ideas into sustainable and ultimately scaleable enterprises.

In the same week as the dataHE study, EngineeringUK revealed that around 115,000 more girls would need to study A-levels in maths or physics, or both, to reach equal numbers of male and female students studying engineering and technology degrees. Dr Claudia Mollidor, the head of research and evaluation at EngineeringUK, described the gender disparity within undergraduate degrees in engineering and technology as really concerning.

EngineeringUK’s figures make for difficult reading, because as a country we have a crisis that is not being tackled to address this issue for the long term.  And we have strong evidence that with real effort progress is not only possible, but certain.  Why do I say that?  Well, in 2021, 60.8% of Year 13 girls across GDST schools sat A-levels in one or more STEM subjects. 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. The strong take-up of STEM subjects in our schools is not by accident. It is the result of GDST schools being designed to be environments where girls are encouraged to learn without limits, where traditional gender stereotypes are challenged every day and girls given the confidence to make the choices that are right for them.

In GDST schools, our girls have 15 years of education where there are no girls’ subjects or boys’ subjects, only subjects. In the words of Rebecca Brown, our Trust Consultant Teacher for maths, “The inclusive approach we take to STEM across the GDST means encouraging our students to get comfortable with failure, to keep trying and not being put off: perhaps another reason for our higher than average uptake in science.”

However, with the best will in the world, GDST girls alone cannot fill the 115,000 gap in female engineering and technology undergraduates. This is why we are creating a movement in girls’ education – alongside local and international partners – to reach as many girls as possible, wherever they are being educated. Our founding membership of the International Coalition of Girls’ Schools in our 150th year is a great stride towards achieving this goal.

As always, our GDST community is ahead of the curve in this STEM ambition; from the Putney High School students who worked hard to deliver Access to Success, a maths and science outreach event for local primary school children, to Newcastle High School for Girls’ Science is my Superpower programme in partnership with ten maintained primary schools across the region. The programme is focused on developing STEM subject knowledge, with sessions for the pupils and bespoke Primary Science Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for teaching staff to take the inspirational ideas back to their schools and reach more pupils.

The issues raised by both studies are not insurmountable when you consider how far we’ve come since the GDST was founded 150 years ago. Our first schools were established at a time when girls were not considered worthy of an education equal to that of their brothers. There is still work to be done, but we cannot, and must not accept these statistics as proof that there will always be a STEM gender gap because those subjects are better suited to boys. Whether at nursery, primary, GCSE or A-Level, we will continue our work to nurture young women’s interest in STEM, to encourage them to pursue these subjects beyond school, where they can make a valuable contribution and ultimately, make the world a better place for us all. This is the only way to ensure that girls in particular are well equipped to participate in the new and exciting careers of the future.