From education to employment

Uptake of STEM at FE – challenges and opportunities

The latest Association of Colleges enrolment survey contains some interesting information that provides a mixed picture of recruitment to STEM courses. On the whole, it would appear that there are increases in science and engineering recruitment and reductions in the numbers of learners at level one.

This makes me reflect on the likely direction of travel for STEM in Further Education in the next three to five years. In the past eight months I have spent a great deal of time in General FE and sixth form colleges and am contemplating the number of learners in A-level Sciences and GCSE and A-level Mathematics; are they going to increase, and are we ready for it?

In 2007, 32 % of maintained schools offered GCSE biology, chemistry and physics. It is now over 90%. Over 80,000 more young people take GCSE physics than in 2007. The implementation of the Wolf report and English Baccalaureate attainment measures are already increasing the demand for GCSE mathematics programmes.

There has been a great deal of training and development for teachers pre-16: the National Network of Science Learning Centres delivers over 14,000 training days to teachers per year and can demonstrate independently the effect this has on young people’s attainment and progression at key stage 4. The Stimulating Physics programme has been tasked with increasing take up of Physics with substantial success. We should not forget the impact of the Secondary National Strategies in this context as well.

Mathematics is the fastest growing of all A-levels in the past ten years; it now fully recovered from the effect of the Curriculum 2000. Further Mathematics A-level is also growing impressively (primarily owing to the work of the Further Mathematics Support Programme from Mathematics in Education and Industry).

Many universities have high quality outreach programmes for young people in their local area (I have always been a fan of BristolChemlabs and the Reach Out lab at Imperial College). We have STEM ambassadors, great public understanding projects such as ‘I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here’, the Big Bang Fair and some decent science on the television (I am quite fond of ‘Bang Goes the Theory,’ for younger children).

Couple all of this to the government policy that is driving increases in traditional ‘facilitating’ subjects and we must start to see bigger increases in young people looking to take Science and Mathematics at level three. Personally, I feel this leaves us with a several challenges for the Further Education sector.

Firstly, retention between the AS and A2 in some STEM subjects does not appear that impressive; between 2009 and 2011, approximately 20% of young people nationally dropped biology and chemistry after AS. You might say that is to be expected, since most young people drop one subject in Year 13. However, consider this: physics and psychology average a 30% drop out rate and yet english and history generally only 12-14%. I would be really interested to know whether the national picture (across all providers) mirrors what is going on in individual colleges. How do you keep your STEM students?

My second point is where the extra students that might want to take STEM A-levels will go. I hear in some parts of the country, new academies are developing their own sixth forms to compete with the traditional FE sector. Ofsted claims that there is not enough outstanding teaching in post 16 science in colleges. Some colleges have modest A-level science provision and in the short term may struggle to meet demand. Add into the mix, the variable advice and guidance that some young people receive and it feels like the FE sector needs to fight for its place in delivering STEM A-levels. There is a possibility that increasing numbers of these new students will stay at school.

Finally, is the nagging feeling that a percentage of these new science and mathematics A-level recruits would be better placed on truly vocational STEM qualifications that many Further Education colleges do so well. I was a huge fan of the 14-16 Increased Flexibility Programme (of which many still exist) and Young Apprenticeship.  I actually like the principle learning in the Engineering Diploma and applied GCSEs and A-levels in Engineering and Science. Yet with Ebacc driving some schools, it might become harder to recruit young people on meaningful vocational courses and apprenticeship in Further Education. Ebacc and Wolf will also lead to a big rise in the numbers of students on applied courses taking GCSE mathematics in one year. Re-sitting mathematics is fraught with difficulty for those that struggled in school.

So what are the next steps in STEM? You would think I am depressed. I am not. In the last eight months I have been into fifteen colleges and work based learning providers and talked to staff still passionate about their subject. They do their level best to get the young people in their care meaningful qualifications and progression routes. They have the solutions. So here is my four point plan and a plea:

  • allow your staff the time and space to innovate;

  • give your staff the very latest in developments in teaching and learning and the freedom to embed them;

  • try and make mathematics in FE a different, more applied experience to that in school;

  • Make the case to all schools for the need for applied learning for 14-16 year olds

‘Next Steps in STEM’ is a range of support and resource packages for the Further Education sector, giving practitioners and managers the approaches, tools and techniques to achieve outstanding results in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Developed in collaboration with FE colleges and Ofsted experts, it is delivered by the National Network of Science Learning Centres, experts in STEM teaching and learning.

Mark Ellis is head of partnership development at the National Network of Science Learning Centres

For more information about ‘Next Steps in STEM’, contact Mark Ellis on [email protected] or call 01904 328300 or online:

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