Investigating social mobility in STEM subjects and careers

Last year, the Social Mobility Commission issued a comprehensive report exploring the transition from school to the workplace amongst several types of pupil group within the UK.

In particular, the commission was interested in why White British males have better employment rates and more social mobility options than females and in particular, those who are Black or from an Asian Muslim background.

In Early Years, the socio-economic gap was largest amongst ‘White British’ or ‘White Other’ pupils than any other ethnic group. The report went on to outline that “disadvantaged ‘White British’ and ‘White Other’ pupils are the lowest performing groups at primary and secondary school”.

Across all key stages, White pupils appear to perform worse in English and mathematics (with the exception of Early Years Foundation Stage) than any other ethnic group. Finally, in terms of higher education, ‘White British’ from poor backgrounds were much less likely to attend university than any other ethnic group. This latter finding has been of increasing concern over the last decade.

The report authors did acknowledge that there was much disparity within the ‘White British’ and ‘White Other’ socioeconomic group but concluded White pupils were more likely to be in employment than students from other ethnic groups based, in part, on the following three reasons:

1. There appears to be a “black penalty in secondary…education”

Black children start school with scores broadly in line with the national average but, during their secondary education, they are the pupil group “most likely to fail their Maths GCSE [and]…most likely to be excluded from school”.

Indeed, only 63% achieve a C or more in mathematics GCSE compared to the national average of 68%. This was particularly the case for Black males, who “do substantially less well than their female peers particularly at key stage 4”. In terms of Special Educational Needs and exclusions, the report also found that “21.7 per cent of Black Caribbean pupils are identified as having SEND compared to 15.2 per cent of all pupils, and Black Caribbean boys were three times were more likely to receive a fixed period exclusion in 2013-14 than the average pupil”.

2. There appears to be a “broken mobility promise for Asian Muslims, particularly women”

Promisingly, the report outlined that “young people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are more likely than ever to succeed in education”, with educational attainment amongst these ethnic groups improving faster than any other.

However, “discrimination in the workplace puts some groups, in particular Muslim women, at a disadvantage preventing them from translating educational attainment into labour market returns”.

3. Females are more likely to underperform in STEM subjects compared to their male counterparts

The authors argue that this contributes towards girls being less likely than boys to take STEM subjects during further or higher education. Although many subject choices are “gendered” a “low uptake of STEM subjects by females may constrain their social mobility”.

This latter point highlights a worrying trend, linking low uptake of STEM to an increasing issue with social mobility for women, including young Muslim girls, a fact that represents a key opportunity for STEM Learning.

Engaging female pupils at an early stage is crucial

Although social mobility is growing crisis, noted in many papers and reports in the last year from both Government and charities, industry and role models (including STEM Ambassadors) could play a major part in re-dressing this issue, by encouraging inspirational role models at an early stage in primary schools, not only secondary schools to meet with young women, that they can relate and identify with as STEM Ambassadors, to mentor, guide and offer pathways to young girls about the national and global opportunities available to them in industry.

The drive for the Government to support STEM industries highlights even further the crucial need to address social mobility issues, otherwise the skills gap and also many young people, including those for Black Caribbean backgrounds, are simply not left behind.

The opportunities engendered by a diverse STEM Ambassador population, when used in a coherent way, can support a step change in thinking, to better engage a younger audience with role models, change behaviour and ultimately reduce the growing crises of social mobility for our future generation.

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