In recent years, there has been a gradual improvement in the take-up of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) in schools. The number of pupils studying these subjects has increased by 10.7% over 10 years and last year, GCSE Science entries rose by 36.1%.
Impressive though this last figure is, significant challenges remain in persuading young people to pursue STEM subjects through school and beyond, and the problem is even more acute for girls and for pupils receiving free school meals. Fewer than 10% of the country’s professional engineers are women whilst just 1.3% of construction apprentices and 2.6% of engineering apprentices are women. At school, 62% of students eligible for free school meals fail to achieve a Science GCSE at grade A* to C and 58% fail to achieve this in Maths compared to a national average of 42% (Maths) and 39% (Science).
Awareness of the importance of STEM is high throughout the UK. In Northern Ireland, which has a very high concentration of STEM-related jobs and careers, warnings have been made that the country is facing the prospect of being unable to meet demand if schools, colleges and universities are unable to produce ‘a STEM-literate society,’ whilst in Scotland a new initiative has been launched to raise thinking and problem-solving skills within the STEM curriculum. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government has appointed a Chief Scientific Adviser to oversee the process of developing strategic partnerships between schools and employers to help alleviate ‘inequalities amongst some STEM subjects’ .
This state of affairs clearly offers valuable opportunities for businesses throughout the country to become directly involved in the delivery and promotion of these crucial subjects. STEM subjects lend themselves to non-traditional teaching methods, hands-on experiential learning and off-site visits, so external businesses have a unique opportunity to bring STEM teaching out of the classroom and into an exciting practical context for learners. For companies willing and able to work with schools to develop these kinds of initiatives, the potential for significant returns on investment is high, both from a brand and a social perspective.
Teachers and careers teams, despite their best efforts, continue to find it difficult to break down narrow preconceptions; in far too many pupils’ minds, STEM subjects are still linked to unsophisticated and poorly-rewarded career paths. Many businesses will have a wealth of experience in ways of demonstrating the dynamic and highly-fulfilling potential of such careers.
Business involvement in school-based STEM-related activity therefore helps to shape a much-needed future workforce. The UK nations, as well as a wide range of employers – not just in the engineering sector – clearly consider employees with good STEM skills as vital but six out of ten companies report difficulty in recruiting such employees. A recent Confederation of British Industry (CBI) report reveals that 72% of employers across a range of sectors including the public sector, construction, transport and distribution, professional services, retail and hospitality, all consider staff with STEM skills as crucial to their continuing success and development.
The Institution of Engineering and Technology, Tomorrow’s Engineers and Manchester Airports Group have all undertaken STEM programmes to simultaneously address the skills gap for young people and increase awareness of their organisations and the related careers available. Programmes like these boost the awareness and aspirations of the employees of the future, but also position the companies as leaders in their fields.
By Geoff Carr, Education Planner, National Schools Partnership
 Guardian Education
 Jim Stewart; chairman Sentinus 22/3/2013
 The Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Agenda in Wales: Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE)
 Education and Skills survey: CBI/EDI (Education Development International) 2011