On the Relationship Between STEM Education and Gifted Education – Part 2

Part 2 – STEM and G&T education in England


As with the United States, concern about STEM education in England has a long and convoluted history.

At the beginning of the decade, SET for Success, the Report of a Review by Sir Gareth Roberts, was published in April 2002. The Review notes that numbers of students choosing to study maths and physical sciences at A level is declining significantly. In relation to schools, it recommends action to:

  • address shortages in the supply of teachers
  • improve the quality of practical teaching environments
  • reform courses to ensure they interest and inspire pupils, especially girls and
  • improve careers advice and other support to promote STEM study at higher levels

Two year later in 2004, the previous Government published a 10-year Science and Innovation Investment Framework which noted that the decline in STEM subject take-up was continuing unabated. This publication confirmed the Government’s plans to improve:

  • the quality of science teachers and lecturers in every school, college and university;
  • the results for students studying science at GCSE level (age 16);
  • the numbers choosing STEM subjects in post-16 education and in higher education; and
  • the proportion of better qualified students pursuing R&D careers.

The Framework contains many recommendations for improving training, professional development and support for teachers, introducing specialist higher level teaching assistants, growing the network of specialist schools and so on. But there is no direct focus on improving GCSE results other than through these secondary measures – and the declared target is solely to improve the (already significant) proportions of young people achieving GCSEs at grades A*-C in the relevant subjects.

Two years further on again, a publication called the Science and Innovation Investment Framework: Next Steps (March 2006) recognised – apparently for the first time – the importance of improving the supply of higher-attaining pupils, so establishing a potential relationship with G&T education.

It sets out the Government objectives, which include:

  • achieving year on year increases in the number of students taking A levels in physics, chemistry and mathematics;
  • continually improving the number of pupils achieving at least level 6 at the end of Key Stage 3 (11-14 year olds);
  • continually improving the number of pupils achieving A*-B and A*-C grades in two science GCSEs.
  • establish from 2008 an entitlement for all pupils achieving at least level 6 at Key Stage 3 to study three separate science GCSEs

so as to increase progression to, and attainment at A level science and then into university.

One year later, in October 2007, yet another publication appeared: The Race to the Top: A Review of Government’s Science and Innovation Policies. This reinforced the commitment to study of triple sciences at GCSE and added a further recommendation that all those pupils who would benefit should have the option of studying a second mathematics GCSE. It also urged continued investment in enrichment opportunities including science and engineering clubs in every school and an annual National Science competition.


The 2006 STEM Programme Report describes how the Education Department and its partners will bring greater coherence to the wide range of STEM education initiatives then under way. It establishes a High Level Strategy Group a STEM Advisory Forum (see below) and and a National STEM Director, all of which continue to this day (though there is as yet no guarantee that the Coalition Government will continue with them in the longer term).

The National STEM Centre is jointly funded by the Department for Education and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. It leads the Government’s STEM programme ‘bringing together business, industry, charitable organisations, professional bodies and others with an interest in STEM education to facilitate closer collaboration and more effective support for schools and colleges’.

The Centre also hosts the UK’s largest collection of STEM teaching and learning resources and provides facilities for STEM organisations working with schools and colleges.

The STEM Advisory Forum is intended to support communication between the High Level Strategy Group and Advisory Forum members, so enabling ‘the wider STEM community to receive information and feedback on policy and delivery developments, express their views and contribute to policy formulation and development’. The Forum is run under contract to the Department for Education by Nord Anglia, a large educational consultancy.

The Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET) is jointly funded by the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to create enhancement and enrichment opportunities to inspire young people in STEM, to ensure that information about all such opportunities is made available to schools and colleges, and to encourage organisations wishing to provide such support to target their contribution as efficiently as possible.

STEMNET runs three programmes of its own:

  • STEM Ambassadors, which draws on over 24,000 volunteers to promote STEM subjects to pupils;
  • STEM Clubs Network, which supports provision for children to undertake STEM activities in a stimulating out-of-school learning environment;
  • Brokerage of STEM enhancement and enrichment opportunities, through the national co-ordination of 52 organisations that undertake a brokerage role with schools across the country.

The Science Learning Centres comprise a National Centre and nine regional centres which support teachers’ professional development, so aiming to improve the quality of science teaching. Each Centre has a main base, satellite centres and a repository of online resources. The Science Centres are supported jointly by the Department for Education and the Wellcome Trust.

There are other organisations too but this list is sufficient to exemplify the crowded nature of the territory: one can’t help feeling that some of these organisations might usefully be merged, so eliminating overlap, centralising administration and achieving economies of scale.

Were this to be undertaken, the financial contributions from Gatsby and Wellcome might even be sufficient to run the whole shebang, saving the taxpayer a significant amount.

Recent impact on high level attainment

The 2010 data shows a continuing increase in the proportion of pupils taking triple science at GCSE – ie separate physics, chemistry and biology – the percentage is up about 30% on the previous year. But there is cause for concern about trends in performance at the top levels, denoted by GCSE grades A*/A.

The BBC database allows us to extract the following data on full course GCSE results for the whole of the UK in 2009 and 2010:

2010 A*/A 2009 A*/A 2010 A*-C 2009 A*-C
All GCSEs 22.6 21.6 69.1 67.1
GCSE maths 16.2 15.4 58.4 57.2
GCSE physics 48.4 49.3 93.6 93.1
GCSE chemistry 48.9 50.9 93.6 93.9
GCSE biology 46.9 47.9 92.7 91.9

This shows that:

  • whereas there was a 1% increase in all GCSE subject entries scoring A*/A in 2010 compared with 2009 – the comparable change in
    • GCSE mathematics was +0.8%, slightly worse than the general trend
    • GCSE physics was -0.9%, somewhat worse than the general trend
    • GCSE chemistry was -2.0%, significantly worse than the general trend
    • GCSE biology was -1.3%, again significantly worse than the general trend
  • whereas for all subject entries the change in A*-C grades was 1.0% higher than the increase in A*/A grades in:
    • GCSE mathematics the difference was 0.4% in favour of A*-C grades
    • GCSE physics the difference was 0.4% in favour of A*-C grades
    • GCSE chemistry the difference was 1.7% in favour of A*-C grades
    • GCSE biology the difference was 1.8% in favour of A*-C grades – and A*/A performance fell while A*-C performance increased.

In short, top grade GCSE performance in maths and the sciences is behind the trend in all GCSE subjects and behind the trend in A*-C performance in each of the four subjects.

This raises a very big question about the extent to which schools are challenging their high attainers across the board, but we will concentrate solely on STEM in this post.

Why is there a dip in high level GCSE STEM attainment?

The National STEM Director, Sir John Holman, has said:

‘The proportion of students achieving A and A* grades in the sciences has fallen, in contrast to the trend in other subjects. This is probably related to the exam regulator OFQUAL’s instruction to exam boards to make their questions more challenging to high ability students. I hope that OFQUAL has now rescued the situation and that we will have stability and reliability in science grades in the future. This is particularly important with A* and A grades because students achieving these high grades are much more likely to continue the study of sciences at A level.’

Whether or not this dip can be attributed solely to OFQUAL activity is a moot point, since OFQUAL’s own report on the summer 2010 examinations makes clear that they were concerned to tighten standards at grade C and above, not just A*/A and, moreover, the ‘changes in the overall cohort for the sciences meant that it was difficult to judge whether standards overall had been tightened appropriately’ (p17)

Careful analysts might also want to make allowance for a variety of other factors including:

  • the impact of other course choices eg short courses and GCSE equivalents
  • the inclusion of the other home countries
  • the inclusion of the independent sector

but there is nevertheless a prima facie case for questioning whether England’s massive investment in STEM has had sufficient impact on the achievement of our highest attaining pupils, relative to those achieving the standard C grade benchmark or above.

Closing thoughts

As Holman says himself, it is typically the highest attainers who will go on to perform well at A level, progress to undergraduate degrees in STEM subjects and then into STEM-related careers. So are we doing enough to stimulate our gifted STEM students, or could we learn some important lessons from the National Science Board report we analysed in part 1 of this post?

Were England to give higher priority to meeting the needs of gifted STEM students, it could do worse than build on existing initiatives like:

  • Exscitec – a company based at Imperial College, London which concentrates on delivery of a wide range of STEM outreach activities specifically for G&T learners, including its flagship STEM World Summer School; and
  • the CREST Awards Scheme administered by the British Science Association, which is already being extended to a wider range of gifted learners, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds, with funding from the Department for Education.

But the fundamental issue is how to persuade all schools to offer the same level of classroom challenge and support to students capable of an A* at GCSE as they do to those on the D/C borderline. We expect imminently some promised reforms to the school performance tables and a new draft OFSTED school inspection framework which may go some way towards securing this.

We need the Government’s massive STEM infrastructure to raise its game as well. My earlier post on the exciting work under way in Asia might offer some valuable pointers for both the US and England to consider, perhaps together!


November 2010


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