British education: delivering skills for the future

The UK’s reputation for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) excellence attracts students from around the world. What makes Britain a magnet for those looking to future-proof their careers?

Pupils from Denstone College illustrating British Education: Delivering Skills for the Future article

Denstone College

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The UK has long held a reputation for academic excellence. It has some of the oldest institutions in the world dedicated to teaching and learning, Oxford University being established in 1096. In the Times Higher Education Rankings 2018, which lists the top 1000 universities in the world, the UK’s Oxford and Cambridge Universities took first and second place respectively. Imperial College, London came in at eighth place. For a small country, the UK punches well above its weight in the academic arena.

A centre of STEM excellence

As an internationally recognised world leader in science and engineering, according to non-profit organisation the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), the UK’s academic research base has provided 15 per cent of the world’s most significant academic papers, and the UK has more Nobel Prizes than any other country, with the exception of America. The statistics are impressive for a country with less than one per cent of the world’s population.Britain has also led from the front in the creation of smartphone technology. It is responsible for the technology involved in 80 per cent of digital cameras, and 35 per cent of all electronic devices were developed in the UK.

Attracting international students

It is hard to deny the UK’s superior STEM credentials and attractive research base for academic study. Indeed, according to the British Council, the UK has become especially appealing to international students seeking to further their studies, and ultimately their careers, in STEM subjects.Research by the British Council, which analysed the reasons behind international STEM students’ choice of course and country of study, revealed that undergraduate respondents chose the UK overwhelmingly because of its reputation for high-quality education and excellent career prospects.“It’s great to see that the UK’s excellence in teaching and research in these areas is recognised by STEM students around the world,” said Gordon Slaven, the British Council's head of higher education. “The fact that the UK continues to attract large numbers of STEM students means that the UK education experience is contributing to the development of countries around the world, and creating long-term connections for the UK in the future. Creating a young workforce with transferable, in-demand skills is what will drive the global economy forward.”Interestingly, the British Council research found that the more globally mobile the STEM skills on offer in each individual country and institution were, the more attractive the prospect was to international students.“Perhaps the most compelling finding,” said Zainab Malik, director of research at Education Intelligence, “is that international STEM students are keen to master the globally transferable skills learned in their courses, and, as a result, prioritise opportunities to research or work; there is a relationship between destination countries that support such opportunities and growth in international STEM enrolments.“International STEM students seek high-quality education and enhanced career prospects; therefore, the most attractive education systems will be those which are best integrated with the innovation economy.”

STEM in the UK after Brexit

The UK attracts the best researchers from around the world, but there is concern amongst the scientific community that Brexit will make it harder for Britain to attract top research talent and for UK-based researchers to collaborate effectively on an international scale.Universities and UK businesses called on the government to ensure that European students will continue to be granted the freedom to study in UK higher-education institutions post-Brexit.In a move that was largely welcomed by UK business and higher education, Universities and Science minister Jo Johnson gave his assurance that EU students applying for places at English universities in the 2018/19 academic year would continue to be eligible for student loans and grants – and would be for the duration of their courses.
Further Guide to Education & Schools in the UK 2018 articles:
“We have been clear about our commitment to the UK’s world-class higher education sector,” he said. “Through our modern industrial strategy and the additional £4.7 billion committed for research and innovation over the next 5 years, we are ensuring the UK has the skills and environment it needs to continue leading the way in academia and research.“A key part of our success is attracting talent from across the globe. This will provide reassurance to the brightest minds from across Europe to continue applying to study in the UK, safe in the knowledge financial assistance is available if needed.” 

Innovations in STEM teaching

In 2015, Marymount International School London, a Catholic boarding school for girls, became the first school in the UK to establish a fully equipped ‘fab lab’ (fabrication laboratory), a state-of-the-art workshop equipped with an array of flexible, computer-controlled tools that can make almost anything.Marymount uses its fab lab to teach computer programming, coding, robotics and design – areas that straddle the disciplines of mathematics, physics and technology as well as art and design.“It has given students unhindered access to an array of digitally driven instruments such as 3D printers and laser cutters,” explains Karin Purcell, the school’s director of development and communications. “This has naturally led to students developing an interest in coding, programming and robotics.”The Science department at St Mary’s Calne, a girls’ boarding and day school in Wiltshire, gained its Platinum Science Mark Award earlier this year. The award recognises inspiring practice in science departments in the UK and the rigorous assessment takes one year. It is one of just ten schools in the country to gain the award at Platinum level and the first independent school to achieve the accolade. Alexandra Haydon, the school’s head of science believes that the departments integration with other faculties had a key role to play in the success of their application. “Our belief in connections between scientific disciplines and between science and other faculties and a quest for excellence made us successful in our application,” she said.The school’s connections with businesses have also played an important part in a growing enthusiasm for STEM subjects at the school. Over the past few years, sixth form physics students have formed a team to enter the Engineering Education Scheme (EES), partnering with the international engineering company, Schneider Electric. The nine-month scheme involves a project set by the company, a residential trip to the University of Bath in order to manufacture their product, plus a visit to RAF Brize Norton to participate in team building activities and tour some of the aircraft. One St Mary’s Calne student commented, “Our eyes were opened to the many roles that those with degrees in subjects such as Maths could do.”Vinehall School, a day and boarding school in Sussex has recognised the importance of enabling students to see STEM in action outside of the classroom and has implemented a number of STEM days, inviting engineers into schools for assemblies and workshops. Most recently this included a team from Bloodhound SSC, who are attempting the land speed record. Students also had the opportunity to complete a structure-building workshop with a firm of architects following a visit to Hastings Pier.

The STEAM movement

The pressure from education establishments to include art and design in the STEM equation is mounting. With its roots in the US, the STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) movement is quickly gathering momentum. Founded by academics and students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the STEM to STEAM programme sets out that today’s students should be encouraged to develop the “creativity and critical thinking, making and problem-solving skills needed for the entrepreneurial and innovation-driven jobs of the future”.“The demand for STEAM resources has picked up in the past few years as teachers recognise the importance of incorporating creative thinking and visual learning into their classrooms,” notes dean of faculty Tracie Costantino. “We are now able to begin to satisfy their hunger for connecting the arts and sciences in ways that resonate with students of all ages.”Independent schools in the UK have a long history of excellence in teaching a broad range of subjects, and many are home to world-class art, design and performing-arts facilities.St Lawrence College in Ramsgate is investing in a new purpose-built Science, Art and Design Technology Centre ready for use in September 2018, demonstrating the importance the School places on these subjects and their relationship with each other.According to the school’s principal, Antony Spencer, “There is a general trend towards narrowing education down and, unfortunately, it is often the arts and creative subjects that lose out. This is incredibly short-sighted, not just in the type of skills that young people will need to develop for the future, but also because of what education should be about - enabling young people to express and understand themselves.“We believe that people able to do this are more likely to succeed in the world of work of the future, where the speed of change in technology will place an even greater requirement upon creativity, imagination and communication.”

Addressing UK skills shortages

Although there have been significant developments in the teaching of STEM or STEAM subjects in the independent sector recently, the state education system in the UK has been criticised for failing to keep up with the rest of the world in its delivery of science, technology and maths in its primary and secondary schools.An increasing number of UK employers are also worried that they will not be able to recruit enough highly skilled employees, a concern that has been compounded by the Brexit result and fears over reduced access to migrant workers.The government has sought to address these concerns through its higher-level apprenticeship programme with better-quality training places and innovations in the teaching of maths and science in schools.British industry is taking on the development of a passion for STEM subjects among the UK’s schoolchildren. Rolls-Royce, for example, has set itself the ambitious target of reaching six million people through its STEM education programmes and activities by 2020. “We employ world-leading experts creating world-leading technology,” says Nicola Swaney, education outreach manager at Rolls-Royce. “But, to continue doing this, we need to create and inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists and mathematicians.”

Maths: the 'mastery' approach

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) administers an international test every three years that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide. The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test showed that pupils in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong performed consistently better than their counterparts in England and the UK government decided to reassess maths provision in UK schools. Shanghai topped the tables in 2012 and Singapore in the most recent 2015 test. Following visits to schools in China teaching the lauded maths methods, the Asian ‘maths mastery’ approach has been adopted in a selection of schools in England. It is typified by careful planning and ensuring that all children have a grasp of the toughest maths principles, building on their depth of understanding of the structure of maths. The UK government has made £41 million available to train teachers in the new method.The government’s commitment to placing STEM at the heart of education policy has underpinned much of the recent education reform in England. In a government report, STEM education was pronounced “the foundation of future economic success” and instrumental in driving innovation and economic growth. Recent reforms to the National Curriculum, GCSEs and A Levels have included more challenging content in mathematics and the sciences and a move to more rigorous assessment, while slimming down the curriculum in other subjects.It is clear that the UK consistently punches above its weight in terms of its international reputation in delivering quality STEM teaching at higher-education levels. Schools in the independent and state sectors are following suit with a raft of innovations in STEM and STEAM teaching, including increased rigour in state schools through the government's programme of education reform and the independent sector's commitment to developing the innovators of the future.This article was refreshed on 23 July 2018.
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