Well-rounded Students – What does it Take?

WS Gilbert thought it was ‘comical…that every boy and every gal… is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative’ in the words expressed by that bored sentry PC Willis. The politics would be different now, but we in England and Wales still seem to live in a system where every boy or girl, at least those who aspire to A levels and beyond, are forced either into either the square box that is Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences (AHSS) or the circular peg-hole that is STEM at 16, if not before. Why? No other developed country does this. There is some movement towards at least offering new courses in mathematics of some kind for non-STEM students to take beyond 16, although we have yet to see how this works in practice. This would at least raise the take-up beyond the miserly 13% of the cohort the country currently sees take mathematics post-GCSE.

The Royal Society launches its new report ‘Vision for Science and Mathematics Education‘ today, describing how it would like to see STEM education develop over the next 20 years. I have been on the committee preparing this report over the last 2-3 years and it has been an interesting process. It’s not so easy to think 20 years ahead and to begin with the committee collectively was timid and incremental in its deliberations. I hope in the end we have produced something ‘visionary’, in so far as it describes a very different place from where we are now, even if much of it may superficially look like the blindingly obvious: a trusted teaching profession, assessment of the individual student separate from assessment of the school, good careers advice starting at primary school, access to specialist maths and science teachers in every school (primary and secondary school) as well as well-supported and trained technicians. And, in the context of my opening paragraph, the report advocates a post-16 environment in which every child, whether on a vocational or academic pathway, studies subjects from both the AHSS and STEM sides up till 18.

This is not the first time the Royal Society has advocated this. In 2011 I was involved in the launch of an earlier report which also pushed for a Baccalaureate approach post-16. It got limited airtime and made no significant impact on any policy-making emanating from the Department for Education (DfE). But the Royal Society is not alone in making this call: from the other side of the ‘divide’, humanities and social scientists also see the attraction and importance of this. Coincidentally, this was very clear this week when I participated in a meeting at the British Academy on ‘Broadening the debate: how the humanities and social sciences can help us address global challenges’. A joint meeting with the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, I was the lone scientist invited to speak (although there were quite a number in the audience, I was pleased to see). The panel I participated in was entitled ‘Why a coordinated approach to humanities, social sciences and natural sciences matters’ a topic I felt it was easy to embrace and which directly ties in with the Vision Report, for which I also managed to sneak in a plug.

But perhaps even more relevantly was the other panel of the day on the subject of ‘Promoting Opportunity through Education’. In this session Baroness Tessa Blackstone spoke forcefully about the dangers of early specialisation. Not the ‘gold standard’ that A levels are usually described, she saw them rather as a ’5th rate tin standard’ due to their narrowness. She was the Higher Education Minister in the Blair administration at the time that Curriculum 2000 was introduced, which recommended that school children should do a broad mix of 5 AS levels followed by 4 A levels. What happened to this? According to Blackstone, what happened was that HEIs did nothing to change their offers to children. Why should schools go for this breadth, she asked, if it was only going to make harder the chances of their students gaining the requisite grades in the 3 A levels that HEIs continued to set as offers? However, the confusion that arose by rushing the introduction of the revised structures and qualifications in no doubt also played their part in preventing schools and students taking advantage of the changes to increase their breadth of study.

So, what would HEIs do now if the exams at 18 were reformed to something like a Baccalaureate system? Discussions with some HEI stakeholders have suggested they would welcome such a broadening, but perhaps that’s what they said last time. I wasn’t close enough to those conversations around 2000 to know what was or wasn’t said or by whom. I do know that any change in 6th forms would necessarily directly impact on what universities could or couldn’t assume incoming students knew. Changes would have to have full buy-in and, as far as I can currently judge from within Cambridge, admission via the IB (International Baccalaureate) which is the nearest approximation to what is being suggested, currently has a very high bar. This is likely to act as a significant barrier at the moment. Changes would need to be explicitly embraced by HEIs across the board, not only in terms of offers but also in terms of first year courses, if the Royal Society’s vision on this front is to be successfully adopted.

Nevertheless, I still believe wholeheartedly a broadening is the way to go because we should not expect students to make an essentially irrevocable choice between arts and sciences at a ridiculously early age. It seems to me – and this will certainly be being followed up – the Royal Society and the British Academy share a common perspective on this issue. Let us hope that those who really can effect policy change read the Vision report, in its entirety, and buy into the ideas presented about how the UK’s children should be educated. Let’s worry more about the education and less about the politics and ideology.

Note: Although I have been a member of  the Vision committee this post reflects my personal thoughts setting the work in context. A more specific post on the report itself by me can be found here.


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7 Responses to Well-rounded Students – What does it Take?

  1. Julia Molinari says:

    In Scotland, where I did my first degree 20 years ago, 1st year UG allowed you to choose 3 subjects, one of which could be completely unrelated to anything you had ever studied before – it was like an exploratory year to give you time hone your interests. Unsurprisingly, Scottish degrees last 4 years to accommodate exploration, trial and error. Would an extra exploratory year work in English universities, if a more baccalaureate approach to secondary exit exams were to be adopted? The fees we now pay in England clearly and immediately put a dampner on this idea, which is such a shame.

  2. The report shows a number of positive steps, but to my mind, and after consulting my 1st year ‘bio natsci’ daughter the extra oppotunities are pointless unless the students are actually interested in the subjects. To me it appears the main problem (which the report has not addressed) is that wider society is ‘almost’ completely seperate when it come to the divide between scientists and engineers and the arts, which is really quite odd when one considers that both are very creative areas. After some time of my own research and experience (as a fashion designer and civil engineer) it seems that these groups do not speak to each other at all. As an example I recently contacted one of our scientific organisations and asked if I could be of minimal disrubtion and use their building for the setting of a fashion shoot, the benifits being mutual promotion only to be told that they were by interested! If we could get the two Groups to engage more then the outcome would surely be better for the whole society, firstly giving more understanding of the value of science and engineering and therefore give it more acceptance and resources, secondly it would inspire more young people into stem subjects if they perceived the subjects as being ‘cool’. For example, who do teenagers think are cool? Film stars, rock stars, artists, fashion brands etc? who do they think are the least cool? Parents and teachers…. So my point is, if we can get STEM to be cool by engaging the arts then the rest will be easy!

    • I think this is a circular argument. Society is the way it is, with this apparently deep gulf between the two sides, at least in part because we make it so hard for students to be able to combine different interests. I wanted to keep German up at A level along with the STEM subjects I took (clearly this was many years ago), and it was impossible to fit into the timetable. If you only take one science A level because you want to keep up other subjects, you then are likely to find you won’t be accepted on a science degree. And we have a media dominated by arts graduates who still seem to feel uncomfortable with science and so we see all the annoyance at the way Today or Newsnight portrays it. So, you come up against the obstacles you’ve encountered because the gulf is introduced so early on. I’d like to think broadening the curriculum at 16 would slowly change attitudes.

      However there are some interesting examples of very significant arts/science collaborations of the sort you describe even now. For instance Helen Storey and my friend and colleague Tony Ryan’s Wonderland which brings fashion and science together. It is a shame your own attempt failed but I do hope you won’t give up.

  3. I completely agree with the thrust of this article. Not only is it very odd to ask students to ‘specialize’ at 16, many of the traditional boundaries between disciplines are coming under considerable strain due to developments in technology and the necessity of interdisciplinarity in addressing many (most?) of what are known as complex real-world problems.

    Specialisms there still will be, but many of the new specialisms will be in new combinations of humanities and social sciences with sciences, technology and engineering. This from yesterday is just the latest piece in literally hundreds that argue that we need to rethink these boundaries http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/jun/24/universities-need-creativity-let-artists-and-technologists-work-together?CMP=new_1194. And social scientists at LSE have made interesting new maps of the interactions between existing disciplines http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/01/20/social-sciences-converging-with-stem-disciplines/.

    The question, then, as I see it is how best to provide a structure in education which allows the next generation to join in this sort of research and these wider discussions of interdisciplinarity. That is not an easy question to address (!) but certainly part of the answer must lie in allowing young people to study a wider range of subjects throughout their schooling and well into their undergraduate studies.

    I’m not sure if ‘plugs’ or ‘raising awareness’ is appropriate on this blog (if not, please simply delete this section) but you may be aware that UCL is trying to address exactly this issue in its new Arts and Sciences BASc programme http://www.ucl.ac.uk/basc . We are delighted that so many students are relishing the opportunity to make individual and detailed connections across established disciplinary boundaries. Maybe the younger generation understands the importance of this sort of education better than the older generation can.

  4. Laura says:

    There’s a tradeoff. Countries where students specialize earlier (e.g. England, Scandinavia) have shorter time (and lower cost, both for student and taxpayer) to the first degree than countries where students specialize later (e.g. US).

    Is there good data about how many students want to change direction and have talent to do so, (rather than e.g. just wishing ex post they’d been an engineer to earn more money)? That may be a difficult question to pose well.

  5. Allison says:

    The Netherlands also forces their secondary students to specialize, but even earlier and with more stratification. The students get shunted into separate schools at age 12 according to their academic abilities. The most academically-gifted students, who are at the pre-university secondary schools, have to pick a specialization for the last three years, typically at age 15. They can choose between four: humanities, social studies, biology/natural sciences, and natural sciences/technology.

    Personally, I would never have ended up in STEM in such a system. My Dutch colleagues, however, think it must be a nearly impossible task to train students adequately in a mixed class like the one I attended in Canada. While the Dutch and UK systems do lead to (theoretically) shorter studies, I think it’s a pity to be forced to give up access to a broader range of topics in exchange for a year less schooling.

  6. I’ve written a more detailed response to this post and one from the Guardian yesterday on “Why I won’t be studying physics at A level”, over on the Physics World blog.

    Like Allison above, I probably would not have ended up in STEM under the English system. By age 17, I had enjoyed biology, chemistry and geometry, but disliked algebra and was not especially keen on physics, whereas I’d found English and history consistently interesting. I only got into physics in my final year at school, via the “gateway drug” of an astronomy class.