Science has become increasingly important across all sectors of the UK economy, with 5.8 million people – 20 percent of the UK’s workforce – employed in science-based roles. This is expected to rise to 7.1 million by 2030. However, since the early 2000s there has been growing concern, from both business and the UK government, about how to meet the rising demand of STEM-based professions in the face of a widening skills gap.
At present, there is a steep decline in the number of students studying STEM subjects after their GCSEs, especially in physics. Only one in four English secondary school students choose two STEM subjects or more at A-level, and only one in eleven choose both maths and physics, the combination of subjects that underpins so many careers in technology-dependent sectors of the economy.
This is especially true for girls: in 2011, only 19 percent of girls who achieved an A* in GCSE physics continued to study it at A-level, even less than the still very modest 23 percent of male students. The figures show a similar effect for maths: less than two-thirds of girls who achieved an A* in maths GCSE continued to study it at A-level. And yet maths is the subject that employers value most, helping young people develop skills that are vital to almost any career; studies show that pupils who study maths to A-level will earn 10 percent more over their lifetime than those who do not.
These developments have led to a widening skills gap, whereby the small number of STEM graduates cannot fill the increasing number of vacancies involving STEM knowledge and qualifications. “Too many school-leavers are not given the best chance of future success, and too few UK employers will get the skills they need to compete.”
The three-year-long Your Life campaign was launched in the UK in May 2014 to promote STEM subjects among children and teenagers. The campaign aimed to encourage more pupils to study these subjects and to equip them with the maths and science skills that are necessary for the UK to succeed in a competitive global economy. Your Life’s specific aim was to raise the status of STEM subjects and increase the number of students studying maths and physics at A-level by 50 percent within 3 years. The ultimate goal of the campaign was to boost participation in the STEM subjects in secondary education and beyond.
The campaign connected UK businesses, academic institutions and the government to motivate young people – especially girls – to take up jobs in these sectors. It was backed by the government, but all of its actions and activities were organised by the campaign’s own staff.
To reduce the skills gap in the future workforce, the campaign brought together over 170 leading businesses and institutions, who offered more than 2,000 jobs and apprenticeships. Organisations such as Google, Microsoft, Nestlé and Samsung, as well as the Science Museum, Airbus and the Royal Academy of Engineering, have provided opportunities to students in STEM subjects. These opportunities include career mentors, open days, and paid jobs for older students. Businesses associated with Your Life have committed themselves to create more than 2,000 new entry-level positions, including apprenticeships, graduate jobs and paid work.
The team working for the Your Life campaign prioritised offering experiences and information that would enable young people to make informed subject choices after the age of 16. They hoped to inspire them to study maths and physics as a gateway to wide-ranging careers, while also incentivising employers to recruit and retain young talent.
Some of Your Life’s key pillars included:
- A year-round campaign of activities connecting pupils and schools with STEM employers and careers, including the “Best School Trip” initiative, where students visited a tech or engineering company for a day to learn more about their career opportunities
- Formula 100, a schools competition which called for creative ideas for an invention and set up the 100 best entrants with a career mentor
- An in-house Your Life digital content team producing a YouTube channel
- A programme of research to understand more about how to tackle the UK STEM skills crisis.
Government officials helped the Your Life team to launch this campaign, but did not engage in any of the activities.
The public impact
From 2014 onwards, the Your Life campaign raised awareness of STEM subjects among students. “Together with some brilliant, committed corporate partners and genuinely inspirational entrepreneurs”, according to its own figures, Your Life managed to reach 23 percent of the UK’s 16-year-olds with some aspect of the campaign.
Additionally, the campaign seems to have increased the number of those considering STEM subjects. One example of this is the series of Best School Trips that were part of the campaign – opportunities for young people to visit businesses that rely on STEM skills to succeed, from Shazam to Amazon, Coca-Cola and Sky. As a result of this programme, 77 percent of students who went on just one visit said they would consider studying maths and physics.
The campaign was also valued by those who took part in it. Despite officially ending in 2017, it is now an independent community-interest company, backed by a group of world-leading businesses in the STEM space, and with the very clear objective of getting more children to study maths and physics at A-level.
The campaign’s initially stated goal was “ to increase the uptake of maths and physics A-level by 50 percent in 3 years” (see also The Initiative above). This has not been achieved: between 2013 and 2018, “the number of students studying STEM subjects at A-level has increased by [only] 9 percent”. This also comes against a backdrop of falling overall A-level exam entries. Within the campaign’s framework, no mechanisms were put in place to measure its effects, so its direct impact after four years remains unclear. “We’ve certainly moved the dial – but there’s still a long way to go”, according to Martin McCourt, non-executive director at Your Life and former CEO of Dyson.
Significant challenges remain in the take-up of STEM subjects, especially when controlling for gender effects. Recent A-level results from August 2018 illustrate a strikingly low number of girls taking STEM subjects, such as ICT. In fact, this year, only 0.4 percent of girls took ICT, compared to 1.1 percent of boys – a 0.1 percent decrease from last year. Despite entries in STEM subjects continuing to rise, with the number of students taking these subjects increasing by 3.4 per cent between 2017 and 2018, more needs to be done to encourage young women into STEM careers.
Written by Julia Schnatz
Public Confidence Fair
General public awareness of the campaign appears to have been low, making the level of public confidence hard to ascertain. Even three years after the campaign was launched, it had only just over 2,000 followers on Twitter, and only about 6,000 on Facebook. Neither the campaign’s website nor its YouTube channel still exist, which indicates that the attempt to maintain communication about the campaign with stakeholders and the general public is minimal.
However, there is evidence that there was public concern over the skills gap and the UK’s decreasing global competitiveness. The CBI voiced this concern in a 40-page Education and Skills Survey: “the number of school leavers equipped with relevant STEM skills is lagging behind current and future business needs“.
Critics of Your Life and similar campaigns have objected that any “educational culture massively focused on STEM achievement” is likely to be “one that creates very high stress and anxiety“. By pointing at the buzzword “Singaporean maths”, whereby pupils spend hours of intense maths studies late into the evening, and the “meagre fruit” the government’s policies have borne so far, critics argue in favour of a broader and more balanced curriculum. “In chasing this elite group at the top of the Pisa rankings, are we prepared to have our teenage suicide rate doubled to match theirs too?”
There was also concern from some members of the public over the partnerships formed in this campaign. A few observers noted the fact that Your Life engaged a data science company called Starcount to develop appropriate campaigning channels for different teenage audiences, which in turn led the campaign’s social media content strategy. This was controversial because Starcount was owned by Edwina Dunn, the campaign chair. Over the three-year period from 2014 to 2017, her company earned GBP84,300 from the campaign’s funds. Critics saw this connection as detrimental to the public perception of the online campaign and, as a consequence, of Your Life as a whole.
Stakeholder Engagement Strong
The Your Life Campaign’s key stakeholders – the UK’s Department for Education, actors from the education system, supporters from business and technology sectors, parents and students – were uniformly supportive of the initiative and its objectives.
The Department for Education led the engagement of all actors. The Your Life campaign initiated a call to action to UK businesses in 2014, which resulted in over 170 businesses, universities, schools and professional organisations responding and committing to a range of actions to increase STEM participation. For example, L'Oréal committed GBP155,000 in fellowships and support for female scientists, and the Science Museum put on a three-year exhibition to inspire young people to take up engineering.
Ian King, the CEO of BAE Systems, a technology-led defence, aerospace and security company based in London, says about his own company’s engagement: “engineering skills are vital to BAE Systems and the 7,500 companies in our UK supply chain and we are reliant on a pipeline of young talent taking up careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. We are supporting the Your Life campaign as part of an annual GBP80 million commitment to skills development in the UK.”
Political Commitment Strong
The Your Life campaign was spearheaded by Edwina Dunn, a British businesswoman who is best known for the creation of the Tesco Clubcard, and had an independent board of eight entrepreneurs and advocates. The campaign had the full backing of leading employers, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the UK coalition government. It was championed by the secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, who said: “if we want to make the most of half of our workforce, if we want to eliminate the gender pay gap and if we want that same half of the workforce to succeed in jobs that boost our economy, then we must make sure that teenage girls don’t feel, and certainly aren’t told, that STEM subjects are the preserve of men”.
This statement was echoed by the education minister, Elizabeth Truss: “for our children to go on and succeed in the modern world – they need maths and science”, and the Prime Minister’s Office announced the launch of the campaign on its Twitter account. The opposition parties were also supportive of the campaign.
Clear Objectives Strong
Your Life’s objectives were stated clearly in official documents from the Department for Education before and after the campaign’s launch, and were revisited during the evaluation phase. These objectives were to:
- Increase awareness of STEM subjects’ career relevance for teenagers, given the dearth of this kind of practical information
- Raise the status of STEM subjects by making them more appealing to students, and target girls with campaigns.
Combining these objectives, the Your Life campaign officially stated its goal as the “ambition to increase the uptake of maths and physics A-levels by 50 percent in 3 years” (see also The Initiative above).
In Your Life’s Campaign Impact Report, which was commissioned by the CBI and written by the management consultancy firm A.T. Kearney, the campaign’s achievements were evaluated. The report included information about Your Life’s initial objectives and how it intended to meet them:
- Working with “a team of Emmy Award winning writers” to produce a series of YouTube videos (140 videos produced with 1.5 million views)
- Organising trips to for school students to STEM employers
- Launching a competition called Formula 100 to propose a science-based, entrepreneurial invention – this “generated hundreds of entries”
- Publishing the Tough Choices report
- Designing the Future Finder app and website to connect young students with potential employers in the STEM sector
- Promoting media coverage
- Launching the STEM School Finder website, “allowing the public to find schools offering STEM A-levels”.
Two studies conducted by University College London researchers in the early 2000s identified campaigns as a useful tool to promote STEM uptake among pupils. These studies were drawn on by Edwina Dunn and her team when constructing the Your Life action plan.
In order to inform the campaign’s actions, Your Life and the CBI commissioned Tough Choices, a report developed by A.T. Kearney, which revealed the lack of knowledge among teachers and parents about prospective jobs for those studying STEM subjects. The report stated that two of the root causes of the “Great British Science Turn-Off“ were gender stereotyping – girls being steered away from science subjects – and “curriculum difficulty”, whereby teachers and parents discourage pupils from taking science subjects at A-level because they think it is harder to get good grades in them.
Building on these insights, the Your Life campaign was designed to address these shortcomings. A central insight of the research was that “interventions must be broad in terms of who is included, and must focus on removing the misconceptions and the disincentives to studying STEM beyond the age of 16”.
There were no human resources constraints for Your Life, as the campaign had its own team and many businesses supported the campaign with additional staff.
Financially, the campaign received limited government funding: even though the UK government spent a total of GBP990 million on key STEM-specific interventions between 2007 and autumn 2017, the Your Life campaign was led by the private sector and received just over GBP1 million over the course of three years. This was sufficient to finance the campaign’s planned actions and projects, because a number of businesses supported Your Life by offering apprenticeships and additional funds. However, given the campaign’s ambitious objectives and the time constraint of three years, additional funding would probably have led to better outcomes. This was especially true of the objective of creating a gender balance among STEM students.
Your Life’s actions were planned and implemented by the campaign’s own marketing team in a top-down fashion. All the planned actions and marketing events were executed successfully, such as the Formula 100 competition. Edwina Dunn, who was responsible for overseeing its results, had extensive experience of managing similar initiatives.
However, there is no further evidence of feedback loops or adjustments that were made to the campaign during the course of implementation.
To measure the effect of the campaign, Your Life commissioned the Campaign Impact Report shortly before the campaign drew to a close. The most precise metric in the report was the percentage of students taking maths and science subjects at A-level. As statistics from the Joint Council of Qualifications indicate, the percentages of entries in these subjects barely increased between 2014 and 2017, the years when Your Life was active. Absolute numbers increased for maths and physics, while they fell for biology and chemistry:
- “In 2014, 83,200 students took maths A-level – in 2017 this had risen to 88,830
- “Biology 2014 – 58,090 and in 2017 fallen to 56,950
- “Chemistry 2014 – 49,130 and in 2017 – 48,760
- “Physics 2014 – 33,590 and in 2017 – 33,840.”
Assuming a time-lag between the campaign and its true impact, it is useful to look at the figures from 2018: “the number of students studying STEM subjects at A-level has increased by 37 percent in ten years and 9 percent over five years. This comes against a backdrop of falling overall A-level exam entries.”
However, these numbers do not fully illustrate how well the campaign was able to raise awareness of STEM subjects, since this effect is hard to measure in isolation and the campaigners did not specify any metrics to gauge impact. It also falls short of monitoring gender-specific effects, since the numbers of female STEM students remains particularly disappointing.
With a lack of skills being one of the biggest threats to UK competitiveness, employers and the government share an interest in closing the skills gap by increasing the number of STEM students. The government has declared its intent by launching a wide range of programmes alongside Your Life, all of which are aimed at promoting STEM subjects, each with a specific focus, ranging from the subject-specific (e.g. Further Mathematics Support) to profession-driven (e.g. engineering) to campaigns supporting gender diversity.