Speech: Big Bang @ Parliament: the importance of STEM

Can I welcome you all to the House of Commons and thank you for inviting me to this event. It is thrilling to see so many young engineers of today, coming together with the engineers of tomorrow, and sharing their enthusiasm for the subject.

I am actually rather surprised to be talking to a group of engineers. When my office received the invitation for me to attend an event named ‘Big Bang @ Parliament’, scheduled for 5 November, they assumed – quite understandably – that I would be addressing a group of history enthusiasts celebrating the 410th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.

I hear that the pupils of Morpeth Chantry Middle School have been displaying their project into burning metal salts to give different firework colours today, which sounds like a rather dangerous thing to do in such a historic building: I hope that you don’t succeed where Guy Fawkes failed.

Those of you who have studied the story of Guy Fawkes may remember what happened to Fawkes’s accomplices after they escaped and went into hiding from the King’s troops at a house in Staffordshire. Their gunpowder had become damp in the rain, so they laid out the powder in front of a fireplace to dry.

No prizes for guessing what happened next. A stray spark caught the powder, causing an explosion which injured 1 plotter, and blinded another. They were then easy to catch, and the rest is history.

The moral of the story is that scientific ignorance costs lives.

On a more serious note, this government is absolutely dedicated to increasing the popularity of science and maths amongst young people, and increasing its uptake at GCSE and A level.

The sciences have long suffered from a bit of an image problem in Britain, but organisations such as EngineeringUK are doing magnificent work to ensure that STEM subjects – those being science, technology, engineering and maths – are seen as fascinating and relevant, and, importantly, a gateway towards exciting and rewarding careers.

Some here may have read a report published 2 weeks ago by the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Based on a survey of 1,000 people in each of the world’s 10 largest economies, it found that just over 1 in 5 British teenagers expressed an interest in an engineering career, compared with half of young Germans and more than two-thirds of Chinese youngsters.

Revealingly, in emerging economies such as China and India, the gender split in such interest was minimal. In the UK, fewer than half the proportion of women showed an interest in engineering compared with men.

This shows the extent of the challenge. Our economy is growing, and more than ever skilled graduates are in demand from engineering, science and hi-tech firms. As the CBI‘s 2015 Education and Skills survey found, 44% of relevant firms reported difficulties recruiting STEM graduates last year. And according to EngineeringUK, there will be 257,000 new jobs created by 2022 in engineering.

In short, for those pupils here who are already interested in science and engineering, I recommend they continue to work hard and pursue this interest: you will never be short of job offers and opportunities in the years to come.

The good news is that entries for STEM subjects at A level have experienced significant growth since 2010, thanks in no small part to the work of organisations such as EngineeringUK, and events such as the Big Bang Fair.

Since 2010, there has been a 15% jump in entries for physics A level, a 15% jump in entries for chemistry, and a 27% jump in entries for further maths.

Today, mathematics is the most popular A level subject, with 82,000 entries in 2015. All told, there were 28,000 more entries for science and maths A levels in 2015 compared with 2010 – a 14% increase. Vitally, our campaigns to promote women in science have resulted in 12,000 more STEM A level entries for women over the same period.

In addition, due to this government’s apprenticeships scheme, there have been 336,300 apprenticeship starts in the engineering and manufacturing technologies sector since May 2010.

But we still need more scientists and mathematicians to meet the demands of our growing economy.

As all pupils here will testify, the secret to creating the next generation of enthusiastic scientists is having a current generation of inspiring teachers. That is why this government has announced a package of £67 million to train an additional 2,500 teachers and upskill 15,000 non-specialist teachers in maths and physics. In addition, from 2016 we will be offering bursaries and scholarships of up to £30,000 to attract top science and mathematics graduates into teaching.

Key to boosting numbers will, of course, be encouraging more female pupils to enter STEM subjects. I am delighted to see so many female pupils here today. Yet, it remains unacceptable that 25,000 boys were entered for physics A level in 2015, compared with only 6,800 girls. The idea that still lingers in the UK that maths and physics are somehow ‘boyish’ subjects is absurd, and as I mentioned earlier, does not exist to anywhere near the same extent in developing economies such as India and China.

I am pleased to see that change is already afoot in mathematics – the number of female pupils entering mathematics A level has almost doubled from 16,381 in 2002, to 31,844 this year. I hope that all of the female pupils in this room will play a part in this growing trend.

I have enormous admiration for the way in which the Big Bang has grown over the last few years. I was delighted to be amongst the nearly 70,000 visitors to the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham which I opened earlier this year. I hope you will all enjoy next year’s event as much as I did.

I look forward to hearing your questions, and finding out more about your projects.

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