There is a clear class barrier when it comes to careers in science: 15% of scientists come from working-class households; 44% of UK born and educated Nobel prize winners in the last 25 years received their education in a fee-paying school – despite only 7% of the UK population being privately educated.
Every organisation involved in STEM has outreach programmes for underrepresented groups in the sector. Yet social class is still a barrier. This is compounded in areas of worsening social deprivation where there’s been little or no investment over many years. It’s clear there is a systemic blind spot that needs to be addressed in order to broaden our talent pool of potential scientists and level up access to careers in the sciences.
Recognising the barriers
The Careers and Enterprise Company identify several barriers, including capability (eg the need to prioritise meeting basic needs over making career decisions), opportunity (eg social networking) and structural (eg geographical and financial).
Social disadvantage often pits student aspirations against competing pressures. Repeated social mobility reports from the UK government show clear links between poverty and limited access to healthcare, poor-quality housing and lower life expectancy, as well as potential obstacles such as cases of trauma and poor well-being.
Additionally, socially disadvantaged students may have limited social networks to draw on when exploring career options. This places a reliance on schools to provide up-to-date and comprehensive careers information. However, teachers (understandably) lack the expertise to provide knowledge of non-academic routes into science careers, or the advice they give may be skewed by their own experience.
All is not lost. The problem of class and careers in science can be improved through establishing working relationships between science employers and schools
Geographical barriers mean young people often face a move to more affluent regions in pursuit of a career, placing further challenges on them in terms of social networks and a loss of connection with or identity linked to their community. And this is if they make it through higher education, where the percentage of working-class students dropping out remains higher than any other socioeconomic group.
Financial barriers include the need to consider immediate earning potential, the cost of travel (often a barrier for quality work experience) and the need to contribute to the family household income. It’s not surprising that students from working-class backgrounds often explore career options and make decisions later than their peers.
Industry and schools working together
Evidence supports the experience of careers leaders in areas of social deprivation: class-based stereotypes reduce career motivation and self-efficacy, in turn placing perceived restrictions on the educational and careers options available to young people either by themselves or by families. High achieving students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are four times less likely to have high career aspirations in comparison to more affluent peers.
But all is not lost. The problem of class and careers in science can be improved through establishing working relationships between science employers and schools – facilitated by school careers leaders. It’s a case of all stakeholders understanding the needs of schools, employers and the young people involved.
I firmly believe that organisations like the Royal Society of Chemistry are well placed to facilitate connections between schools and industry
I’d like to see more scientific employers embracing post-16 and post-18 degree-level apprenticeships. Students benefit from the purpose these bring to science education, and they bridge the gap between the need to earn money and the opportunity to work in a challenging and rewarding field.
In the combined regions of the East Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber, only 48% of schools with positive Ofsted comments on careers explicitly linked curriculum learning to career paths. As a careers lead in one of the most deprived areas of the UK, I firmly believe that organisations like the Royal Society of Chemistry are well placed to facilitate connections between schools and industry. This kind of support will increase the number of encounters students have with employers in science, providing social capital and networking opportunities regardless of socioeconomic status. As scientists we always have an eye on the future and the impact of our fields on society. Encouraging the next generation of scientists to be representative of society is an important factor for us all.