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Connecting women and opportunity

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Connecting women and opportunity

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Removing gender imbalance and increasing social mobility by changing attitudes to STEM careers – Julie Randles, Director of Programmes and Partnerships at the Sutton Trust


Julie Randles is Director of Programmes and Partnerships at the Sutton Trust, a think-tank and a ‘do-tank’, founded to improve social mobility through education. Prior to joining the Sutton Trust, Julie has had a varied career working for not-for-profit organisations such as Save the Children UK, The British Refugee Council and in the children’s book industry. She has an M.A. in English from the University of St. Andrews and an M.B.A. from the University of Stirling. 

Julie Randles - Sutton Trust
Julie Randles

“…Low social mobility and lack of educational opportunity is arguably the biggest social challenge of our times: the income gap between the richest and poorest in society continues to widen, while education opportunities remain overwhelmingly dominated by children from the most privileged homes…”

My career path in widening participation

I was the first person in my family to be educated past the age of 16, and I went to what at the time was a low-performing school, so I very much have a widening participation background. The key things that made a difference for me was having parents who thought I should go to university, even if they didn’t know how to help me do it, and that I was a huge reader- reading for pleasure as a child is one of the biggest indicators of future success, much more so that just reading, and I have always been passionate about developing that habit in as many children as possible.

So I spent much of my career in the children’s books industry, spending a large proportion of it with an organisation that worked with schools to develop a love of reading for pleasure. From there I went to Save the Children to work on its UK schools programmes, so it was an easy step to the Sutton Trust, where the role fitted with so much of my interest and experience.

The work of the Sutton Trust

The Sutton Trust was founded in 1997 by Sir Peter Lampl to improve social mobility through education. As well as being a think-tank, the Sutton Trust is a ‘do-tank,’ having funded over 200 programmes, commissioned over 170 research studies and influenced Government education policy by pushing social mobility to the top of the political agenda.

We work to combat educational inequality and prevent the subsequent waste of talent. We are particularly concerned with breaking the link between educational opportunities and family background, and in realising a system in which young people are given the chance to prosper, regardless of their family background, school or neighbourhood.

Low social mobility and lack of educational opportunity is arguably the biggest social challenge of our times: the income gap between the richest and poorest in society continues to widen, while education opportunities remain overwhelmingly dominated by children from the most privileged homes.

As disadvantage starts before young people are born and continues through to the workplace, the Trust’s work covers parenting and early years projects, primary and secondary schooling and access to university and the professions. At later ages we have a particular focus on academically talented young people with the potential to study at leading, highly-selective universities.

Pathways to STEM

Our research identified a strong and growing demand for STEM graduates in the workplace but found there was a significant under-representation of those from low socio-economic backgrounds at entry and higher levels. We launched Pathways to STEM this year to improve access to STEM degrees and the wide range of careers they open up, as well as widening the talent pool from which leading universities and employers can recruit.

The Pathways to STEM programme supports academically able state school students from low-income families to access the most selective STEM university courses and provide them with the foundation for a STEM career through the development of soft skills, a work placement, careers advice and a mentor.

This year the programme will support 300 students. It includes a range of sessions for students, parents and teachers, including tailored education and careers advice; academic classes in STEM subjects; sessions to develop non-academic skills; a residential summer school; work experience in a relevant STEM setting; and a mentor from the STEM sector.

Differences in uptake of STEM subjects across the genders

A 2014 report from WISE, the campaign to promote women in science, technology and engineering, found marked difference in the gender balance of STEM undergraduate courses. Just 14% of those achieving an Engineers & Technology degree in 2014 were women, a figure only slightly lower than Computer Science (17%). This imbalance transferred to the workplace too and they found that just 13% of all those working in jobs classed as STEM are women.

Girls now outperform boys at almost all stages of education so it’s clear that this is not down to ability. Widening participation to STEM jobs involves changing attitudes and stereotypes so that jobs classed as STEM are aspirational career choices for girls and boys of all backgrounds. 

Maths – becoming ever more important in our lives

More and more people think that maths is becoming redundant, thanks to the rise of the smartphone. But the reality is maths is becoming ever more important in our lives. It is at the heart of everyday technology from our tablets to the increased automation in daily tasks from driving to shopping.

Unlike most other developed countries where the majority of pupils study maths to 18, only 13% of our young people study maths at an advanced level beyond GCSE. Making maths compulsory to 18 will help the UK to develop the next generation of tech innovators, programmers and coders, but to do this we need to make sure the new advanced qualification will equip all young people with a practical application for the maths skills they learned at GCSE.

Encouraging girls to keep studying maths

In Britain we have a strangely perverse attitude towards maths. People will happily say they are no good with numbers, but to shrug-off illiteracy in the same way would be unthinkable. The traditional stereotype of maths being a male-dominated subject means this attitude is likely to be more prevalent amongst girls. And research this year by the Your Life campaign showed that only 1 in 31 girls taking A-levels are taking maths plus physics, which is often the first step to a STEM career.

Just as we need to encourage more disadvantaged pupils to keep studying maths and other STEM subjects past GCSE, we need to encourage more girls to do the same. We need to engage with them early on, at the start of secondary school and even before. Good careers advice is important too and every pupil needs to have access to high-quality advice on the career options available to them, including those that studying maths can open up. 

Challenges faced when tackling social mobility issues

AbacusThe Sutton Trust published a seminal study in 2005 that gave us an important insight into Britain’s social mobility problems. Researchers at the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE compared data from children born in the 1950s with the 1970s. Worryingly, they found that social mobility had declined in that period and Britain’s social mobility score was lower than Canada, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, and level with the United States.

The reason social mobility had declined for those born in the 1970s was because of an increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment as well as growing wealth inequality.

That’s why we believe that levelling the playing field at school is the best way to improve our low levels of social mobility. To do this we need to make sure that all young people have access to great teaching, good schools and a rich and varied curriculum.

But educational opportunities don’t end at the school gates. We know from research how beneficial an engaged parent can be to their child’s learning. The Education Endowment Foundation, of which I am a trustee, is currently trialling a number of different strategies to find out how best to do this, from texting parents to parenting academies. 

Up and coming work for the Sutton Trust

We run a number of different summer schools so the next few months will be particular busy for the Trust’s programmes team. This year over 2,000 Year 12 students from disadvantaged backgrounds will take part in our UK Summer Schools at 11 leading universities. The subject-specific residential courses consist not only of lectures, seminars and tutorials, but also a varied programme of social activities, to give students an idea of what life is like for an undergraduate at a top university.

We’ll also be taking 150 students to the U.S. for our U.S. Programme residentials at Yale and MIT, and running Teacher Summer Schools to help teachers support their pupils to make strong applications to university.

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