Norfolk in a lucky position for budding scientists, engineers and technicians
- Credit: UNIVERSITY OF EAST ANGLIA
Across Britain there is a national skills shortage among school and university leavers in the increasingly-important areas of science, technology, engineering and maths.
SOPHIE WYLLIE reports on what Norfolk is doing to buck the trend from grass roots level.
'If you are in Norfolk and thinking about a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) you are very lucky. There are so many opportunities,'
That is the view of Dr Simon Fox, Flegg High School principal, who is at the forefront of countywide projects encouraging STEM.
For the past two years he has been leading the Youth STEMM Award for Norfolk high schools, which allows pupils to learn about industries specialising in these areas.
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The Flegg High School principal said: 'The determination to have students experience STEM subjects is there. When you look at the standards of education in Norfolk over the past two years, they have improved.
'Norfolk has bucked the national trend over the last two years and increased the number of apprenticeships on offer.'
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Current employment opportunities include the Norwich Research Park - a partnership between the John Innes Centre, Institute of Food Research, Genome Analysis Centre and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital - and offshore firms.
Outreach programmes to encourage youngsters into STEM professions are also run by the John Innes Centre and University of East Anglia.
Challenges to STEM teaching
But despite more secondary schools focusing on STEM through qualifications and extra curricular activities, Dr Fox believes the main challenge remains lack of funding and a struggle to recruit highly-skilled teachers.
There is also the continuing problem of keeping girls and youngsters from low aspiration areas interested in pursuing careers in these areas.
Dr Fox said: 'It is about making the language around STEM more prevalent much earlier so children get into it at home as well as at school.'
In terms of getting girls and people from low aspiration areas interested, he added: 'It is about changing perceptions and redressing the balance.'
One way to improve that would be language used during careers advice.
Some 69,000 engineers are needed in Britain each year and only 9pc of the nation's professional engineers are women.
Dr Fox said there was a pressure from the government on schools to teach a 'broad and balanced curriculum' but schools were finding sensible ways to teach the STEM.
'These subjects are vital to the wider economy. But you cannot divorce them from the creative subjects. You need to create a workforce that is creative and flexible,' Dr Fox added.
Call for greater careers guidance
Alex Hayes, principal of University Technical College Norfolk on Old Hall Road, Norwich, said students needed 'more guidance' about what was happening in the world of work which was 'moving so quickly'.
The school has links to engineering, science and technology firms and is for 14-18-year-olds.
It focuses on high-level maths, science, computing and engineering qualifications.
Mr Hayes said: 'We were set up because there was a skills gap in Norfolk. We are seeing a big growth in demand for computing and engineering. If you are a girl with an interest in these areas you are in a fantastic position because employers will snap you up.'
He believes more focus should be placed on STEM rather than the current broader curriculum featuring the arts.
Mr Hayes added: 'That is a very traditional and old-fashioned curriculum in the 21st century.'
A need to celebrate science
Samantha Fox, John Innes Centre research scientist, said there had been some good teaching of STEM in Norfolk for a long time but it had not been celebrated.
She said schools faced ongoing funding challenges as well as problems balancing STEM teaching with allowing students to experience relevant industries.
Mrs Fox believed it was a shame fewer girls took up STEM professions and put the problem down to how they were portrayed.
She said: 'Scientists in the past have been guilty about not speaking about their achievements. It is about broadening horizons and raising aspirations. Schools engaging with the industry is important.'
Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, who is interested in business and life sciences, said: 'As we look to a future outside the EU, and with the digital revolution changing the world around us as we speak, excelling in the STEM will be more important than ever to the economic future of Norfolk.'
University Technical College case study
Increasing numbers of students are looking into
STEM apprenticeships rather than university, according to a group of ambitious students.
The pupils from University Technical College Norfolk on Old Hall Road, Norwich, who all specialise in high-level science, technology, engineering and maths courses have also spoken about the benefits of these subjects.
George Elmar, 17, from Postwick, who has applied to the Royal Navy for a marine engineer aircraft apprenticeship, said: 'You are guaranteed a job at the end of an apprenticeship. Rather than going to university people are leaning more towards apprenticeships.
People are realising they are not for those who dropped out of school. They can be done at a high level.'
Post university debt was also a big factor in putting off teenagers from going onto degrees.
Speaking about his experience of learning at the University Technical College Norfolk, one of 48 similar centres in Britain, said: 'It is so different to conventional teaching. Normally you are sat in a classroom but here you can be hands on. It is a different way of learning and for a lot of people a better way.'
Chloe Harris, 18, from Dereham, who has also applied to the Royal Navy to study an apprenticeship in advanced weapons engineering, said: 'We can go into work places from here already knowing the right skills. There is a lot of opportunity in engineering.'
She added girls might be put off the industry because it was perceived as a 'dirty job' but that was not the case.
'In every single company, engineering is involved.'
University of East Anglia STEM workshops benefiting youngsters
A leading scientist has said efforts by the University of East Anglia (UEA) to encourage science among Norfolk youngsters is paying off.
Dr Carl Harrington, UEA outreach officer, said university students and specialists are running programmes to promote science and the further university study of the subject for Year 8 and Year 9 pupils as well as post-16 students.
He said: 'We can see there is an impact in inspiring the next generation. The teachers at the schools we speak to are really enthusiastic and want to promote the subjects as much as possible.'
He added the East of England was a 'science hub' which in turn was a big driver for the area's economy.
'We need scientists,' said Dr Harrington.
Dr Stephen Laycock, senior lecturer in the school of computing sciences and associate dean of admissions for science at the UEA, said: 'The number of students studying STEM subjects at university has been gradually increasing and at UEA we have seen an increased demand in particular for computing, engineering and biological science degrees.
'This is possibly a reflection of the employment prospects which are strong in STEM subjects.'