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Girls in STEM

In celebration of International Women's Day and British Science Week, Natalie Johnston, Head of Teaching and Learning at Rendcomb College, tells us how this progressive all-through school is championing girls in STEM

Despite outperforming boys at GCSE level, fewer girls nationally go on to take maths and sciences at A-level, and even fewer continue with those subjects at university. According to figures from Wise Campaign, in 2017 women made up only 23 per cent of those in STEM occupations across the country.

Step forward Rendcomb College, champions of girls in STEM. We picked the brains of Head of Teaching and Learning, Natalie Johnston, about just how Rendcomb are bucking the national trend and encouraging a lifelong love of science across the whole school.

I understand that according to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) at present less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women. What is the percentage of girls taking STEM subjects at Rendcomb?

We are very proud of our uptake of girls taking STEM subjects here. Last year 72% of female students took at least one A-level in a STEM subject, and this year 86% of female students will take at least one.

Unless we encourage more girls to take subjects such as physics and computing, there is a risk that girls will miss out on jobs of the future. Digital skills are becoming increasingly important– the recent Tech Nation 2017 report2 found that, in the UK, the digital economy is growing 50% faster than the wider economy with average salaries 44% higher. Girls must be supported and encouraged to take technology qualifications, such as Computing A-level, so they don’t miss out on the well-paying jobs of the future. The UK has a major skills shortage in engineering and technology, and we need more girls helping us to solve the problems of the world. Encouraging a love of STEM from an early age is good for girls and is better for all of us. Research shows girls need to be engaged in these subjects by the age of ten in order to sustain their interest through their school career.

How is Rendcomb championing girls in STEM? How does this show itself throughout the school – through Nursery, Prep and Senior School?

High numbers of female entrants in STEM subjects at Rendcomb College is a culmination of the positive female STEM culture that exists through the Junior and Senior Schools. Starting as young as 3-years-old in our Nursery, gender socialisation is balanced towards STEM. All children, irrelevant of gender, are encouraged to follow their STEM passions and talents. Every child in Nursery and Reception was gifted ‘Little Miss Investor’ at World Book Day 2018 and the Junior School Library is well stocked with material that challenges unconscientious gender bias in STEM.

Junior School pupils regularly visit the Senior School’s STEM labs and classrooms which increases their exposure to positive female STEM role models. Challenging gender serotypes at College is relatively easy; excellent female teaching staff are present throughout the Science, Maths and DT departments, with many taking roles of responsibility. At Key Stage 3, teaching fosters positive and creative STEM experiences for both genders. Pupils with an interest in the ethics of cutting-edge advancements in STEM are welcomed to the Bioethics Debating Society, led by a female Biology teacher. Last year I had the pleasure of being shortlisted as a finalist in the Biology Teacher of Year Award run by the Royal Society of Biology; the only female in a shortlist of three.

How else are you supporting the cause? 

In addition to timetabled lessons, pupils have an opportunity to participate in activities led by female members of staff including Dissection Club and Marine Biology. Pupils have many opportunities to interact with positive female role models. From Year 10, pupils with aspirations for medicine or veterinary science have the opportunity to attend our Med-Vet Society which is co-ordinated by a female Chemistry teacher who is also the Assistant Head of Sixth Form.

All Year 9 pupils are entered into the Biology Challenge and Maths Challenge and have sessions with the Space Dome. Computer Science here is staffed with male teachers, but they are a department which champions women in STEM; in 2016, an all-female team won £25,000 in the Longitude Explorer Prize (a national technology and computing competition) for their app invention which links charities to refugees and the homeless. In 2017, three all-female teams from Year 9 and 10 entered the GCHQ Cyber Challenge and in 2018, female students outnumbered their male counterparts at the Cyber Roadshow hosted at Rendcomb. So it’s not hard to see why gender parity is being achieved in GCSE STEM subjects, particularly in Computer Science which is a rare occurrence in schools. Gold Awards in the Royal Society of Biology’s Biology Challenge and they are picking up numerous honours in the UK Mathematical Challenge. This year, a female student is the lead member of the Engineering Enterprise Scheme Team for 3D CAD in a project that will progress to a Gold CREST Award through working with TE Connectivity.  Finally, the Tweetchat on the emerging field of Epigenetics as part of Science Week and was co-ordinated by a female Biology teacher. More importantly, over half of the scientific experts and most notably, the keynote participant scientists were female.

What are your plans going forward in this area?​ 

Continue with all of the above! We are strengthening our links with local primary schools and we already do a lot of outreach; we hope to build on this to cover all STEM subject and the broader curriculum. We look to our alumni who work in STEM to return to Rendcomb to talk to current students about careers and different career pathways. We have fortnightly Brainy Break sessions and we will continue to highlight female achievements and encourage our students to attend. We will also be revamping our display boards around the science department with role models and photos of STEM scientists.

Why not check it out for yourself? Open dates include their Junior School Open Morning and Forest School event on Fri 17 May, 9.30am to 12noon, sign up here.

Rendcomb College, Cirencester, Glos GL7 7HA, tel: 01285 831213, rendcombcollege.org.uk

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