STEM and the Arts: A Story of Pride and Prejudice

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Chris Targett
8 October 2016

There is a broad narrative running through some parts of the education and careers sectors that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is a better choice than the Arts for future career progression. On the surface it seems a harmless statement, especially when there is so much growth in some of the STEM sectors, which has been acknowledged for the last few years, and the historically peripatetic work, decline and redundancies in some areas of the Arts. Yet, it is in the last sentence where there is a slight catch; “some areas”.

We must be clear that it is only in “some areas” that there is growth in STEM and in contrast, there are some areas in the STEM sector where there are limited opportunities, compared to the number of students pursuing these opportunities. For example, “Forensic Science”, which shows as an area of growth on the National Careers website, but when we investigate more closely we see that the amount of work available is very different. The Forensic Science sector recruits about 200 graduates a year, but there are currently about 1500 forensic science graduates being produced each year by UK universities, so there is strong competition for jobs. By the same token, there are “some areas” in the Arts where there is limited scope for work and “some areas” where there are plenty of jobs and indeed growth. One area where this has been visible is the rise of tattoo parlours (Arts) and reduction in dedicated photography processing shops (Technology) in the last decade.

A blanket message either way, to choose STEM or the Arts, is at risk of jeopardising not only areas of the economy but also the aspirations of those weighing up their choices, if the message isn’t balanced or transparent in its agenda. If there is not balanced careers guidance combined with research by students, we may have more situations of individuals blindly choosing Forensic Science Degrees with the aim of working in the sector, without the awareness of the lack of opportunities therein. We may also loose swathes of talented students who have the rare gift of being not only Artistic but, Mathematical as well. A rare and crucial combination well suited to the expanding VFX sector. We may lose these students to the sector purely because they chose the wrong options in Year 8 or 9 and didn’t grow their Art skills due to the misinformation or marketing they received at the time.

There is also the broader context to consider, which is the weighting of options in favour of “traditional” subjects through the Government’s current Ebacc and Progress 8 policy. This has already caused reverberations in education as well as knock on side effects on the Arts and related subjects. In many schools this year there has been a narrowing of the options they are able to offer students. We may have a generation travelling through the education system who will be bereft of the option of taking a broad Arts education and the specific and wider transferable skills which come with this. We are already seeing the effects of this in applications to Art based University courses, which have taken a significant drop and are at risk of continuing to do so.

With regards to the wider Ebacc syllabus, these subjects do have their place and this should be emphasised, with useful and significant skills gained that can be used in a variety of fields. For example, History forming the basis of the analytical skills required to study Law, and Modern Foreign Languages for working in the tourism industry, whether as a hairdresser, holiday rep or, being used in international business or finance. However, if the related performance measures reduce the chances of gaining other skills, due to the pressure on schools of how they must timetable or focus their time, we lose the balance in the education system for other skills; from the Arts through too traditional Technology subjects such as Catering and Textiles.

As with individuals with limited skills, a one sided work force with skills in only one area is not an adaptable work force. We must remain prepared for an unknown future where it is nearly impossible to accurately gauge what skills maybe needed; to do so we need individuals with not only academic skills but creative problem solving and practical skills as well.

Sadly, we have been here before in recent education and labour market history. Within ICT and Computer Science the teaching shifted at the end of the twentieth century from Computer Science to how to use a computer instead. Programming and hardware skills were replaced with word processing; as a generation we lost our skills in coding. Due to industry demand and a skills shortage we have now seen how the syllabus is shifting back from ICT to Computing. Do we wish to be in the same situation fifteen years from now within the Arts and related subjects?

So, what can we do?

Perhaps the most straight forward message should be to encourage clients to “check their facts” and not believe the hype from any source; perhaps a useful life skill in itself. If they are exploring a career in STEM, they should check what is and isn’t possible and how much work is available, using more than one source of data. Not only in general terms but specifically for the areas which interests them. If considering the Arts, they should look at where the work is and isn’t (see our previous blog article “The dichotomy of data in career decisions”). For those with the ability and desire, they should look at where their skills in both can combine within STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) careers; as there are many quirky opportunities for this.

For the younger students in Year 8 or 9 choosing their options, we can discuss with them the reality of the labour market, and acknowledge the lack of complete data sets to aid their decisions (which is why they need to use more than one source of LMI to cross reference) and explain to them how careers evolve. They need to understand that jobs will change, there will be new ones and some old ones will decline. We must remember they are not expected to know what they wish to do at twelve or thirteen and that this is normal, when we look at developmental theories of guidance.

We can also give them tools and concepts to help prepare them, such as discussing the benefits of selecting a wide range of option choices, and help them to undertake careers research to widen their understanding of what is out there and how the labour market is changing; this of course requires better access to high quality and reliable labour market information. We can also give them the facts regarding which subjects can be picked up later at A-level if not taken for GCSE (e.g. Business) and which can’t (e.g. MFL). This must sit alongside guidance with regards how some jobs require essential subjects.

As educationalists, we also have a duty to preface any message we give with the facts, to ensure it is balanced. Journalists are required to present both sides of any story, so should we, otherwise, it will be to the detriment of future generations. It is these messages which students pick up on in school; a throw away comment by a teacher can have huge consequences on the decisions that young people make. So let us make every comment count and be careful of the messages we send out to those in our care. We need to ensure they are balanced, informed and not one sided, based on pride or prejudice.

Written by: Chris Targett

This article was first published on the CXK Blog on Wednesday 1st June 2016

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