Tag Archives: Cambridge

Students with STEM subjects increasingly in demand

Early Friday evening, whilst standing in the senior school reception area, I become aware of a steady crocodile of Year 8 students arriving at the front door with overnight cases and sleeping bags.  Initially perplexed, I quickly recollected that this was the night of the science sleepover.  Our brilliant science staff had arranged an exciting evening of science with birds of prey let loose in the hall, an amazing array of cool scientific experiments and a showing of “Up” to cap an evening of scientific fun.  Whether the girls slept is of course a moot point.

Events like this really matter.  Schools should encourage a genuine interest in science.  In today’s world, where scientific literacy is arguably as important as literacy and numeracy, students must really engage with their learning so it is learnt for life and not just for the next test.  I therefore applaud the opening of the new Science Centre in Jesus Lane with a brief to offer science outreach to schools.  In a city with a global reputation for scientific innovation and more Nobel Prize winners than you can shake a stick at, it seems wholly appropriate that schools should enjoy access to a dedicated resource designed to enhance learning in science.

This imperative is of course part of a broader educational issue. Here in Cambridge where Silicon Fenenjoys a symbiotic relationship with the university, there is a real emphasis on STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  And the entrepreneurs who imagine our future are greedy for young talent; their problem is that not enough young people are interested.  An interesting statistic for me relates to the number of women who enter careers in STEM.  As STEM careers outpace job growth in all other industries, women hold only 17% of jobs in science and technology in the UK – a figure decreasing yearly. Given that 80% of jobs in the next decade are likely to require significant technical skills there clearly is a crisis brewing.

Yet inspiration is at hand.  The community of entrepreneurs in Cambridge are acutely conscious that more needs to be done to encourage young people to pursue STEM subjects.  Essentially the cavalry has been called in aka Silicon Valley Comes to the UK (SVC2UK).  For the last two years successful entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley in the States have come over en masse to visit schools – they also squeeze in trips to Downing Street and Cambridge University.  Their mission?: to unlock the mystery of entrepreneurship to a British audience and the vital importance of STEM.

We are delighted that our school has enjoyed visits from a range of hugely successful and interesting entrepreneurs.  The most recent visit is captured in a film produced by SVC2UK:  http://youtube.com/watch?v=ec7IGJsOb38i.

The visiting entrepreneurs made a huge impression on our students.  What is exciting to me is the possibility of sharing their inspiration with other schools.  This is where Sherry Coutu enters the fray @scoutu.  Sherry, a successful entrepreneur and a driving force behind SVC2UK, is determined to offer this opportunity to half a million students.  Not a woman to be daunted by a number, her team is devising a clever method of making this possible.  We are delighted that SVC2UK wants to work with The Stephen Perse Foundation in piloting this scheme.  My role is to act as an ambassador, encouraging as many schools as possible to become involved.  My twitter platform is a fantastic conduit for spreading the news.

So the challenge is clear – the gauntlet is down.  A generation of young people face a world of opportunities.  Let’s make it happen.

Culture Bacc

Working as I do in the city of Cambridge, I enjoy access to a hugely rich cultural life.  I am very appreciative of this and will never take for granted the beautiful city architecture or abundant opportunities to enjoy the arts.  Here culture truly inspires.

Andrew Lloyd Webber: picture Joel Ryan/PA Wire

Andrew Lloyd Webber: picture Joel Ryan/PA Wire

Indeed culture was the focus of a fascinating series of programmes on Radio 4 in the New Year. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg, the concept of culture was subjected to forensic scrutiny.  What does culture actually mean?  It became clear to me that the culture I enjoy in Cambridge is only one subset of a broader definition of culture; culture is a word which is enmeshed in nuanced connotations.  For example, there is high culture and there is culture defined by social anthropology.  I was greatly struck by Christopher Frayling’s definition of culture.  Interestingly, as former Chair of the Arts Council, he discussed a spectrum of culture, ranging from elite to popular, all of which should be valued.  He cited, as an example, a visit he had made to Ireland as Chair of the Arts Council where he was promoting the arts.  He was challenged by someone in the audience about the value of popular culture – the specific example given was terrier racing in Dingle, County Kerry which was an integral part of local life.  Was not this also valuable to society? Did it not have its place in a hierarchy of culture?

The evolutionary nature of culture is also pertinent. Today the work of the composer Puccini is seen as the preserve of a social elite, whereas contemporaries viewed Puccini as their Andrew Lloyd-Webber.  The pop music of the sixties and seventies was viewed as ephemeral at the time but the reverential reaction to a recent single by David Bowie demonstrates how important this music is within our culture.

Whilst listening to the Radio 4 programme, I wondered what culture meant to young people in our schools.  If asked what they valued, how would they respond?  Given the digital world which envelops them, the potential to personalise their exposure to culture is virtually infinite.  In music, they no longer have to purchase an entire album for the tracks they enjoy; they can devise their own unique playlists.  Watching films or TV programmes can happen anytime, anywhere as long as you have a digital device.  And a young person need never visit a library, that icon of culture, because they can download the books they want to read.  This tailored consumerism is arguably creating a kaleidoscope of culture where it is no longer a spectrum shared by many but silos populated by individuals.

Why does this matter?  It matters because culture is integral to who we are by any definition.  It is now generally agreed, contrary to Matthew Arnold’s view, articulated in his seminal Sheldonian lectures in the mid nineteenth century, that culture does not make us better people in a moral sense.  However, John Maynard Keynes’ belief in the capacity of culture to create aspiration is, for me, very compelling.  My own life was transformed when at school I was exposed to the arts, offering me a window into a world very different from my own.

I feel passionately about how culture in our schools can be transformative.  It matters that the curricular life of a school is enriched by the arts.  It matters that, through sharing what we value culturally, we lift the ambition of our young people.  And it matters more than ever today when the current Secretary of State for Education appears to have a very utilitarian approach, driven seemingly by the current economic climate, rather than an ambition to encourage aspiration to transform the lives of our young people.   Functionalism and utility are threatening the capacity of schools to create this vitally important culture of aspiration.

This is the critical point. Last week Christine Gilbert, former Chief Inspector of Ofsted and a co-author of the report commissioned by the Academies Commission, although broadly supportive of academies, was adamant that changing the structure of schools alone will not bring about the changes Michael Gove seeks in our schools.  The ethos of a school is what will truly affect the lives of young people. And the school must value culture.