As students return to secondary schools across the country, Edwina Dunn is urging pupils – as well as parents and teachers – to ditch their obsession with achieving As and A*s in “easier” subjects to study the courses which might actually get them a job.
Continuing her rallying cry for science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem), the queen of the UK data industry is demanding a rethink in schools amid claims that other nations are already “streets ahead”.
The co-founder of DunnHumby, who is now chief executive of Starcount, said: “This relentless focus on just one metric is contributing to a pressing skills crisis that could be profoundly damaging for the UK’s economy.
“It’s clear that the future of business is digital. From data sciences to the Internet of Things, technological innovation is accelerating rapidly and it is creating new jobs that require digital knowledge and numerical analytics.”
Writing in CityAM, Dunn bemoans the fact that these skills are not accelerating in our workforce at the same rate, insisting it is quite the opposite.
She added: “The CBI has identified the gap in graduate skills in as the number one issue facing the UK’s competitiveness in the next five years. Put simply, not enough young people are studying maths and physics in sixth form, meaning they don’t have the skills needed for digitally-focused jobs.
“There is now a real disconnect between what children are choosing to study and the jobs they believe they may go into, and as a result young people are leaving education without the skills needed to go straight into employment.
“There’s an irony too, because while young people are dropping maths and sciences at A-level, the careers they aspire to (gaming is number one for teenage boys and healthcare is favourite for girls) require Stem subjects as their bedrock.”
Dunn also highlights the fact that the UK is languishing at 22nd place according to the OECD in terms of numeracy. Physics makes up just 4.3% of A-levels sat. And there are currently 40,000 unfilled Stem jobs across the country and rising.
The issue is even more pronounced among girls. According to research conducted by the Your Life campaign – which Dunn chairs – 42% of girls are opting for other subjects in sixth-form because they think they will get better grades, versus 33% of boys. A quarter of girls also say maths and physics are “too hard”, despite outperforming boys in physics GCSE for the past five years.
She added: “The message of grades being everything is carried via parents to students. As a result, students are leaning towards subjects where higher grades are easier to achieve, meaning they may win at the education system but will fail in the jobs market where they do not have the required skills.”
To be fit for the digital future, the UK needs to invest in talent and not be left at the starting blocks by other nations who are already streets ahead, Dunn warns.
“We should be pushing for subjects over grades, and highlighting the message that maths and physics A-level offer students the pathway to the jobs of the future and the digital economy we need as a nation to prosper.”
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