'It's most important that we empower students with the knowledge, tools and broad horizons to make the right life choices for them'

Posted on: 26 Feb 2019
Posted by: Clare Bracken

Clare Bracken, head of mathematics at Pocklington School, argues that an all-round supportive approach, rather than a STEM-focused push, is what’s needed to bring out the best in students.

Research by the Department for Education has found girls are substantially less likely than boys to consider taking STEM subjects at A-level, prompting schools minister Nick Gibb to call on teachers, parents and society in general to help challenge girls' views.

Nick Gibb’s plea for help in dispelling some girls’ misconceptions about STEM subjects coincided with a similar call to action by international education research association the IEA. Its executive director said female teachers and pupils face barriers which damage confidence and prevent more women from becoming maths professionals. While I agree any gender misconceptions should be challenged, I believe that engaging, individually-focused teaching is the key to encouraging more girls to take up Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at A-level and beyond.

I certainly encourage students that I think have an aptitude for my subject to continue it to A-level, regardless of whether they’re male or female, and open their eyes to the career opportunities it might unlock.

Science and Engineering was the recent theme of one of our School’s regular assemblies focusing on an industry sector where former pupils have excelled - and it included several examples of very successful women. Every workforce is better for being diverse and I’m as keen as anyone to see more female engineers, for example.

But as teachers and parents we should be wary of ushering young people towards a lucrative gap in the jobs market without considering whether it’s right for that child. What’s more important is a positive, supportive atmosphere and a ‘can do’ attitude which gives young people the confidence and freedom to make their own choices.

Having female role models plays a part in this: I remember being impressed by a female maths teacher who was dynamic and very much unlike the perceived stereotypical maths teacher. But it was as much her engaging teaching style and demeanour as her gender which made me think maths was a subject I could take further.

Next month [March] we’re doing our bit to broaden the appeal of maths among young people by holding a Primary Team Mathematics Challenge for local state and independent primary schools. The UKMT-administered event will involve teams of boys and girls with a range of mathematical activities, encouraging them to work together as teams to problem-solve and be invigorated by a fresh approach to the subject. It is events like this which are as successful as anything in breaking down any barriers before they have the chance to take hold.

The Mathematics Department at Pocklington School has five female staff (including myself as Head of Maths) and two male staff. Last year 46.3% of our girls gained grade 9-7 at GCSE, compared with 40.5% of boys. Sixteen girls took A Level Maths (compared with 12 boys), and 14 of them achieved A*/B grades. Our Chemistry and Biology Departments are entirely female and, on average, attract as many or more female students at A Level as male.

The Physics department’s three full-time teachers over the past 10 years have all been male and although the subject attracts more boys than girls at A Level, its comparative gender balance is consistently way above the dismal 1.9% national average. The Head of Physics puts their relative success down to the fact that those three teachers have all held senior positions of pastoral care and very much focus on supporting each individual child. “We don’t so much teach Physics as teach people,” he says.

Yes, you can drill down to generalised differences in learning styles which might make the sexes more or less inclined towards a subject. Boys might lean towards Maths because if you’re naturally good at it, it involves less work. Girls can think too deeply about a tricky question and be hesitant whereas boys just dive in and have a go. But with personalised support and encouragement there’s no reason for this to be a “barrier”

As a teacher I gain huge satisfaction from seeing a young face light up as they ‘get it,’ and from inspiring a real enthusiasm for my subject. If that, in turn, results in a pupil taking Maths to A Level and beyond, I am delighted – but only if it is the result of genuine interest.

Good teaching breaks down any barriers to learning by providing the right individual support for each student, backed up by a positive, engaging approach. Male or female, and wherever their strengths lie, it’s most important that we empower students with the knowledge, tools and broad horizons to make the right life choices for them.

About Clare Bracken

Clare Bracken is head of mathematics at Pocklington School.