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How schools can attract more girls into STEM subjects at uni

Richard Nicholson, Head at King’s High, Warwick, tells us how this progressive all-girls senior school is addressing the gender imbalance.

Despite outperforming boys at GCSE level, in the Science, Technology and Maths subjects known collectively as STEM, fewer girls achieving top grades nationally go on to take Maths and Physics at A-level, and fewer continue with those subjects at university.

According to figures from Wise Campaign, in 2017 women made up 23 per cent of those in Stem occupations in the UK.

Why is there such a low take up in STEM subjects among girls? A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies last year found it was down to low confidence and boys’ dominance. Among those who achieved grade A or A* in GCSE physics, for example, just 13 per cent of girls compared to 39 per cent of boys took physics A-level.

I had a very interesting chat about this with Richard Nicholson, the Head of girls’ senior school, King’s High, Warwick, where 50% of 2018’s A level leavers went on to study a wide range of STEM subjects at university including Physiotherapy, Chemistry, Psychology, Materials Science, Civil Engineering, Physics, Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Design, in addition to seven girls studying Medicine and one Veterinary Science; while  50% studied Arts and Humanities. Over to you Richard…

Why do you think so many of last year’s A level students at King’s High went on to buck the national trend and study STEM subjects at university – is it because there’s a better STEM subject take-up in all-girls schools?

Single sex education to me is a complete no-brainer. I went to a co-ed and have worked in boys’ and girls’ schools on both sides – and it works very well. But to have half the girls studying STEM subjects, and half Arts and Humanities, is an unusual statistic and the reason it’s so high is because the girls are not picking up any messages that these are not the things to do.

Is there anything new or different you’re doing at King’s High to actively engage girls in STEM subjects?

In the curriculum we’ve brought in Engineering at Year 8. A lower proportion of women work in this area and our job as educators is to keep our students’ brains open to all that’s there is in the wide world. We want our pupils to be really engaged in our society. I want our girls to go out and make a difference. It doesn’t have to be Nobel Prize-winning, but to make a really positive impact in their social circle and work place. We run an array of 200 clubs and STEM activities – there’s a real sense of energy and there are all these great role models the younger girls can look up to.

Overall last summer 89.7% of girls at your school achieved grades A*-B in their A levels – the highest A Level results in Warwickshire. King’s High has been chosen as The Sunday Times’ West Midlands Independent Secondary School of the Year 2019. Did this news come as a surprise?

When I got an email from The Sunday Times I was lost for words – genuinely delighted! It’s come at a great time as we’re celebrating the school’s 140th birthday and saying farewell to Smith Street as we move into our fantastic new building in September. The school has come a long way since the first 22 girls joined in 1879 during the campaign for female Suffrage. It’s a beautiful learning environment. There’s a great sense of pride in it and it makes you realise we’re doing something different. I think it’s because we work very well together. We’re genuinely a contented and happy community, but not complacent.

You must be very proud of the girls. What do you put the school’s success down to?

I think there’s no silver bullet answer. There are great teachers who are ambitious for the girls. The girls are fabulous, and they deserve the best. When you are looking after the entirety of the school experience everything has to be firing on all cylinders at all times. The wonderful thing about this school is that it never sits still! Nurturing the individual is something singe sex schools have been doing for a long time. In a place like King’s the proof is in the pudding. We’re a forward-thinking, dynamic school and we’re very proud of our seven Oxbridge girls this year – but it’s not the be all and end all.

The main thing is that that nearly 90% of our girls are going to their first-choice university. It’s about the right fit. While most of our girls will go off to a Russell group university (75% in 2018) another will go onto acting or film school. What we want to do is harness different interests. A sign of a good school is diversity. There needs to be fun and things need to be kept into proportion. Maybe you’re not so good at chemistry, but you have your dance class to look forward to later that day.

There’s been some debate in the media recently about the huge rise in Unconditional offers over the last 5 years. What’s your view on this?

Unconditional offers are good for the candidate on one level but overall, it’s really important, whether you have an unconditional or conditional, you need to get the best A levels results you can get. It’s an important qualification.

Well-being is very high on the agenda at King’s High. With anxiety and mental health issues at an all-time high among the under 18s, the need to develop the ‘whole child’ rather than the next Marie Curie has never been higher. What are the latest Pastoral Care initiatives you’ve helped to create?

There are some things you have to shine a torch on. One of these things last year was Well-being. We had a Well-being Pupil Week, so we could further enhance what we do. We’ve now set up a Peer Mentoring system and girls who volunteer are trained through The Diana Award. There’s this continuous cycle of wanting things to be the best they can be. You want school pupils to be enthused. Following on from the introduction of our Equine Therapy and learning programme in 2018, we have just appointed an Equine Sport Co-ordinator, as some of our girls are very into horses. This suggestion came from our Well-being Mentor Emma Williams. We are all different. There’s something for everyone. We expect to be treated as an individual and it’s about being open minded.

How’s the new-build looking? It’s hard enough moving into a new house – where do you start packing up an entire school?

King’s High is saying Farewell to its home in Smith Street this July.

It’s looking fabulous! We’re moving in this September; the whole move is really exciting! But it’s a huge thing – on a practical level every member of staff has a room they are looking after, and the girls are cataloguing the school. We want to do absolute justice to the school that’s been our home for the last 140 years.

We’ve commissioned a new public art sculpture called The Spirit of Kings for the new building, by artist Liz Middleton, who also is a member of the Heatherwick Studio architectural design practice, founded by Thomas Heatherwick, one of Britain’s most significant designers. The girls helped to appoint her. We have a Birthday Celebration weekend and Farewell to Smith Street in July which will include an art exhibition, netball matches with Old Girls and school tours, as well as a Victorian Day and a Gala Ball/ concert in November.

Richard Nicholson, Head Master of King’s High, Warwick

If you have a daughter in Year 5 or Year 6 she’s invited to spend a fun-filled morning getting to know the school, staff and students and taking part in activities ranging from baking cakes to erupting volcanoes. The next Taster Morning is on Saturday March 16 and you can book a place here:

King’s High’s stunning new purpose-built school building is opening in September with tours for parents, kingshighwarwick

Find more ideas here


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