Science placements and social mobility

31 Aug

This post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

On Friday 19 August I went to a meeting at the Science Council with the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), an organisation which helps school children (approximately 650 this year) from low-income backgrounds get into high quality universities and jobs. Their work relies on both a network of mentors (who email support and advice through the decision periods around AS and A-level) and also organisations being willing to take in these students for a week of work experience before their A-level year. In law, banking and accountancy, we were told that securing these placements was easy. But in science and engineering, it’s a very different matter.

This is a cause for concern. David Johnston, the SMF’s Chief Executive, told us that when they try to place pupils with a genuine career interest in science or engineering, they cannot persuade enough organisations to provide placements for all of them.  The age of the students and issues related to health and safety are cited as key reasons. As a result, the remaining students are placed with consultancy companies like Accenture, organisations in the financial sector or London law firms (although the scheme also runs in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds).  Many of these companies are very eager to offer these pupils shadowing places, and provide them with a structured and beneficial experience.  The danger here is that these high-achieving pupils – all of whom are predicted ABB at A-level – could be put off staying in science both by this process and by company loyalty, when they have to potential to be a major contributor to the UK’s future intellectual capital through a career in STEM. At 17, this experience could have a huge impact on their future choices.

These pupils are exactly the kind of talented individuals that STEM organisations should be looking to encourage and recruit in the future. It’s concerning that STEM organisations could be missing out on some of our top students in the future, as a result of the industry finding it difficult to support this scheme. The scheme has shown to be good for the pupil, industry more broadly and potentially beneficial for the employer too. In previous years, over 80% of respondents to the employer evaluation form said the student(s) they hosted were of the calibre they would look to employ after university. Arguably, this scheme could be seen as simply ‘doing the right thing’, but considered more broadly it also fits in with current government policy paradigms as set out in the Social Mobility Strategy and Education White Paper.

So is this criticism of the industry fair?  Is a week too short for STEM organisation to effectively engage? Can the health and safety barriers be overcome? Are concerns around the age of SMF students a genuine barrier to science and engineering companies? Do these barriers alone explain why banks and law and accountancy firms have been so much more willing to help the SMF?  And if so, how can they be removed? Let us know what you think.

To find out more about the SMF visit If you’d like to become a mentor, or think your organisation could help offer internships next year and in the future, please get in touch with David Johnston, Chief Executive of the SMF on 020 7953 4007.


3 Responses to “Science placements and social mobility”

  1. Hannah Hope 31/08/2011 at 11:48 #

    This is my second year as an SMF mentor and I’d echo the employers feedback about the quality of these students they are excellent. In terms of the impact that the placement has on students choices, I think that it’s quite strong. My sample size is tiny (2) but last year I had a student who was hesitating between Chemistry and Economics, he got offered a placement at a Consultancy firm and soon after decided to ditch Chemistry. This year my new student was lucky enough to get a placement at a small clinical testing firm, it has convinced her that science is really what she wants to do.

    Perhaps another problem with getting SMF students placements in labs is that most labs will already have undergraduate students for the summer and so don’t have the space or staff (more important in science than accountancy/law/consultancy due to H&S) for the SMF students. I tried to get my SMF student a placement in a lab this summer as the SMF were struggling and all those that I contacted were already full of summer students. As they’re for a longer duration undergraduate placements represent a better return for labs and are also a potential source of vital PhD students.

    One potential solution to this problem of competition for placements could be for the SMF to offer placements in the Easter holidays when undergraduates aren’t in the lab. While this isn’t the greatest time, as the break happens about 2/4 weeks after the programme starts it might allow them to get more science placements for their students and help to prevent the drift from science to city.

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  3. James F. Lush (@jlush2) 05/09/2011 at 11:11 #

    Hi Hannah,

    Great to see a positive response to this. Although I didn’t mention it in the post, I’m also an SMF mentor although this is my first year. The two things that have struck me about my mentee are a very high work ethic, but also quite low self-esteem. Your sentiments from your experience do echo what I heard at the meeting, so the solution would appear to ‘simply’ be greater access to science placements. Of course there is a difficulty getting a student to achieve anything meaningful from a research perspective in such a short period (although the same must also be true in law etc.) – so the scheme must be thought of as part of the ‘long game’.

    However, I don’t think Easter placements is a solution – the students at this stage are very close to their AS Levels, and in my (extremely limited) experience and from what I know of the scheme the students are too committed to their exams for this to work in practice.

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