Pupils ‘held back’ by choosing arts over science

The UK education secretary argues that students — especially girls — who ditch science and maths for arts and humanities reduce their job prospects. Is one subject really better than another?

A black and white photo from the Solvay Conference in 1927 is a fascinating who’s who of the greatest scientific minds of the day, among them Einstein and Schrödinger. ‘It would be hard to imagine a more intelligent and brilliant group of people,’ declared one newspaper. But of the 29 scientists pictured, there is just one woman: Marie Curie.

Times have changed since 1927. But according to the UK education secretary Nicky Morgan, too few students choose to study maths and science, particularly girls.

Morgan was speaking at the launch of the ‘Your Life’ campaign last week. She wants to see a 50% increase in the number of teenagers opting for maths and physics A-levels over the next three years.

Students are often advised to choose the humanities — subjects like history, geography and literature — if they are unsure what to do in later life, because they are thought to be more useful in a range of jobs. But according to Morgan, it is the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and maths — that offer students the widest choice of careers.

The comments follow the publication of figures last year that showed an 80% increase in the number of students taking humanities degrees between 2002 and 2012, despite the fact that by 2030 more than 7m jobs will require science skills. The education secretary fears the UK economy will lose out as a result.

In particular, Morgan believes more girls must opt for maths and science. At present, just 19% of girls with an A* in GCSE physics go on to study it at A-level. Since results consistently show girls to be just as good as boys at STEM subjects, there is a worry that girls feel these subjects are ‘male preserves’.

Tinker, tailor, scientist, lawyer?

The future will be dominated by exciting jobs in engineering, computer science, physics and digital industries, some say. Choosing to study the history of France or the rise of Hinduism brings no benefit for society or direct job opportunities. Pupils who study STEM subjects will boost the economy and those who study maths will earn more. Encouraging more girls into STEM subjects will also help break down gender inequalities and stereotypes.

But others argue that creativity is just as vital to the UK economy because it inspires entrepreneurship. Studying the arts and humanities can lead to all sorts of fascinating and lucrative careers, in politics, art and business, as well as providing important skill sets and ways of thinking. The big issues of the day such as climate change, disease and terrorism, require more than just scientific minds. While more must be done to get girls into science, pitting the sciences against the arts is not the right approach.

You Decide

  1. Is it more useful to study the arts and humanities, or science and maths? Why?
  2. Why do more boys study science than girls?


  1. In groups, write a list of five life-enhancing skills gained from studying maths and sciences and five for the arts and humanities.
  2. Research and prepare a short presentation on a famous female scientist.

Some People Say...

“None of the complex challenges we face today will be solved by one subject alone.’David Willetts”

What do you think?

Q & A

Help! I don’t know what I want to be when I’m older!
Don’t panic. The battle between the sciences and the humanities has been raging for centuries and really all subjects are valuable and fascinating. As long as you work hard, there are exciting job prospects no matter what you choose. The most important thing is to focus on what you enjoy and what you are good at. But don't be put off by STEM subjects because you think they are stuffy, boring, or only for boys — they’re not.
Why don’t more girls do science?
There are many reasons. Some people say boys and girls are simply wired differently. Others say it has far more to do with ingrained cultural perceptions that science is not for girls, or that there are not enough female role models or female science presenters on TV.

Word Watch

Solvay Conference
The Solvay Conferences are probably the most famous gatherings in physics and chemistry. Since the first in 1912, some of the greatest scientists in the world have come together about every three years to discuss the great questions of physics and chemistry.
Arguably the most influential physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein (1879–1955) developed the theory of relativity.
Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) developed a number of fundamental concepts in the field of quantum theory.
Marie Curie
Marie Curie (1867-1934) was a Polish-born physicist and chemist and one of the most famous scientists of her time. She and her husband Pierre were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903, and she won another in 1911. Her research was crucial in the development of x-rays in medicine.
Lose out
The UK needs to recruit 83,000 engineers a year over the next 10 years to compete economically on the global stage, according to Morgan.
Earn more
Studies show that pupils who study maths to A-level will earn 10% more over their lifetime.

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