Good support for subject choice and careers advice can plug the leaks
Photo: Korona Lacasse/Flickr

Careers Advice and the Leaky Pipeline

The Leaky Pipeline metaphor is well used in education to describe why certain social groups do not choose to study key subjects at GCSE, A-Level and beyond.

These ‘leaks’ are the moments where children disengage or are encouraged to follow a path that isn’t right for them.

In particular, we know that women, some ethnic minorities and those from poorer backgrounds are under-represented in a range of key careers, such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and Economics.

Diversity in Economics and STEM - what the numbers show

Looking at economics we see a mix of under-representation and over-representation among ethnic minority groups in academia.

In 2018/19 men and women of Pakistani heritage accounted for 0.8% of research staff against a working age population (WAP) of 1.8%. Bangladeshis made up 0.3%  with a WAP of 0.6% and black Caribbean people represented 0.4% with a WAP of 1.2%.

Chinese people on the other hand make up 0.6% of the WAP but accounted for just over 4.5% of academic economists. Similarly, Indians were over represented in the field.

Looking at STEM, the industries are dominated by white men who make up 65% of all employees. Incredibly, men account for 91% in engineering.

The GCSE to A-Level leak

These problems in the workplace and academia start earlier on in the pipeline.

In 2017, the GCSE Maths female cohort was a shade over 50% of the total. Two years later, at A Level, the proportion was just 35.5%.

The ‘leak’ of girls in physics was worse, plummeting from 50% at GCSE to 22% at A Level

This is particularly stark in co-educational state schools.

Girls in single-sex state schools are twice as likely to study Physics A-Level than their co-ed counterparts. Those at single-sex Independent schools were four times more likely.

Is poor subject choice support behind the leaks?

The question is why they’re ‘leaking out’ on the way, and what we can do to change that.   

Of course, there is a resource element to this.

State institutions are more likely than independent schools to restrict students from taking certain subjects or subject combinations at KS4 or post-16.

This makes it more likely that young people will take the specific combination of subjects that most suits them.

Indeed, research by the Russell Group found that the most common reason students did not take a subject is that either their school did not offer it or option blocks hampered their ability to take the subjects they wanted.

However, there is also something here about pre-GCSE advice in school.

Quality careers counselling at the right time can plug a leak

If careers advice is focussed on the post-16 phase, this might already be too late to influence GCSE and A level choices.

Evidence suggests that there is a lack of quality or structured advice when GCSE choices are being made.

The Gatsby Benchmarks, part of the Government's statutory guidance for schools’ careers programme, has Benchmark 3 – Addressing the needs of each pupil, which includes ‘actively seeking to challenge stereotypical thinking and raise aspirations.’

But a review found that of the 8 Benchmarks, schools in the most disadvantaged group performed worst at this one.

Another study found that 88% of state school teachers didn’t think their training prepared them to give careers information and guidance.

Increasing diversity means challenging myths and stereotypes

These realities, combined with long-standing myths and stereotypes about what is achievable and by whom, may allow preconceptions to persist among under-represented groups and their advisors.

Finally, students’ home context is strongly related to their choices.

For STEM and vocational subjects such as accounting, law and business, cultural background appears to influence the high uptake among certain groups.

For example, students of Indian heritage are well-represented in business studies, potentially because of perceptions that it is likely to lead to successful careers.

Quality careers and subject advice is vital for student outcomes

Better understanding these perceptions and presenting clear evidence and data to young people could be key to ensuring that everyone gets excellent, high quality careers advice at the right time.

Fundamentally, if underrepresented social, ethnic and gender groups leak out of, or don’t even enter, the STEM or economics pipeline they are not going appear at the other end.

Careers advice is vital in affecting outcomes and opportunities for different groups.

Ultimately, existing inequalities may get wider if the ‘wrong’ choices are made.

Good careers advice is about helping students make the right choices.

Read more on this subject:
Careers advice: Why is it important and how to improve it? | AQi powered by AQA
Economics: Where are all the girls? | AQi powered by AQA
AQA | AQA Assessment Research and Innovation | Research blog | Subject choice, attainment and stereotyping – what does the literature say?