Meet the pioneering Yorkshire education leader who is encouraging more girls into STEM careers

The principle of a leading independent school has warned that a “great deal” more needs to be done to entice more girls to study science-based subjects after a groundswell of interest.

Tuesday, 1st June 2021, 11:45 am

Sylvia Brett, who has been the principal for Harrogate Ladies College for the past eight years, is on a mission to ensure schools increase opportunities for girls to pursue subjects in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

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Mrs Brett, who has more than 25 years experience working in the sector, highlighted 75 per cent of girls from the school entering at least one STEM A-level subject for the academic year - compared with the national average of 51 per cent.

Pictured, Sylvia Brett, (centre) the principal for Harrogate Ladies College for the past eight years, with students from the school. Mrs Breet is on a mission to ensure schools increase opportunities for girls to pursue STEM subjects in education. Photo credit: Submitted picture

She said living through the pandemic had helped students "to appreciate and see the value of technology and engineering", in helping to create a “better world”.

Mrs Brett told The Yorkshire Post: “I think there is a shift - I can see that in the children. They don’t want another generation to go through what they have gone through and they want to make a better world.”

She stressed the current climate is an “opportunity in time” to ensure gender divides in laboratories become a thing of the past for the next generation of female scientists, coders and engineers.

The number of STEM students in higher education in the UK that are women stands at 35 per cent, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Pictured, Sylvia Brett, the principal for Harrogate Ladies College. She has more than 25 years experience in the education sector having worked in five different schools across the country. Photo credit: Submitted picture

While medicine courses have seen female applicants overtake male counterparts in recent years, women still remain under-represented in most STEM industries - particularly engineering and technology.

Mrs Brett, who was previously the deputy headteacher at the renowned girls’ boarding school, Roedean, in Sussex, said: “We’ve seen how some of the amazing innovation in science and engineering and maths have come through the work of women across the ages and the figures about the lack of students studying STEM subjects who are women are really quite concerning.

“One of my big things is there shouldn’t be any big subjects that should be closed to anyone - whatever their gender.

“Girls should be able to do whatever subject they want to do - what we are trying to do here is help the girls find their passion - whatever it is, without any sense of having to be within a particular channel or conveyor belt about their lives.

Pictured, Sylvia Brett, who was previously deputy head of the world renowned girls’ boarding school, Roedean, in Brighton. She also has previous teaching experience at Caldicott Boys’ Preparatory School and Downe House girls’ school in Berkshire, where she was head of lower School. She has also served as a Governor of St Aubyn’s prep school in Sussex. Photo credit: Submitted picture

“Just to feel that every opportunity is open to them and they don’t ever feel that they stop being themselves in order to fit into a world but actually to truly be themselves and follow whatever passion they have.”

Mrs Brett acknowledged the while the education sector had come “a long way” since “the 70s and 80s” - where she reflected on a memory of a close friend being given career advice at university to marry a vicar - she added a number of measures should be taken by to create more opportunities for female students in STEM subjects.

This includes reducing gender bias in language and eliminating gender stereotypes.

She said: “When I was at school it was a very different world - thank goodness that has changed.

“I feel very optimistic that the world is changing in terms of how we view people in the workplace, in terms of their individuality and respecting them for being who they are. But there is an awful lot of work to be done.”

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