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Durham University

School of Education

Research Projects

Evaluation of UK Space Agency Principia Programme

A research project of the School of Education.


Increasing the number of pupils and young people studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) has been a concern for successive UK governments in the last two decades. In 2014 David Cameron, the then Prime Minister announced a scheme costing about £67 million to train 17,500 maths and physics teachers and attract more postgraduates with offers of university bursaries (DBIS 2014). The ‘science problem’ of too few STEM graduates has also emerged in the EU, US and other developed countries (Lamb et al. 2017, DfE 2015, Smith and Gorard 2011, Brophy et al. 2008, Brett 2007). Many bodies including governmental, non-governmental and charitable organisations, as well as representatives of industry, have been actively involved in attempting to increase interest, attainment and participation in STEM subjects at school and beyond.

Considerable public funding has been allocated to programmes intended to improve attainment in STEM subjects at school, and encourage participation in STEM-relevant education and training beyond and outside school. The STEM Mapping Review revealed over 470 STEM initiatives run by government departments and external agencies as early as 2004 (DfES 2006). All were designed to engage young people, and in particular under-represented groups, in STEM subjects. The number and range of such interventions has increased considerably since. However, the actual impact of these efforts in reaching young people across the UK and in different SES groups has not been fully investigated. For example, the Science and Innovation Observatory by Sheffield Hallam noted that most studies were evaluations of a single event, and in one supposedly longitudinal study, evaluation was merely an on-the-day survey (Coldwell and Mannion 2011). 

This report looks at the reach of a programme of 34 projects based on the interest and educational opportunities arising from the astronaut Tim Peake's Principia Mission to the International Space Station (ISS).


The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Evaluation Of Uk Space Agency Principia Programme (£19300.00 from UK Space Agency)


The aims of this project were to :

  • Establish the ‘reach’ of the Principia education programme, in terms of the number of schools and number of young people who have taken part in the projects.
  • Identify, as far as possible, patterns of participation in terms of phase of schooling, type of educational establishment and level of student disadvantage, and their geographical distribution and neighbourhood characteristics.
  • Map the kind of activities that have the greatest reach, with types of participants, schools and geographical locations.


Methods for estimating the total numbers

Estimating the total numbers was challenging as each of the 32 projects had their own approach to recording or presenting participation. No data on individual participants was collected. Several projects did not provide data on the number of participants – just the school or other establishment in which the project took place, or from which the participants were recruited. Only 24 of the 32 projects provided lists of schools or other settings and organisations along with numbers of participants. All these meant that the ‘reach’ of the programme could only be our best independent estimate. 

Without individual registrations it was not possible to eliminate entirely the duplication of participants across different projects (where an interested individual has participated in more than one). As a substitute we did three things: 

First, we totalled separately the figures that are not measured in terms of participants – such as website downloads or resources sent to schools.

For the other figures, where the same school (or organisation) appeared within a project more than once this was because different year groups participated or the project ran for successive years with the same age group. We collapsed these entries to create a total for that project in that school.

Where the same school (or organisation) appeared across different projects, and it was clear that different year groups participated, nothing was done. If it was clear that same year groups participated in different projects, or it was not clear whether it was the same year groups, we had to estimate the overlap between projects (to avoid over-estimating the overall reach of the programme). Where we did not know the identities of the schools, we estimated the level of overlap with other schools by using the known level of overlap for the schools whose identities we did have. Estimating this overlap required knowledge of the size of each participating school or organisation.

To estimate the size of each school we used Edubase (a publicly available database of schools and their characteristics), and matched institutions via names and postcodes where these were available. However, Edubase only contains information about schools in England, some offshore islands (e.g. Jersey and Guernsey), and a few schools in Wales. For the other UK countries of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, participant institutions were simply totalled by region. Institutions outside the UK were also simply totalled. The list of institutions is therefore not complete. There were also participants registered as being educated at home, or by parents, and no school information is available for these.

Edubase provides information on the type of school, phase of schooling, its location (region, urban/rural), and levels of potential disadvantage (assessed by proportion of pupils with free school meal eligibility, and English as an additional language). We analysed participation in terms of all of these characteristics including size. This enabled us to go beyond reach, and consider also the kinds of participants in the overall programme as far as possible from these limited data. We did this by comparing the participating schools with the equivalent figures for all schools in England.


UK Space Agency Principia education programme report : the reach and spread of its projects :

Headline findings

  • Up to March 2017 it is estimated that over 1.6 million children and young people have participated in the educational outreach programme linked to the Principia Mission since it started in 2014. This represents 15% of the total UK school population in any year.
  • Participants came from 9,894 schools. This is equivalent to 31% of all schools in UK. In addition, some projects within the programme sent out resources or set up websites whose use is not easily and accurately measured in terms of participants. As a result of this, the overall total is likely to be well over 1.6 million. Many of the projects are still going on so the number will have increased since.
  • The programme has successfully reached schools and pupils of all ages in different phases of education (primary, secondary and post-secondary) and in different types of establishment (e.g. academies, community, voluntary and independent schools) in close proportion to the UK’s overall school population.
  • Schools and participants in different parts of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) were well-represented.
  • Schools from large urban centres, towns and cities, rural villages and small hamlets were also well-represented. These were broadly representative of the national distribution of schools.

Published Results


  • See, B.H., Morris, R., Gorard, S. & Griffin, N. (2017). UK Space Agency Principia Education Programme Report: The reach and spread of its projects. Durham Durham University.


From the School of Education