STEM in Schools

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 2nd March 2015.

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Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:15 pm, 2nd March 2015

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the recent publication of the Education and Training Inspectorate’s evaluation of the implementation of the World Around Us, the Confederation of British Industry's 'Step Change: A new approach for schools in Northern Ireland' report, Momentum's digital sector action plan and the Engineering UK 2015 report, all of which highlight the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in schools; recognises the role of STEM as a key driver of the economy; and calls on the Minister of Education to support and encourage the full implementation of the STEM aspects of the curriculum in order to bring about high quality learning for all children.

The skills required for today's job market are very different from those needed when I and, indeed, other Committee members were at school. The world is vastly different, and, thanks to technology, it is a much smaller place. It is paramount that our education system equips all our young people with the skills and knowledge to excel in the modern world.

The Education Committee has been lobbied by a number of interested groups in respect of the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in schools. The Committee has held information events involving schoolchildren and a wide variety of stakeholder organisations. Members also had the great pleasure of visiting the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in January and meeting the enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable pupils from our local schools competing in that very prestigious competition.

The Committee noted with great interest a number of recent reports, which are referenced in the motion. You will be glad to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I do not propose to put forward for debate everything that is in all those publications, but I would like to touch on a small number of key points, and I will rely on my Committee colleagues to fill in any salient matters that have been missed.

When the Committee is lobbied by educational groups, there is a common theme: they want us to make a part of the revised curriculum compulsory. Some of the suggestions, relating to science, for example, are extremely persuasive. They have gained the Committee’s support and, I believe, are worthy of at least some further study by the Department.

STEM learning and teaching, both in primary and post-primary schools, is of particular interest to the Committee. The motion indicates that STEM is a key driver of our economy, both current and future, and it is for that reason that the Committee has sought this debate.

Today, I anticipate that most of the Committee’s commentary will focus on science, technology and engineering rather than on mathematics, but that is not to undermine the critical importance of the latter.

In primary schools, science teaching at Key Stage 2 is largely based on an element of the curriculum called the World Around Us. That combines science, geography and history and is designed to allow teachers the flexibility to tailor delivery and engender interest in science while also preparing students for more in-depth study later in their school life. Lobby groups such as the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Association for Science Education have expressed concerns about blending other subjects with science. They feel that this has led to a reduction in the science content of teaching at primary schools. They are also worried about a reported lack of inquiry-based learning, which they see as central to a good and rounded education for all children.

The trends in international mathematics and science study (TIMSS) in 2011 found that just 13% of year 6 pupils in Northern Ireland were taught by teachers who emphasised science investigation in lessons, compared with around 40% in England and the Irish Republic. TIMSS also found that teachers had relatively limited confidence in the delivery of science at primary school. Furthermore, the Committee noted the relatively low level of uptake of science options by primary school student teachers at both university colleges.

The Committee raised some of those issues with the Department, and we were subsequently advised that the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) would undertake a review of the World Around Us. ETI found much of what the Committee expected: good practice in many schools but also a lack of definition of science in the curriculum and a need for improved linkages to the levels of progression. ETI also found some suggestion of, if not an overcrowded curriculum, at least some "initiative overload". Members noted with interest suggestions that there tended to be a lack of inquiry-based learning and limited provision of planned opportunities for problem-solving and investigation. ETI found that, despite the good practice, the science and technology strand of the World Around Us is still underdeveloped in 54% of primary schools.

Those findings have much resonance with the evidence from the lobby groups that I referred to. The Committee welcomes ETI’s recommendations, including the promotion of science in initial teacher education as well as the use of a baseline of science education in primary schools and better tracking of pupil progression in STEM.

As you are aware, the motion also references the CBI's 'Step Change' report and the Engineering UK report, and members agreed with the sentiments of both reports, particularly the recognition of the importance of science subjects and computing at post-primary level and the value of the Success through STEM strategy. Members, however, do not necessarily endorse all the recommendations in those reports.

The motion also refers to Momentum's digital strategy action plan. That report highlights the value of learning computer coding in primary schools. Although the Committee welcomes initiatives like IT’s Your Choice: A Computer Programming Continuum for Schools, members felt that there was limited information on current levels of formal and informal computer-coding teaching in schools. There is, therefore, a need for a formal use of baselines on this aspect of learning. This would be only sensible and should pre-empt any further policy decisions on altering the curriculum in this regard.

There is clearly good practice and excellent STEM teaching at very many of our schools. Evidence of that was provided last week when, as part of the NI Science Festival, children attempted the largest practical science lesson in the world.

The Committee is not suggesting that the Minister reinvent the wheel on STEM education, nor is the Committee suggesting that he presses Ctrl-Alt-Delete and recodes completely the way in which science is taught in schools. Rather, the Committee is calling for the Minister to reflect on the ETI review and the other reports, apply the scientific method of evidence-based decision-making and take the next steps to provide a consistent STEM educational experience for all our children.

In closing, I would like to make two additional points. First, Members were concerned to learn that the software systems development A level, as well as other applied A levels, are not recognised by universities in the Irish Republic. I ask the Minister, in his response, to comment on the portability of applied STEM and other A levels to other jurisdictions, as it has the potential to impose a massive roadblock to the educational progression of our young people.

Finally, I would like to make reference to Sentinus. Members were surprised to learn that the organisation, which has a leading role in promoting STEM in schools, is facing a possible significant cut to its budget. Perhaps the Minister will confirm if that is the case, and, if so, can he explain how the decision and the possible loss of match funding fits in with the Success through STEM strategy? At that juncture, I will close my remarks.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:30 pm, 2nd March 2015

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this particular topic. STEM subjects are not simply a collection of facts and figures but an active and practical way of investigating the natural world. To me, it is the experimentation that brings the learning alive. I am concerned, as are other members of the Education Committee, that, particularly in our primary schools, science is being delivered a bit like any other academic subject, without the messy learning and experimentation.

We have the World Around Us as an integral part of the curriculum, but science and technology are buried in that curriculum area, along with history and geography. The primary-school experience is the essential foundation and building block of our children's learning. Children in those early years are sponges for learning. That creativity and sense of adventure need to be satisfied early. Children will stop asking the question, "Why?", if, for years, they do not get a satisfactory answer.

I taught mathematics and computing in the secondary sector for many years. Frequently, I would meet children of 11 who said that they hated maths, but, in most cases, when you answered the "Why?", they gained the confidence. They never got to the stage of loving maths, but they got their GCSE. The same is true for other STEM subjects and can be even more profound. You will not turn a 14-year-old on to physics if the only physics experience is their physics text book.

I remember well the early days of computer coding at Queen's in the 1970s and teaching it in the 1980s. Then, we had the ICT revolution, but if we are to advance the next generation, it must be more than simply learning about word processing, spreadsheets and slide shows. We must teach our children to problem solve, code and design programmes that perform useful functions. Learning to send emails is useful, but it will not make a talented software engineer. All too often, the real computer whizz is not the teacher at the white board but the student at the back of the class who is programming in their spare time.

One of the barriers is the lack of qualified STEM teachers, especially in our primary schools, with only around 1%. Most STEM graduates are snapped up and choose more lucrative careers. The lack of time and resources for quality continuing professional development for science teachers can lead teachers to play safe and be less adventurous in the science experiences that they deliver in the classroom. We have some excellent examples, but, at best, it is sporadic.

The lack of adventure is encouraged by a system that does not judge the quality of practical science delivered or learned by students. School practice is driven by what teachers believe is valued by ETI. Everything in education is driven by grades. Students want better grades as their passport and schools want to climb the league tables. By removing the contribution of practical work to grades, you inevitably remove the value of practical work.

The digital world has changed beyond all recognition in the last 30 years, but our education system needs to get up to speed. If we are to succeed in the globally competitive world, we need to learn from other countries, find our technical niches and occupy them early in primary school.

We must ensure that we have a sufficient number of talented teachers in key subject areas if we are to have a highly skilled workforce necessary for our future economy. We need subject specialists who can inspire students with their own passion. Many teachers are crying out for that extra support and the opportunity to develop their teaching skills and subject knowledge. We must ensure that young people are equipped for the challenges of the 21st century through improving the teaching of programming and ICT. It is expected that we will need an extra 20,000 people in that sector over the next three years. That can only be achieved by working to ensure continuity of demand for the region and the knowledge economy whilst ensuring that the skills pool continues to be populated so that we have a talented pool of people to meet the growing demand.

We must ensure that our curriculum is future-proofed. Computer programming and coding is already part of the curriculum in some areas, including in two of our nearest neighbours, England and the Republic. While we welcome workers from others areas, will our students be at a disadvantage when applying for jobs in the digital economy? Digital opportunities are huge, both economically and socially, because technology is such a great leveller. Children can rise to the top based on aptitude and ability irrespective of their gender or background. There are more and more job opportunities in the technology sector — more now than ever before.

To meet the long-term recruitment challenge, education is, as I said before, the foundation of building our economy.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, there are two things. First, we must ensure that the place of STEM subjects is strengthened in the World Around Us and, secondly, must raise the status of our teaching profession to the height that it deserves.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

The importance of matching the skills set of our young people coming through school into the world of work to the demands of the workplace is a central issue that we must focus on and is yet another example where proper, working, joined-up government would be successful. As a mother of three children, aged 14, 12 and nine, I am acutely aware of how I try to influence how my children choose their subjects and think about their future careers, but, ultimately, the school has the responsibility to nurture every child's skills and talents and open up their education to what is out there in the world.

In the first nine months of my job in this place, I was a member of the Employment and Learning Committee, and it heard from various employer organisations and representatives groups that emphasised that there were not enough people with the right skills available to meet the demands of the Northern Ireland workplace. We often hear of the fantastic job opportunities that are brought about by successful companies in Northern Ireland as well as by foreign direct investment companies that come to Northern Ireland, but it is really important that we keep on top of the supply of those skills to enable our economy to improve and to build Northern Ireland. That analysis in the Employment and Learning Committee led to an inquiry into the careers advisory service, primarily on how our young people find out about careers, what we should be promoting and what subjects are necessary to supply the workers that are needed.

That focus goes further. Not only do we need to give our young people the right advice about their future career, but we need to take the skills focus right back to the beginning; not just to post-primary education but right down to primary education. It is very often the case that the earlier our young people learn about a subject, the better their understanding will be and an interest will be sparked to learn more. We have heard that in years gone by about the teaching of languages being started at primary school, and it is also the case with STEM subjects, including computer coding, which we are hearing so much more about.

To me, this debate is a no-brainer. If our business economy is demanding workers with skills in science, technology, engineering and maths, we must find better ways of providing the workforce to meet those demands. This debate is timely given the recent series of events associated with the Northern Ireland Science Festival and the fact that the recent half-term break would have seen lots of schoolchildren travel to W5 at the Odyssey to get a taste of the wonder of science.

The Committee motion refers to several recent reports on STEM. We could add the 2008 MATRIX report from the Northern Ireland Science Industry Panel and the STEM review a year later, which produced a report that was jointly published by the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education. Out of the same review came the STEM strategy, which was developed and endorsed in March 2011 by the Executive and taken forward by a cross-cutting implementation group, of which Joanne Stuart OBE was the chairperson.

Mrs Stuart highlighted in the one-year progress report published in 2012 the skills mismatch, which, she argued, could hold back the growth of the Northern Ireland economy. That remains the acid test. Has there been the growth in the numbers of young people taking up these subjects at school and then in higher or further education to provide the skills reservoir to fill the high-tech jobs that we expect to be created here in the next few years? Are young people being encouraged to study STEM subjects and to choose careers in those important sectors of the economy? There has been a slow upward trend in the number of A-level STEM entries, with 10,702 STEM entries in 2004-05 rising to 12,659 in 2010-11. That is a fairly underwhelming increase, might I say, and I hope that the Education Minister can reassure the House that recent figures show more positive trends.

Is there political leadership in the Assembly? Mr Deputy Speaker, judging by what I have witnessed in the Education Committee, I have my doubts. I do not hear the Education Minister promoting the STEM agenda as our priority for the curriculum. Far too often, I hear at Question Time after Question Time

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

— an obsession with getting rid of academic selection and a blatantly partisan promotion of Irish-medium education. Mr Deputy Speaker, I will leave it there; I support the motion.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this and apologise to the Chair for missing the start. If I have missed anything that she has covered, I will pick it up afterwards.

We welcome the opportunity to talk about the importance of STEM subjects and their role in our education system today and into the future as we build an economy that works better for everybody. However, it is not all bad. STEM subjects are fairly well established in our schools. The recent report identified some areas as needing improvement, but we have a fairly good platform to start from. We see brilliant examples of good practice in our schools, at primary and post-primary level. It is important, therefore, that we do not get carried away and turn this into some sort of crisis. That is simply not the case: there is an increase in those taking and doing well in STEM subjects. We have an increasing number of STEM-facilitated local businesses every year, for which the revised curriculum and entitlement framework was largely responsible a number of years ago.

Indeed, it is for that reason that I am surprised at the criticism from the last Member to speak of the "obsession" with academic selection. It has always been about widening the scope for those at school and involving those who are interested in engineering and the sciences without having to go down the one route. That flexibility is very important. Young people studying the World Around Us get to apply what they learn in science not just in the classroom; when they go into the garden they can ask questions. Building in our young people a sense of enquiry — why does something happen and why is it important? — is very important if we are to see an increase in small and medium-sized enterprises locally. That requires the ability in our young people, which they get from science study and notions of enquiry, to take a risk.

We must also appreciate that there is more to STEM than science: it includes technologies, design, engineering and maths. It is important that we do not get bogged down in the old notion that there are just biology, chemistry and physics. STEM is a lot more than that.

STEM subjects are certainly not just for boys. Recently, according to an article in the 'Guardian', children were asked as homework to talk about a famous scientist. What did he look like? Was he married? Did he have a family? One child's mother was a scientist. We need to get beyond that. In the North, we certainly do better than many other areas. The imbalance between boys and girls is certainly not what it is elsewhere: young girls are taking up STEM subjects more and more. It is great to see that because there is far more to STEM subjects than some people envisage. At the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition 2015 last month, we saw huge numbers of young women from across the island engaging in science, technology and design. We met a young winner from a couple of years ago, who was hugely inspiring. It is important to get as many young women involved as possible.

Inspiration is a big thing. South Down supplies huge numbers to the Civil Service and the public sector. We perhaps do not have as many small enterprises as we should, yet Hans Sloane and William Thomson, known to others as Lord Kelvin, came from this part of the world. They are huge figures in science. We could do more to inspire our young people to look up to scientists because, as I said, we have a very proud record. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries have been made by Irish people. I mentioned Hans Sloane, and it is important that we venerate such people and help young people to know what they did. Perhaps it is time that we looked at having a greater number of STEM-related scholarships so that our young people can really get the benefit.

It is important that we do not just see STEM as the golden nugget that will deliver a wonderful economy and a far better education service. Modern languages need to come into the mix, and we should not forget the arts. As well as the likes of Hans Sloane, south Down is very proud to have Francis Hutcheson, so philosophy and culture are also very important. We need to make sure that, when we talk about STEM, we are creating far more rounded individuals as well. We should not forget other subjects.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

Does the Member share my appreciation of the fact that, when he mentions William ThomsonLord KelvinHans Sloane and Francis Hutcheson, he mentions three of the individuals who are pre-eminent in the contribution of the Ulster Scots to the history of Northern Ireland?

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member will be pleased to know that he has an extra minute to answer that one.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his comment, and I agree: the Irish Scots were very important throughout the world. Francis Hutcheson went on to inspire many people who took part in the American Revolution. Indeed, he inspired many people around my part of the world — Ballynahinch and Saintfield — into the United Irishmen. He talked about democracy —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I will indeed. Go ahead.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

We should mention John Stewart Bell. We are just after naming a crescent after him. He came from Tates Avenue, and he was nominated for the Nobel prize in physics. He proved Einstein wrong. Unfortunately, he died before he could be given the prize.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. We could probably get a phone book out and go through lots of names of different people who did lots of things. When we talk about scientists, it is important that we realise that we have massive figures in our shared history, such as Francis Hutcheson, who did so much for the world of education, philosophy and everything else. We should look to use the example of those people to inspire our young people.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I support the motion and agree with just about everything that the other parties have said so far. I confess that I was not expecting to hear selection, the Irish language or Ulster Scots mentioned in the debate, but there we are.

The value of, and necessity for, STEM subjects being prioritised has long been advocated by the CBI, and by industry generally. We now have all the various reports — they have been listed, so I will not list them again — that are clearly making the same case. In that respect, we are only going to follow the rest of the world, particularly the major economies of India and China. Although we cannot expect to compete with them numerically, there is absolutely no reason why we should not develop as a centre of excellence in the areas of STEM and digital technology. We have had considerable success there, which really only confirms the untapped potential that there still is. I pay tribute to the companies operating in those areas, many of which are home-grown, that have already established in Northern Ireland. We have a good base to build on, but we risk running out of qualified personnel if we do not get this right.

It is generally agreed now that the process starts at primary level. That is a relatively new development, but it is good to see. I agree with Chris Hazzard that this is not a critical motion and that we do not need to dwell on any failure. We could do better, but things are not all bad by any means. There is a general upsurge in enthusiasm. I pay particular tribute to the primary schools that have embraced this and to the excellent work of Sentinus and BT. The biggest science lesson in the world was referred to as well. You have only to go to one of those events, whether it be at primary or secondary level, to see the enthusiasm of the children at any age. It really is marvellous.

For my sins, I have two grandsons, one of whom has just turned 10 and the other has just turned seven, who ask me questions now and I think, "Where did they get that from?" They get it from the World Around Us.


Mr Kinahan wants to know whether I can answer them, but it is with some difficulty.

The level of education they are receiving and their level of interest in it is quite startling, even at that age. That is what is, perhaps, at the nub of this issue. The World Around Us is very wide-ranging. It is a mixture of science, history and geography, as the Chairperson said, and you would wonder about the advisability of that particular mix and whether there is a need to concentrate more effort purely on the scientific side of it. I do not know the answer, but it is certainly worth looking at.

There is also, as Members have mentioned and the various reports have alluded to, a lack of confidence among teachers, particularly at primary level, in their ability to deliver the curriculum of the World Around Us because it is so broad-ranging. I note statistics in the ETI report that show that 87% of schools have a staff member with specific knowledge, two thirds have a staff member with a specific qualification, but only 37% have specific STEM course accreditation. Another statistic that catches my eye is that 93% of schools use external expertise but do not cluster sufficiently, and primary schools rarely use expertise from post-primary level. There is work to be done there as well to make it more efficient and effective.

The CBI's 'Step Change' report advocates something fairly radical, which is switching the focus from exam results to real-life preparation. I would have to tread carefully there but I know what it is getting at; it is advocating vocational A levels. I cannot help thinking that this is, perhaps, the way to go.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member's time is almost up.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I will quickly make the point that advocating vocational A levels and trying to increase the number of places to provide those vocational A levels does not fit too well with increasing the number of teachers in training when we do not need that number of teachers.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

It is taking away from the DEL budget and it could be reprioritised.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order. As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Nelson McCausland.

The debate stood suspended.