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I thank my colleagues from the Education and Skills Committee who took part in the deliberations around our inquiry into STEM in early years education. I also thank the clerks for the work that they put into the inquiry and the many people who contributed both in providing evidence at committee and through the interactions that we had over the course of our deliberations. I particularly thank Toni Scullion, a teacher who not only gave evidence to the committee but brought along some colleagues to hold a dressCode hackathon to launch our report. We had 10 teams of secondary 1 girls taking part, some of whom had never coded before but managed to produce some outstanding work on the day.
This week is Scottish apprenticeship week, which encourages our young people to consider where their talents could take them and to let their imagination drive their ambition. However, back in March 2019, our committee heard that young people as young as six years old often have a fixed idea of what jobs they could do and, more importantly, of what jobs are not for them. Those preconceptions, which are regularly based on gender or social circumstance, limit their aspirations. They curtail a young person’s ambition and hamper Scotland’s ability to attract people to STEM-related careers, which will be vital to the development of our workforce through the fourth industrial revolution. That is what made the formative, early years STEM teaching the focus of our inquiry.
We visited the Primary Science Teaching Trust education conference at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which brought to life the potential of innovation at school level. The young people we saw that day had amazing projects and were very eloquent about what they were learning about STEM in school. We also held a workshop at the Scottish learning festival—at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow—to test out some of our findings from formal evidence on a group of around 50 teachers and early years practitioners. The committee was struck by the volume of groundbreaking work that is taking place across Scotland. We met self-titled “STEM converts”—people who did not study STEM at university or college but who have taken a passion for STEM into their teaching in the early years.
The challenges of unconscious bias and its impact on gender balance were recurring themes of the evidence that the committee heard, as was the disadvantage of coming from a deprived background. The need to ensure that children from rural and remote areas receive the same range and regularity of opportunities as those from urban areas was also a strong theme.
The committee has developed 22 recommendations, which align with the ambitions of the Government’s STEM strategy. A key takeaway is the importance of improving the confidence of teachers and early years practitioners, particularly in technology and engineering. One teacher, Lorna Hay, who has a passion for engineering, rightly outlined that STEM is made up of four constituent parts—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and that bundling the four together can be a hindrance to identifying the subjects that teachers have confidence in or where more appropriate support is needed and could be offered.
Some student teachers suggested that they were not confident that they could cover STEM in sufficient detail. Once teachers are qualified, the need for continuing professional development is clear. It is important to have more information on the prevalence of CPD in STEM disciplines across the teaching profession. We heard about the advantages of cluster working, whereby nurseries, primary schools and high schools collaborate to share knowledge and experience. However, finding time in a busy curriculum is, of course, never easy, and some witnesses cited an inability to source staff cover for lessons as an inhibitor to collaboration and CPD. A regular suggestion from teachers was that non-contact time could be increased in order to make time for dedicated CPD in STEM areas.
We also heard about some of the physical challenges of teaching STEM in schools. We heard from Dr Karen Petrie that internet connectivity is an issue in schools, even in urban areas where high-quality broadband is available. With the growing importance of technology in STEM learning experiences and the need to increase uptake of computing subjects, the committee recommended that the Government look at the extent to which that is an issue. The committee is always keen to hear directly from teachers about the challenges that they face.
A range of witnesses, including Professor Ian Wall, who was previously the chair of STEMEC—the science, technology, engineering and mathematics education committee—spoke about the value of interdisciplinary work, and one of our recommendations is that the Government look at the extent to which curriculum priorities such as literacy and numeracy can be taught through interdisciplinary learning. Blocks of time in a primary school that are dedicated solely to numeracy or literacy can be perceived as a barrier to interdisciplinary learning. Given the need for transferable skills and adaptability to respond to the evolving economy, the ability to understand how different disciplines interrelate will be a valuable skill for young people who are moving into employment and will allow them to meet the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution.
The inquiry also covered women’s representation in STEM. We heard from many inspiring women, including Talat Yaqoob, who is the director of Equate Scotland and was elevated yesterday to become a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Talat gave evidence to the committee that challenged preconceived notions about how to improve gender balance. She said that
“it is not about changing what engineering, computing or chemistry are. It is not about making chemistry about making a perfume kit—which I have actually seen and rolled my eyes at. It is not about changing what science is: science works the way it works. The difference should be that we provide spaces in which we can encourage and develop confidence in girls and women.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 27 March 2019 ; c 9.]
Presiding Officer, I have many more things to say about our inquiry, but I believe that I have reached my time limit. I again thank all those who contributed.
That the Parliament notes the conclusions contained in the Education and Skills Committee’s 8th Report, 2019 (Session 5),
Report on STEM in early years education
(SP Paper 624).
I am grateful to the Education and Skills Committee for securing time for this debate, because STEM skills have never been more relevant, and embedding them across the learning journey will be integral to Scotland’s future. That is why our STEM education and training strategy is supporting people of all ages to develop their STEM skills. We welcomed the input from the committee’s inquiry into STEM in the early years and have responded to its recommendations.
The committee’s report underlines the importance of nurturing STEM skills from the earliest stages in the learning journey. Skills such as curiosity in the natural world, investigation, inventiveness and exploration can be nurtured by play-based, active learning in early learning and childcare and early primary. I admit that, as a science graduate, there is nothing that I like more than practising my pipetting skills at nursery.
The expansion of funded early learning and childcare from 600 to 1,140 hours in August 2020 will be characterised by precisely that sort of learning. It is a truly transformational investment that brings an important opportunity to enhance early learning in STEM skills. Crucially, it includes a focus on the need to ensure that we have a well-trained, skilled workforce with a shared understanding of how children can best learn in their early years. The investment also increases access to high-quality training resources for that workforce in order to help them to deliver the best ELC experience for our children. That includes access to high-quality training in how to support learning in early STEM skills.
The bases work with colleges—I do not really see the relevance of the question to the early years. We do not have early years army cadets just yet. However, I know that the army cadets work closely with the colleges, and, with all the interest in the outdoors and engineering, it is a natural fit.
Members know that I have been visiting colleges the length and breadth of Scotland, where I have seen some wonderful practice. At New College Lanarkshire, I was delighted to join pre-schoolers who were concucting a rainbow density experiment and undertaking lots more practical science, led by the students at the college.
Since the publication of the committee’s report, we have launched an online professional learning module on developing skills, knowledge and confidence in delivering early learning and STEM. It is the first module to be launched as part of our new programme of continuous professional learning for the sector. The module is designed to inspire confidence in delivering learning in early years STEM skills and to support the sector to share good practice across Scotland. I launched the module on 30 January, on a visit to Kingsmeadow nursery in Peebles, which is an ELC setting that is showcased in the module. I saw the most fantastic STEM activities in action, with children actively learning outdoors with curiosity and joy about science and STEM in nature.
The Education and Skills Committee’s recommendations on STEM in the early years highlighted the importance of ensuring that training in STEM is accessible to those in private and third sector ELC settings. Our expanded ELC offer is provider neutral, and, regardless of where children access their offer—whether it is with a local authority, with a private or voluntary provider or with a childminder—they can be assured that they are accessing high-quality ELC that supports their learning and development.
By ensuring that the new module is free and that it can be accessed remotely and flexibly, we have helped to address barriers to accessing training for all staff, right across the sector. At the last count, on Monday morning, the module already had 288 participants. We can see that they are progressing well through the course, and 27 learners have already worked their way through the whole module. The feedback from those who have completed it has been very positive.
As well as inspiring play-based approaches to developing children’s early learning in STEM, the module will help to ensure that learning is delivered in a gender-neutral way. Children begin to learn about gender roles and expectations from the very early years and quickly pick up messages about what is perceived as normal for girls and boys. They are influenced by their environment, by the adults around them and by gender stereotypes that can place powerful restrictions on what they believe they can achieve in their futures as adults.
Our national induction resource for the ELC sector also addresses gender-neutral practice. It contains some reflective questions, including one on gender-neutral practice, to prompt staff to think about their values in relation to gender and how those might influence the way in which they interact with boys and girls and how they can promote gender equality in their practice.
We recognise the need to diversify the ELC workforce to improve the gender balance. Children pick up cues about gender roles from observing patterns in the world of work around them, so it is important that they see more gender balance in the ELC profession. To that end, we have created a £50,000 fund to explore innovative methods of recruiting and retaining males in ELC-related training programmes. We are seeing some progress; this is apprenticeship week, and 7 per cent of people who undertook ELC modern apprenticeships in 2018-19 were male, compared with 4 per cent in the workforce.
I am about to finish, but I must mention our fantastic new practice resource, “Realising the Ambition: Being Me”. As well as supporting all aspects of day-to-day ELC practice, it sets out how we can support children’s development of STEM skills, including digital and learning for sustainability. It is a fantastic resource. The early years are crucial in setting strong foundations and harnessing children’s natural curiosity. I see those strong foundations all around me when I visit ELC settings, and I am confident about the future of excellent play-based learning in STEM through high-quality ELC.
I will start with the context of why it is important to get STEM right in the early years. At the moment, 37 per cent of all Scottish employment is STEM related, and I am sure that that figure will only rise in the years to come. We will not channel people into the specialist engineering or tech roles of the future without getting it right now, when they are three, four or five years of age.
When I joined the Parliament, one of the first debates that I participated in was on digital skills and STEM. Four years ago, I called on ministers to tackle what I thought were shortcomings in their STEM strategy, particularly around the trend of declining teacher numbers at that time. Fast forward four years, and a Parliamentary committee has summed up the thoughts that I had then.
As we have heard, a lot of good work has been done. We now have young STEM leaders, the My World of Work website, the careers hive at the national museum of Scotland and the great work in teacher training that has been done by New College Lanarkshire, to name but a few initiatives. Arguably, though, more can and should have been done by the Government in the past four years.
The committee’s report concluded several things that I want to highlight, the first of which is about teacher training and resource. We need to ensure that there is access to appropriate training for teachers and early years practitioners to equip them with what they need to deliver an age-appropriate STEM education. Secondly, we need to enable greater access to STEM by tackling some of the gender, ethnic, social and economic imbalances that affect the take-up of STEM at later stages in life. Thirdly, we need to get the infrastructure right, to physically enable teachers to deliver a truly connected and digital curriculum. In the short time that I have, I will address those three issues.
On teacher training and resource, the report outlined the specific issue of a distinct lack of confidence among many teachers in pursuing STEM-focused activities with children. The word “confidence” crops up a number of times in the report. In her evidence to the committee, Susan Boyd, who is a teacher from Perth and Kinross, said that, even with
“all the training in the world”,
“need the staff to deliver STEM education.”
“we need to create the resources .... and then we need to teach them. We do not have enough bodies on the ground to do that effectively.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 5 June 2019; c 22, 20.]
The committee was told that STEM education cannot just be one teacher’s passion; it has to be everybody’s—every teacher must be able to deliver it to a really high quality all the time. I could not have put it better myself.
When teachers were asked to rate their levels of confidence in STEM disciplines, 50 per cent said they were confident in teaching maths and 45 per cent said that they were confident in teaching science. However, only 3 per cent said that they were confident in teaching engineering and only 2 per cent said the same for technology. Those are not new findings or significant revelations. In 2017, the Scottish Government’s own STEM strategy acknowledged that it
“requires excellence in the education offered in early learning settings” and that more interventions were needed in the younger years.
On enabling greater access, we know that STEM disengagement begins as early as six years of age, and we know that we have a problem in getting more girls and black, Asian and minority ethnic students into STEM. Therefore, it is vital that we get them interested at an early age. It is important that we encourage and inspire enthusiasm in STEM at every level of education, across gender, race and social backgrounds. Science and technology are things that everyone and anyone can get excited about, and there should be no boundaries to participation in them.
Finally, on infrastructure and connectivity, before we tackle digital innovation, we need to ensure that every school—whether it is a rural, urban, city or island school—has universal access to what it needs to teach: adequate broadband, hardware and technical support. My colleague Jamie Halcro Johnston will touch more on that subject.
What would we like to see? There is a sensible debate to be had around STEM bursaries, with the specific purpose of increasing teacher numbers in those subjects. The roll-out of the expansion of early years provision, which we have talked about in the chamber, must be delivered sustainably, and it must deliver better early years STEM teaching. We must also get digital infrastructure right in nurseries and schools.
More importantly, STEM must sit at the heart of the curriculum from the early years onward, because it both enables and assists us to get the other basics right. Core subjects can hang off the back of it, teachers can get excited about it and children can be inspired by it. Only then can we be sure that we are giving young people the very best start possible in the economies of the future. If we get it right now, it will pay off later.
The debate, which is welcome, takes place in the context of widespread consensus on the importance of improving STEM education, and the number of young people who choose STEM as a path for study and their career. We have heard some examples, and we know that in the years to come we will need thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of new STEM-based professionals if we are to meet the skills demands of our economy.
We also know that we have to start young. I think that that is widely accepted. The learned societies group on Scottish STEM education said, in its submission to the committee:
“Students with low science capital who do not express STEM related aspirations by age 10 are unlikely to develop such aspirations as they get older.”
Anyone who has taught science in a secondary school, as I have done, will know that the pupils who have decided that science is not for them will have done so long before they got to secondary school. That, of course, is why the committee focused on early years and primary education.
We have heard a lot about the committee’s report and we will hear more. I want to illustrate some of the challenges that we identified by talking about my experience a couple of years ago, when a large primary school in my constituency asked me to go in and do a science lesson with the primary 7 pupils, to mark science week. Never having been one to avoid a chance to get back into the classroom, I agreed. I went into the school and undertook an experiment to measure the speed of light using chocolate buttons and the old microwave from the staff room.
I had a great time. However, when I think about the experience, I realise that it illustrates a number of the problems that the committee identified. For example, the report talks about teacher confidence. The staff at that school felt that they had to ask someone who had—in the distant past—been a science teacher in a secondary school to come in to deliver a science lesson. They should have been much better placed than I was to deliver a science lesson in primary school, but they did not have the confidence.
Secondly, the event was a one-off. It was a special occasion to mark science week, and the whole of primary 7 was marched into the hall. It was certainly not a normal Friday morning in the school.
Finally, only I got to play with the microwave—and I was certainly the only person who got anywhere near the chocolate buttons—because the school does not have the resources to enable pupils to experience doing experiments for themselves.
The committee identified all those problems in our report. On the plus side, my previous professional experience having been with older young people, I found that the younger pupils’ enthusiasm for the science was tremendous, and it was just as evident among the girls as it was among the boys. Also, the experiment was real science: I hope that it was appropriate for children, but it was not dumbed down in any way or trying to appeal to children in the way that the committee convener referred to in her quote about
“making chemistry about making a perfume kit”.—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 27 March 2019; c 9.]
There were positives in the experience.
The long and the short of it is that the committee recommends that, when it comes to STEM education in primary schools, we need to do an awful lot better than we do by getting someone like me to go in and do an experiment with a microwave. We need teachers to be confident, we need STEM teaching to be consistent and embedded in the curriculum, and we need STEM education to be participative so that all young people get the experience of proper, hands-on experimental science. Only then will we get the step change that the report demands and that—in fairness—the Government’s STEM education strategy seeks.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been at the heart of Scotland’s historical success as a nation. Our world-leading expertise and skills base were integral to our status as a global hub of manufacturing and home to many great scientific advancements. Knowledge and expertise in the same fields are key to tackling the climate crisis that we face today, for example by embracing a green new deal, seizing the advantage of our abundant capacity for renewables and reindustrialising as a centre for green manufacturing.
At the moment, that potential is not being harnessed as it could be. The Government’s STEM strategy goes some way towards addressing that and was broadly welcomed by all the parties in this Parliament when it was published, but it can do only so much.
It is a supply-side measure, aimed at providing the skills and the workforce, but without a clear Government strategy directing investment into the economic strategy to go alongside that, or a real industrial strategy, there will not be enough jobs for those skills. It is not something that the market will provide, given the right input of skills and people. The Government cannot allow the STEM strategy to stand in isolation, or to presume that things such as the innovation strategies, although those are welcome, are adequate economic plans to sit alongside it.
I urge the Government to consider how education and economic strategies can come together, but there is clearly still substantial work to be done around the STEM strategy itself, as the committee found. There continues to be a gender imbalance in STEM subjects and gender stereotypes that result in women being underrepresented are already established by the time that children reach school age. All the evidence shows that after the age of seven we are simply undoing the damage of expectations that have already been set.
Therefore, emphasis on the early years is essential, not just to inspire and enthuse children about STEM but to tackle the often unconscious biases of parents, carers, teachers and other staff, as well as portrayals in popular culture and the media, including the gendered advertising of toys. Campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys have been doing great work, particularly with STEM toys, and I encourage the Government to work with them and others on that area.
We need to ensure that everyone who engages with children is aware of how gender stereotypes manifest and how their own actions and expectations, whether conscious or unconscious, impact on children and change their expectations of themselves and of society as a whole. That means making sure that sufficient training is available to early years practitioners and teachers and that they have time to engage with that training.
A common theme in the committee’s inquiry, which was mentioned by Jamie Greene, was a lack of confidence among early years staff and primary teachers in delivering STEM education; that lack of confidence is particularly acute in engineering and technology. That does not necessarily mean that they have a lack of ability or knowledge; in some cases, it clearly did not mean that because teachers had both. Therefore, it will be critical to ensure that training tackles the specific issue of confidence among the teaching and early years workforce.
In early years settings, that cannot be separated from the issue of access to nursery teachers. Early years practitioners are trained to a high standard, but ensuring that all children genuinely have access to a qualified nursery teacher benefits not only them but other early years staff as well. However, we know that in practice, for too many children, that access is nothing more than a nursery teacher travelling between a number of early years centres to meet staff without having direct involvement in the delivery of education or even, in many cases, the time to deliver training to early years staff in areas such as STEM. Like every other area of training that we have come across during committee inquiries, effective STEM training needs to take place in both initial teacher education and continuous professional development. I hope that we will have the opportunity to consider that during our upcoming initial teacher education inquiry.
The committee heard that, unsurprisingly, deprivation impacts on STEM in early years. Activities that promote STEM tend to cost a bit more, whether it is for more resource-intensive practical experiments such as that mentioned by Iain Gray or for travelling to events. Many schools rely on parent and carer donations to fund those activities, which inevitably disadvantages the communities that are more deprived. That is compounded in deprived rural communities, where more travel means greater expense. The evidence provided by the Glasgow Science Centre on its roadshow programme, which takes its offering directly to schools, is very welcome. However, we cannot rely on such organisations getting everywhere.
There are clearly lessons to be learned from the committee’s inquiry and I welcome the Government’s commitment to many of the conclusions that we reached. Like other members from across the chamber, I look forward to working with the Government to take forward the STEM agenda that we all have for Scotland.
I echo Clare Adamson’s thanks to the committee clerks and all the contributors to the inquiry.
I had intended to start with a quote, but Iain Gray beat me to it. On the other hand, it is important so I will read it out again:
“Students with low science capital who do not express STEM related aspirations by age 10 are unlikely to develop such aspirations as they get older.”
The importance of this debate on the Education and Skills Committee’s report into STEM in early years education is captured by that finding from the learned societies group. Developing curiosity in the early years is crucial in order to foster a lifelong interest in science and technology.
A number of important issues were discussed during the committee’s inquiry, but I will focus on just one. There is a desire among early years teachers to improve their confidence and practice in teaching STEM.
I recognise that there is some good uptake of continuous professional development courses across the country and a good collaboration with businesses. In its briefing ahead of the debate, BT described its young engineers and science club programme to support learners aged three to 18, and its Barefoot computing programme, which teachers from 75 per cent of schools have signed up to.
However, for many practitioners, the desire to upskill is not always met with the ability to take up places on courses. That is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed. Simply pointing out all the courses that are available makes no difference if teachers are not able to go on them.
The committee heard worrying evidence from the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre that one local authority has put a blanket ban on anybody travelling to professional learning outwith that local authority area. It is important that we find out whether there is any justification for that approach.
One important factor that prevents uptake is workload. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report that was published last September confirmed that Scotland’s teachers work some of the longest hours in the world. With teachers spending so much of their time in front of the class, they do not have time for the personal development that helps them to continue to improve as teachers. It is no wonder that one attendee of the Education and Skills Committee’s workshop at the Scottish learning festival said:
“The root of many issues is class contact time. If you want teachers to engage with the CPD necessary to deliver high quality STEM education you have to give them time.”
Therefore, it is disappointing that workload is not being considered specifically by the OECD in its review of curriculum for excellence, despite the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ call for it to be included.
I remain concerned about the ability of private and third sector ELC staff to access STEM training. In the chamber yesterday, we discussed the importance of quality early learning and childcare, and good work is being done. The Scottish Childminding Association is working hard to promote STEM to its members, but perhaps the minister could indicate what measures are being developed to increase uptake among the wider ELC workforce.
Scotland has strong STEM ambitions for our pupils and our economy, and rightly so, but we need to get some of the basics right to achieve them.
I am pleased to speak in this important committee debate on STEM in early years education. It is vital that, as a nation, we promote the value of having fully inclusive STEM education, and I am pleased that the committee undertook its thorough inquiry.
The acronym STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which are vital, equally important, standalone subjects that should perhaps not be put together as one entity. As our report states, doing so can present
“one overall confidence level”,
“mask the low levels of confidence” that we encountered in some aspects of teaching engineering and technology.
One witness, Lorna Hay, who is a primary school teacher, emphasised the importance of ensuring that teacher confidence in STEM is considered in its constituent parts. She said:
“You will find that probably the majority are very confident about teaching maths and, possibly, about science and basic information and communication technology, but they are not confident at all about teaching computer science and engineering.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee,
27 March 2019; c 10.]
The committee report produced some clear recommendations, namely that we must improve access to professional training to increase teacher and early years practitioner confidence, especially in the areas of technology and engineering. I was therefore pleased to hear in the minister’s opening speech of the progress that has been made in that regard.
I note the collaborative work that is being done by further education institutions and their willingness to be part of a wider learning strategy. For example, a module that was developed in partnership with the University of the West of Scotland is the first in a suite of free continuous professional learning modules that are being rolled out as part of the drive to increase the quality of early learning and childcare services.
Another of the report’s findings is that we must improve
“access to adequate internet connectivity” and technology
“to support STEM learning” generally, and particularly
“in remote and rural areas.”
During the excellent evidence sessions with a variety of witnesses,
I focused my questions on gender discrimination and gender stereotyping. In that area, there needs to be a focus on long-term interventions in school and early learning settings when the Government is measuring progress in the STEM strategy’s aims. That could take the form of regional improvement collaboratives mapping cluster work between early learning and childcare settings and primary schools, as well as mapping collaborative work between primary and secondary schools.
We need to measure tangible progress in this area. It is vital that girls are not hampered by stereotyping and that they are encouraged to participate and excel in all aspects of STEM subjects. The committee heard about encouraging work in the area from early years practitioners, most of whom said that the emphasis was not put on girls’ play and learning or boys’ play and learning, and that children were encouraged to participate in any activity that they wanted to take part in. We were told that much of the play activity incorporated all aspects of STEM learning in an informal and enjoyable way for children. However, it was acknowledged that gender stereotyping often starts at home and that it can sometimes be difficult to encourage new habits and interests during learning when that is not encouraged at home.
As part of its initial work, the committee heard that children’s perceptions of what type of job they can perform can be defined at as early an age as six, as the convener said. If we are to tackle equity gaps, we must tackle conscious and unconscious bias if we are ever to give our girls the best start in life.
It is definitely not all gloom and doom. Good things are happening and encouraging progress is being made. In my constituency, Millersneuk primary school in East Dunbartonshire has a working group that is devoted to building the science curriculum, which gave teachers the freedom to plan lessons so that they could deliver science as a distinct subject or as part of an interdisciplinary experience. That resulted in greater professional learning, increased staff confidence and engagement of learners in better planned and structured investigative and collaborative learning experiences.
I am optimistic that we are on the right trajectory when it comes to STEM learning, but there is still work to do.
I begin by thanking my former colleagues on the Education and Skills Committee for the work that they undertook on STEM in early years and paying tribute to Clare Adamson, to whose heart I know that the issue is close.
Like other longer-serving members of this Parliament, I am very conscious that, despite the fact that STEM issues have been on our agenda for a long time, we have not yet made the significant progress that we want to make and which our young people deserve. How often have we said that there will be transformational developments in this area? How often have we said that we must create the right educational, intellectual and long-term job opportunities for all ages? How often have we said that it is from the earliest ages that our young pupils should feel inspired, seek solutions, push boundaries, ask questions, inquire about how things work and take full advantage of all the things that we can teach them in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?
From all the evidence that we have heard over several years, there are some really key issues, the most important of which, as far as I am concerned, is the quality of science teaching in the early years. Members know that I have long been an advocate of dedicated science teachers in primary school, following the strong evidence that the Royal Society of Chemistry submitted to us some years ago. I was and remain very persuaded of the unquestionable benefits of specialists in the classroom, whose ability to create that first spark of science enthusiasm can do so much to put our young people on the right road.
I fully understand why the Government talks about the broad curriculum and cross-curricular subject learning in the curriculum for excellence, but I think that there are strong reasons for trying to increase the number of dedicated science teachers in our primary schools. It is important that young children can start learning to think in specific ways to help them to engage with an increasingly technological and digital world. Furthermore, without changes to the structure of training and teaching, I do not think that it will be easy to develop the appropriate career trajectory for STEM teachers and to provide that innate attraction to the job, which lies in the impact that they can have in the classroom.
The Scottish Government has poured vast sums of money into focusing on STEM, and although that is a welcome development, changes to the framework of training are crucial. I hope that that will come through in the committee’s investigation into teacher training.
The Scottish Government is absolutely right to argue that local authorities must have autonomy in managing funding but, as has been the case in music tuition, it is clear that there are issues with resource provision, especially for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, on a recent visit to the Roslin institute, I was told that a number of local authorities had been unable to afford the bus hire to enable their pupils to go on what is one of the best and most imaginative school science visits that I have ever seen. That is a big worry, and I agree with the learned societies group, which believes that we should collect more data about who is having to bear the brunt of the cost of science education.
Looking back at all the Scottish Government-commissioned reports on STEM, of which there are several, the good intentions are there for everybody to see, as are the ambitions with regard to what needs to happen to ensure that our young people have a better STEM experience.
Those ambitions are not the problem; changing attitudes is a different story. If there is one lesson from the committee’s work, it is the essential need to break away from the constraints, which seem constant when it comes to STEM education.
As I leave the committee, I suggest that we need better coherence between what the science experts are telling us, what teacher training programmes involve, and what local authorities can commit to on dedicated science teachers in our primary schools. That is a big job, but a very important one.
As we have heard, the Education and Skills Committee took extensive evidence and recognised the growing seriousness with which schools across Scotland take STEM in the early years. Scotland can flourish as a science nation only if science is embedded in education from the earliest stage, and there is much across Scotland’s education system that seeks to do just that. It is only right that we take an opportunity to celebrate that.
I have been delighted to see some of the positive steps that have been undertaken in recent years. We have made STEM education a clear priority in Scotland through emphasising the importance of numeracy and mathematics education, lessons in the natural sciences, and coding and technological understanding for students in the early years, which other members have alluded to. We are doing that by putting millions of pounds towards boosting STEM education and encouraging people to pursue STEM careers. We are putting those funds towards promoting the programmes of our partner organisations and supporting STEM educator training, and we are seeing some results, with year-to-year percentage increases in important metrics, such as Scottish STEM educator training entrants and female scientific apprenticeship participation.
One reason for the report—it was certainly not the only reason—relates to the wide understanding among teachers of the need to overcome continuing barriers to young women taking up careers in STEM. As Clare Adamson mentioned, we still have to tackle lingering perceptions that are gained at a very early age about whether science is for girls. Research has identified that children as young as six report gendered differences in relation to levels of interest, confidence and self-efficacy regarding STEM learning.
With that in mind, the report recommends that the improving gender balance and equalities programme monitor
“the capacity to provide support that can reach schools and early learning settings”.
It also recommends that the Scottish Government develop
“a means of measuring tangible progress in schools and early years settings in relation to gender balance” in its STEM initiatives.
The need to ensure that teachers have confidence about teaching STEM subjects in the early years is closely related to all those aims. Although 63 per cent of teachers said that they were confident in teaching STEM subjects overall, their confidence levels became more complicated when the component subjects of STEM were separated out. Rona Mackay alluded to that. At the Scottish learning festival workshop, teachers and early years practitioners were asked about which element of STEM they felt most confident in. Forty-five per cent said science; 2 per cent said technology; 3 per cent said engineering; and 50 per cent said maths.
Education Scotland’s £1.4 million STEM professional learning grants are clearly a step that is intended to address some of those issues. Education Scotland has said that the technology side clearly
“needs more support, especially engineering, but .. we also still have work to do in terms of mathematics and numeracy. That is why the second round of the grants programme, which we launched last week, continues to have an extremely strong focus on mathematics and numeracy.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 5 June 2019; c 8.]
I suspect that the committee and the Government have a shared understanding of the need to address all those matters through emphasising those subject areas in future enhancing professional learning grants and in initial teacher education. The Government has already responded to the committee’s recommendations, and I welcome the positive tone of that response.
To conclude, the report is a constructive one that has, likewise, received a constructive response from the Government.
I thank the Education and Skills Committee for its work on STEM education. Its inquiry and subsequent report have shown the scale of the challenge that is ahead. I hope that the committee will continue to press the Government to take the necessary steps to address the issues and to improve equity in and the availability of STEM education.
I welcome the recommendations made by the committee and the conclusions drawn from its inquiry. Its 22 recommendations, all of which are evidence based, must be accepted and acted upon by the Government. They include that STEM subjects should be at the heart of the education system, and that the focus that is placed on them should be equal to the focus on literacy and numeracy. Further, such subjects should be introduced into the curriculum as early as possible. I am pleased that the Government agrees with such views and is creating more opportunities for children to learn through STEM from the age of three. However, as we learned through the committee’s inquiry, such opportunities are not afforded to all children, because of gender bias, poverty, geography and the availability of resources for teachers and practitioners in education settings.
Before I address those issues, I turn to the points that were identified in relation to teacher and early years practitioner confidence. I believe that increasing the confidence and ability of primary teachers and those in childcare settings will help to tackle the systemic problems in STEM education. The committee has recommended that, as was highlighted by many stakeholders in its inquiry, confidence levels should be expressed over the four individual STEM disciplines. That is an absolute must if the Government wants to target resources on the disciplines about which there is particular concern, which, as the report highlights, are engineering and technology.
Gender bias and stereotypes must be eradicated if we are to see real change in gender equality, and that aim extends to STEM education. Children as young as six are aware of gendered differences. That should not be happening; all children should have access to the same educational opportunities, and equity in their career paths. The committee’s report tells us that
“A whole school or whole early learning and childcare setting approach is key to countering the ingrained pattern of early stereotypes limiting people’s aspirations and informing future career decisions and attitudes.”
The inquiry shows that deprivation is a major barrier to delivering and improving STEM education. We know that resources in schools have been scaled back over the past decade, that teachers themselves are buying equipment, and that parents are being asked to help to fund classroom resources. The SNP is quick to take credit for many things, but even though cuts to local councils have been sustained for more than a decade, which has resulted in teachers and parents having to fund STEM activities, it is quick to absolve itself of any responsibility.
A range of the committee’s witnesses gave evidence that the lack of so-called STEM capital is creating more barriers for children. Asking parents to help to fund classrooms places further pressure on those from the poorest backgrounds, compounding the financial stresses that many parents face every day. The Government should, without hesitation, accept and act upon all the committee’s recommendations on deprivation and gender.
We all want Scotland to be the best place for children to learn and grow. The roles of science, technology, engineering and maths are crucial in creating the jobs of the future, which we hope will be sustainable and will improve the lives and opportunities of everyone.
I again thank the committee for its valuable report. I hope that we will see the Government taking action to meet the many challenges that it highlights.
I am not a member of the Education and Skills Committee, but I take a keen interest in STEM whenever the opportunity arises. The committee and those who have provided evidence to it are to be congratulated on producing the report, which in many ways reinforces issues that have been around for a while.
The report probably hits the nail on the head at the outset when it talks about confidence within the profession in the four key areas in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths. As other members have mentioned, if we separate those elements, we see a different picture emerging in confidence levels in teaching science and maths and in teaching technology and engineering.
Lorna Hay, who is mentioned in the report, highlighted the fact that confidence is not so high in teaching computer science and engineering, and that view seems to be supported by others who contributed. For me, the surprising thing about that is that anyone should actually be surprised by it. It has been an issue for a long time and regularly features as a discussion point when computing in the curriculum is mentioned. How should we train our teachers and early years practitioners about the wonders of computing and the possibilities that it can open up for our children, and for them, in the digital word that we live in?
I am pleased to see that the Scottish Government is aware of that and is taking action through its STEM professional learning grants, which seek to help 14,000 practitioners this year. How will we know whether those grants work? We will clearly have to see an improvement in confidence levels; I hope that we can look further than that at the impact of those grants on the children and young people themselves. Will they become more enthused with STEM, to such an extent that they feel that they want to stick with it in later years—particularly the girls?
There are social and cultural issues around that. That lack of confidence sets in at a very early age, so we need to do more to intervene at a much earlier age to turn that around.
I hope that I am not overdramatising the issue. It is crucial to provide that confidence, through giving our teachers and early years staff the ability to enthuse our youngsters to such an extent that they see STEM as a fantastic option with great opportunities for their future.
What more can we learn about the gender imbalance issue, which is a concern for a number of members? The committee correctly focused in on the issue in order to bring it to our attention once more. A few weeks ago, I welcomed a group of school students from Dundee to the Parliament, all of whom were bright and enthusiastic about developing a career in software development. All of them were males—with not a single female among them.
We know the social, cultural and stereotyping issues—science is for the boys, as are engineering and oily rag pursuits—and that we have to keep working on that. I had to laugh at one of the comments from Talat Yaqoob and Toni Scullion, who lamented that they had seen an attempt to make chemistry attractive to females through a demonstration of how to make perfume.
As usual, I am indebted to East Ayrshire Council for providing me with a little insight into the region’s STEM agenda. The children get to engage with STEM experiences both indoors and—increasingly—outdoors, in all the region’s early childhood centres. Community engagement works well there too, and local STEM ambassadors from Spirit AeroSystems are involved. There is a lot to be proud of across all the East Ayrshire communities.
The committee is to be congratulated on its wide-ranging and thoughtful report, which touches on the many issues that we face—on confidence building, resourcing, equality of access and the continuing issue of attracting more females into science. The Scottish Government has put in place really good initiatives, and there is really good practice in East Ayrshire. The report is a welcome acknowledgement that there is much more work to do to take the STEM agenda forward.
As one would expect, we have heard a fair bit about the challenges that the committee report identified in improving STEM education and learning in early years and primary schools. We have also heard about the driver for that, which is the need for skills for the future and for what the committee convener always likes to call the fourth industrial revolution—the STEM-based industries that we will need in the future and which will create prosperity.
The briefing that BT provided for us tells us that the tech sector needs 13,000 new skilled professionals each year. We will have to do something different soon if we are to come anywhere close to meeting that demand. The briefing is a case in point, because it also tells us about the very significant resources that BT is developing to support teaching of STEM in primary schools. That is very good, but the problem is that we cannot leave something as important as that to the efforts of a private company such as BT.
It is incumbent on companies that need STEM skills to play their part in making that possible, but it cannot be the foundation of STEM learning.
STEM learning must be consistent across the board, as we have heard from many members. That is also true of the young engineers and science clubs programmes that are run by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, STEM ambassadors, Scottish Engineering’s young engineers programmes and the work that was mentioned by Ross Greer that science centres do.
All of those are first-class initiatives, but they are all too randomly dependant on enthusiastic teachers to run and engage with them, on local enterprises being there to engage with schools, or on access to facilities, which is less likely in schools in rural areas or very small schools.
It all comes back primarily to ensuring that all primary teachers have confidence in teaching STEM. Evidence to the committee from the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s learned societies group clearly states that
“Teacher expertise has the greatest effect on student achievement.”
That is one of the reasons why the committee’s next major report will be on initial teacher education.
The truth is that we do not even know the scale of the problem because, as Willie Coffey and Mary Fee said, surveying confidence in STEM actually hides the problem. Often, a high level of confidence in teaching maths masks a very low level of confidence in teaching science and engineering. The Government needs to start collecting that baseline information in a disaggregated way. That is a very easy thing that it could do.
Of course, it is not just about initial teacher education; it is also about continuing professional development. Ross Greer spoke about that. The committee heard that the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre is already providing high-quality STEM teacher training for primary teachers, and would like to do so for more, indeed for all, of them. I know that the convener is already involved with that excellent organisation.
How disappointing, in that case, that SSERC responded to the committee’s report by saying that discussions with the Scottish Government about making its programme more comprehensive have not been positive, and that funding is not forthcoming for expansion of its activities. I know that some members will groan at the suggestion, but Mary Fee was right to say that we will not make progress on that unless we are prepared to pay for it. That is the crux of the issue.
Liz Smith was right to say that we know all that and that we know much of what we have to do but are not doing it fast enough. The committee heard from Professor Ian Wall how previous reports that he had been involved with—for example, those that have been prepared by the science, technology, engineering and mathematics education committee—have made similar recommendations in the past, but the Government has not progressed them with the required urgency, consistency or investment. If we are serious about creating opportunities for our young people in the technology sector, and about investing in the future economic prosperity our country, that has to change, and it has to change now.
We have heard many times in the chamber and in the debate about the importance of encouraging and promoting STEM education, particularly for our youngest generations. The debate has shown that a truly lifelong approach to STEM learning is required. There must be a radical change in how we promote and deliver skills.
Of course, things are by no means bleak. Over many years—decades, in fact—there have been numerous initiatives from schools, charities, volunteers and even from national institutions including the BBC, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh festivals, which have fired the imagination of young people in STEM fields. Many people will remember their first glimpse of a new technology or their first chemistry experiment. Those are often events at which horizons are opened, when the world and its building blocks suddenly become real and the everyday somehow becomes special.
The challenge for us, for educators and for parents is to open our youngest children’s eyes to the incredible range of possibilities and opportunities that are available to them. I have previously raised the importance of careers guidance at all stages of children and young people’s lives. We know that in STEM, as in other areas, early impressions of jobs and work can stick. Very young children can still identify certain careers as being for men or women, as other members have mentioned. Once established, those impressions can be difficult to break, so we see significant gender divides throughout schooling, in universities and apprenticeships and, inevitably, in careers. I was delighted to meet two female modern apprentices earlier today who are working in the automated engineering sector and the construction sector. There are, obviously, exceptions to the rule.
As a new member of the Education and Skills Committee, unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to participate in the inquiry into STEM in the early years, which reported in November. The report is a serious and well-considered piece of work, and some of the concerns that it raises will not be straightforward to address.
As Jamie Greene and Ross Greer highlighted, there are questions of confidence among teachers and early years practitioners about delivering age-appropriate STEM teaching and the initial training that they receive. Of course, the term “STEM” is a generalisation and is, as technology enters so many fields of our lives, an increasingly imprecise term. The breadth of the STEM field means that it becomes a question of priorities. We need to consider what knowledge we emphasise, and what we signpost and when. The committee touched on some of those underlying issues in its recommendations.
The issues relating to early years practitioners will be even more important as provision of funded childcare is rolled out and new entrants are increasingly required. As I mentioned, STEM is, by its nature, evolving, so it is important that resources and flexibility are available to provide continuing training and development for teachers and early years practitioners. We should also look to questions about knowledge sharing, collaboration and interdisciplinary learning.
As a Highlands and Islands MSP, I want to talk briefly about the committee’s conclusions on remote and rural areas. Local authorities in my region are, by necessity, using learning technology in innovative and impressive ways. Equally, they suffer from poor connectivity and central-belt bias when innovation is brought from outside. That must be addressed. Central initiatives clearly should not stop in the central belt.
Members from across the chamber have made good speeches. I am sorry that I do not have time to cover them all, but I will briefly mention a few. My colleague Jamie Greene spoke about STEM being at the heart of the curriculum. Iain Gray spoke about his experience; I am sure that I am not the only member who wants to learn how he demonstrates the speed of light with a microwave oven and chocolate buttons.
Liz Smith talked about the resources that are going into STEM and said that we have not made the progress that needs to be made. She highlighted the need for dedicated science teachers in primary schools, which she has spoken about previously.
The debate has been a considered one on an important subject. It is a positive thing that we are having it and that Parliament is pushing forward on STEM, even in less-obvious areas of our education and skills landscape. It is vital for the future of our young people that we get it right.
I, too, welcome the debate and congratulate the committee, its members and everyone who gave evidence on an important subject and a challenge that our country faces.
I pay tribute to all STEM practitioners across the country. Many members will have had the opportunity to visit schools and early years settings, as well as colleges and universities, and to witness the really good work that is being done across Scotland, thanks to the input of the enthusiastic people who support the STEM agenda. Of course, I also pay tribute to the enthusiastic children and young people to whom Iain Gray referred. Just in the past few months, I have visited many schools and early years settings in my constituency. It is truly a sight to behold to see just how enthusiastic young people are about STEM activities.
The Government is committed to ensuring that we have a highly skilled and educated population who are equipped with the STEM knowledge and capability that are required for them to adapt to and thrive in a fast-changing world and economy. All members have accepted that STEM skills are more relevant than ever. Ross Greer highlighted the global climate emergency, which is but one of the big challenges that we all face. STEM skills will drive the creativity and innovation that Scotland will need in order for it to thrive in the global marketplace and to meet the challenges, including those that arise from the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
As many members have said, all the evidence points to the need to start engagement with STEM early. As the committee’s report suggests, children’s perceptions of who can do what kind of job form at an early age—perhaps six or seven—so, if we want to tackle ingrained gender disparity in the workforce, which many members have mentioned, we need to start young. Learning in mathematics, science and technology is progressive and needs to be built on in each stage of education. Therefore, the earlier young people can start to get to grips with the concepts and principles of the subjects the better. That is why the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre, which many members have referred to and which runs a science and technology programme for primary teachers, has been funded for many years by successive Administrations.
Next week, I will publish the second annual report of the five-year STEM strategy—I am sure that all members will pay attention to that—which will show how we are making progress on STEM.
I turn to issues that have been raised by members and are in the committee’s report. I am pleased that the committee found high levels of commitment to and enthusiasm for STEM in our schools and early years settings. I acknowledge the amount of innovation that is currently under way around the country in relation to STEM. The committee said that that must be consolidated and that we must ensure that everyone, everywhere, benefits. I could not agree more.
Jamie Halcro Johnston mentioned the need to reach out to rural and remote communities. There are a number of ways in which that is happening now. A fair proportion of grants go to rural settings for professional development for practitioners, schools and early years settings. The science centres, which the Scottish Government funds, have specific outreach programmes for rural and remote communities, and there are public transport subsidies available to ensure that schools and other groups can pay for bus travel to the centres.
A number of members mentioned teachers. We continue to provide more bursaries for career changers, so that we can get more STEM teachers into the education system. There were 108 such bursaries awarded in 2018-19, 111 in 2019-20, and the Scottish Government will, in the next couple of weeks, announce the next round of bursaries for 2020-21. Professional learning and STEM grants of nearly £2 million have assisted education practitioners in all parts of Scotland, and have involved more than 700 educational establishments and nearly 14,000 practitioners this year alone.
We have continued to support the raising aspirations in science education—RAISE—primary science development programme, and the SSERC primary cluster mentoring programme.
We have STEM advisers working with Education Scotland. They are dedicated to supporting STEM education in each of Education Scotland’s six regional improvement collaboratives, and they work alongside advisers who specialise in mathematics and digital skills. Digital skills were mentioned by many members.
We have a specific initiative that is dedicated to improving gender balance and equalities. We have taken action to raise awareness of gender bias among parents, families and teachers at all stages of the education process. We want to build on that: up to December 2019, Education Scotland’s improving gender balance and equalities officers engaged with 50 school clusters and held more than 200 engagements with practitioners. There is a lot more happening on that agenda that I could talk about. We will continue to build on our work in that area.
It was mentioned that we should be giving more funding to SSERC: I confirm that its activity around the country will expand and will not contract.
A lot is happening at all stages of education so that we can transform Scotland into a STEM nation. We are going in the right direction, but there is a lot more to do, so we welcome the committee’s report, which provides signposts to how we can make things even better.
I thank the clerks and my fellow committee members for the work that has gone into the report. It is a useful and instructive report, which has been reflected in the debate. I thank fellow members for engaging with the outcomes of the work, because I joined the committee at the tail-end of the inquiry. Indeed, my main input was in taking part in the hackathon that the convener, Clare Adamson, referred to. It was great fun and, in a sense, it summed up what we need to do, which is to demonstrate that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not about dry numbers but that what is important is applying them to achieve creative outcomes.
I will not cover all the following points, but there are four or five broad areas that have been covered by the report and members during the debate. Those areas are the undoubted importance of culture with regard to STEM; issues to do with teacher education and the structure of the profession; the structure of the institutions in support of STEM activities; access to STEM; and, above all else, the importance of measuring outcomes as we seek progress.
It is important to highlight the importance of tackling the cultural issues. A number of members, including the minister, the convener, Ross Greer and Willie Coffey, quite rightly pointed out that we need to demonstrate to people that science is for them. Our biggest task is to prevent people from thinking that science roles are not accessible to them or appropriate for them. Above all else, doing that work with girls is hugely important if we are to tackle gender imbalances.
Liz Smith spoke very well about teacher education and the structure of the profession, and some of those issues, which Beatrice Wishart and Jamie Greene also raised, are reflected in the report. We must treat with caution calls for initial teacher education to be altered. If we were to include everything that people have called for to be included in initial teacher education, we would never have any teachers entering the profession, because by the time they had finished their training, they would have to retire. However, we need to look at the content of continuing professional development and initial teacher education for STEM subjects.
Rona Mackay and others quite rightly pointed out the need to differentiate between the different elements of STEM, and that should take place as the basis of any structural change. The training of early years teachers is also important, particularly given the complex structure of that part of the education system.
We could have covered at greater length issues such as collaboration through school clusters, regional improvement collaboratives and the future role of SSERC. Alasdair Allan made some good points about the progress that has been made in literacy and numeracy, and the need to make similar progress in STEM.
I do not think that it is possible to address this topic without noting the geographical, social and financial issues relating to access. The concept of STEM capital, which a number of members mentioned, is useful when contemplating all those issues.
Above all else, we need to ensure that we measure progress. Given that the report is on science, it was only appropriate for the committee to take a scientific approach to its recommendations. Out of a total of 22 recommendations, nine require improved measurement of progress. I hope that the Government will take forward all nine of those recommendations in the report that it will announce next week.