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Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Early Years Education

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 4th March 2020.

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Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

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.