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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 Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

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.