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.