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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 Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

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.