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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 Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

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.