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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 Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

As one would expect, we have heard a fair bit about the challenges that the committee report identified in improving STEM education and learning in early years and primary schools. We have also heard about the driver for that, which is the need for skills for the future and for what the committee convener always likes to call the fourth industrial revolution—the STEM-based industries that we will need in the future and which will create prosperity.

The briefing that BT provided for us tells us that the tech sector needs 13,000 new skilled professionals each year. We will have to do something different soon if we are to come anywhere close to meeting that demand. The briefing is a case in point, because it also tells us about the very significant resources that BT is developing to support teaching of STEM in primary schools. That is very good, but the problem is that we cannot leave something as important as that to the efforts of a private company such as BT.

It is incumbent on companies that need STEM skills to play their part in making that possible, but it cannot be the foundation of STEM learning.

STEM learning must be consistent across the board, as we have heard from many members. That is also true of the young engineers and science clubs programmes that are run by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, STEM ambassadors, Scottish Engineering’s young engineers programmes and the work that was mentioned by Ross Greer that science centres do.

All of those are first-class initiatives, but they are all too randomly dependant on enthusiastic teachers to run and engage with them, on local enterprises being there to engage with schools, or on access to facilities, which is less likely in schools in rural areas or very small schools.

It all comes back primarily to ensuring that all primary teachers have confidence in teaching STEM. Evidence to the committee from the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s learned societies group clearly states that

“Teacher expertise has the greatest effect on student achievement.”

That is one of the reasons why the committee’s next major report will be on initial teacher education.

The truth is that we do not even know the scale of the problem because, as Willie Coffey and Mary Fee said, surveying confidence in STEM actually hides the problem. Often, a high level of confidence in teaching maths masks a very low level of confidence in teaching science and engineering. The Government needs to start collecting that baseline information in a disaggregated way. That is a very easy thing that it could do.

Of course, it is not just about initial teacher education; it is also about continuing professional development. Ross Greer spoke about that. The committee heard that the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre is already providing high-quality STEM teacher training for primary teachers, and would like to do so for more, indeed for all, of them. I know that the convener is already involved with that excellent organisation.

How disappointing, in that case, that SSERC responded to the committee’s report by saying that discussions with the Scottish Government about making its programme more comprehensive have not been positive, and that funding is not forthcoming for expansion of its activities. I know that some members will groan at the suggestion, but Mary Fee was right to say that we will not make progress on that unless we are prepared to pay for it. That is the crux of the issue.

Liz Smith was right to say that we know all that and that we know much of what we have to do but are not doing it fast enough. The committee heard from Professor Ian Wall how previous reports that he had been involved with—for example, those that have been prepared by the science, technology, engineering and mathematics education committee—have made similar recommendations in the past, but the Government has not progressed them with the required urgency, consistency or investment. If we are serious about creating opportunities for our young people in the technology sector, and about investing in the future economic prosperity our country, that has to change, and it has to change now.