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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 Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I thank my colleagues from the Education and Skills Committee who took part in the deliberations around our inquiry into STEM in early years education. I also thank the clerks for the work that they put into the inquiry and the many people who contributed both in providing evidence at committee and through the interactions that we had over the course of our deliberations. I particularly thank Toni Scullion, a teacher who not only gave evidence to the committee but brought along some colleagues to hold a dressCode hackathon to launch our report. We had 10 teams of secondary 1 girls taking part, some of whom had never coded before but managed to produce some outstanding work on the day.

This week is Scottish apprenticeship week, which encourages our young people to consider where their talents could take them and to let their imagination drive their ambition. However, back in March 2019, our committee heard that young people as young as six years old often have a fixed idea of what jobs they could do and, more importantly, of what jobs are not for them. Those preconceptions, which are regularly based on gender or social circumstance, limit their aspirations. They curtail a young person’s ambition and hamper Scotland’s ability to attract people to STEM-related careers, which will be vital to the development of our workforce through the fourth industrial revolution. That is what made the formative, early years STEM teaching the focus of our inquiry.

We visited the Primary Science Teaching Trust education conference at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which brought to life the potential of innovation at school level. The young people we saw that day had amazing projects and were very eloquent about what they were learning about STEM in school. We also held a workshop at the Scottish learning festival—at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow—to test out some of our findings from formal evidence on a group of around 50 teachers and early years practitioners. The committee was struck by the volume of groundbreaking work that is taking place across Scotland. We met self-titled “STEM converts”—people who did not study STEM at university or college but who have taken a passion for STEM into their teaching in the early years.

The challenges of unconscious bias and its impact on gender balance were recurring themes of the evidence that the committee heard, as was the disadvantage of coming from a deprived background. The need to ensure that children from rural and remote areas receive the same range and regularity of opportunities as those from urban areas was also a strong theme.

The committee has developed 22 recommendations, which align with the ambitions of the Government’s STEM strategy. A key takeaway is the importance of improving the confidence of teachers and early years practitioners, particularly in technology and engineering. One teacher, Lorna Hay, who has a passion for engineering, rightly outlined that STEM is made up of four constituent parts—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and that bundling the four together can be a hindrance to identifying the subjects that teachers have confidence in or where more appropriate support is needed and could be offered.

Some student teachers suggested that they were not confident that they could cover STEM in sufficient detail. Once teachers are qualified, the need for continuing professional development is clear. It is important to have more information on the prevalence of CPD in STEM disciplines across the teaching profession. We heard about the advantages of cluster working, whereby nurseries, primary schools and high schools collaborate to share knowledge and experience. However, finding time in a busy curriculum is, of course, never easy, and some witnesses cited an inability to source staff cover for lessons as an inhibitor to collaboration and CPD. A regular suggestion from teachers was that non-contact time could be increased in order to make time for dedicated CPD in STEM areas.

We also heard about some of the physical challenges of teaching STEM in schools. We heard from Dr Karen Petrie that internet connectivity is an issue in schools, even in urban areas where high-quality broadband is available. With the growing importance of technology in STEM learning experiences and the need to increase uptake of computing subjects, the committee recommended that the Government look at the extent to which that is an issue. The committee is always keen to hear directly from teachers about the challenges that they face.

A range of witnesses, including Professor Ian Wall, who was previously the chair of STEMEC—the science, technology, engineering and mathematics education committee—spoke about the value of interdisciplinary work, and one of our recommendations is that the Government look at the extent to which curriculum priorities such as literacy and numeracy can be taught through interdisciplinary learning. Blocks of time in a primary school that are dedicated solely to numeracy or literacy can be perceived as a barrier to interdisciplinary learning. Given the need for transferable skills and adaptability to respond to the evolving economy, the ability to understand how different disciplines interrelate will be a valuable skill for young people who are moving into employment and will allow them to meet the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution.

The inquiry also covered women’s representation in STEM. We heard from many inspiring women, including Talat Yaqoob, who is the director of Equate Scotland and was elevated yesterday to become a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Talat gave evidence to the committee that challenged preconceived notions about how to improve gender balance. She said that

“it is not about changing what engineering, computing or chemistry are. It is not about making chemistry about making a perfume kit—which I have actually seen and rolled my eyes at. It is not about changing what science is: science works the way it works. The difference should be that we provide spaces in which we can encourage and develop confidence in girls and women.”—[

Official Report, Education and Skills Committee

, 27 March 2019 ; c 9.]

Presiding Officer, I have many more things to say about our inquiry, but I believe that I have reached my time limit. I again thank all those who contributed.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the conclusions contained in the Education and Skills Committee’s 8th Report, 2019 (Session 5),

Report on STEM in early years education

(SP Paper 624).