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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 Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

We have heard many times in the chamber and in the debate about the importance of encouraging and promoting STEM education, particularly for our youngest generations. The debate has shown that a truly lifelong approach to STEM learning is required. There must be a radical change in how we promote and deliver skills.

Of course, things are by no means bleak. Over many years—decades, in fact—there have been numerous initiatives from schools, charities, volunteers and even from national institutions including the BBC, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh festivals, which have fired the imagination of young people in STEM fields. Many people will remember their first glimpse of a new technology or their first chemistry experiment. Those are often events at which horizons are opened, when the world and its building blocks suddenly become real and the everyday somehow becomes special.

The challenge for us, for educators and for parents is to open our youngest children’s eyes to the incredible range of possibilities and opportunities that are available to them. I have previously raised the importance of careers guidance at all stages of children and young people’s lives. We know that in STEM, as in other areas, early impressions of jobs and work can stick. Very young children can still identify certain careers as being for men or women, as other members have mentioned. Once established, those impressions can be difficult to break, so we see significant gender divides throughout schooling, in universities and apprenticeships and, inevitably, in careers. I was delighted to meet two female modern apprentices earlier today who are working in the automated engineering sector and the construction sector. There are, obviously, exceptions to the rule.

As a new member of the Education and Skills Committee, unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to participate in the inquiry into STEM in the early years, which reported in November. The report is a serious and well-considered piece of work, and some of the concerns that it raises will not be straightforward to address.

As Jamie Greene and Ross Greer highlighted, there are questions of confidence among teachers and early years practitioners about delivering age-appropriate STEM teaching and the initial training that they receive. Of course, the term “STEM” is a generalisation and is, as technology enters so many fields of our lives, an increasingly imprecise term. The breadth of the STEM field means that it becomes a question of priorities. We need to consider what knowledge we emphasise, and what we signpost and when. The committee touched on some of those underlying issues in its recommendations.

The issues relating to early years practitioners will be even more important as provision of funded childcare is rolled out and new entrants are increasingly required. As I mentioned, STEM is, by its nature, evolving, so it is important that resources and flexibility are available to provide continuing training and development for teachers and early years practitioners. We should also look to questions about knowledge sharing, collaboration and interdisciplinary learning.

As a Highlands and Islands MSP, I want to talk briefly about the committee’s conclusions on remote and rural areas. Local authorities in my region are, by necessity, using learning technology in innovative and impressive ways. Equally, they suffer from poor connectivity and central-belt bias when innovation is brought from outside. That must be addressed. Central initiatives clearly should not stop in the central belt.

Members from across the chamber have made good speeches. I am sorry that I do not have time to cover them all, but I will briefly mention a few. My colleague Jamie Greene spoke about STEM being at the heart of the curriculum. Iain Gray spoke about his experience; I am sure that I am not the only member who wants to learn how he demonstrates the speed of light with a microwave oven and chocolate buttons.

Liz Smith talked about the resources that are going into STEM and said that we have not made the progress that needs to be made. She highlighted the need for dedicated science teachers in primary schools, which she has spoken about previously.

The debate has been a considered one on an important subject. It is a positive thing that we are having it and that Parliament is pushing forward on STEM, even in less-obvious areas of our education and skills landscape. It is vital for the future of our young people that we get it right.