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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 Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I, too, welcome the debate and congratulate the committee, its members and everyone who gave evidence on an important subject and a challenge that our country faces.

I pay tribute to all STEM practitioners across the country. Many members will have had the opportunity to visit schools and early years settings, as well as colleges and universities, and to witness the really good work that is being done across Scotland, thanks to the input of the enthusiastic people who support the STEM agenda. Of course, I also pay tribute to the enthusiastic children and young people to whom Iain Gray referred. Just in the past few months, I have visited many schools and early years settings in my constituency. It is truly a sight to behold to see just how enthusiastic young people are about STEM activities.

The Government is committed to ensuring that we have a highly skilled and educated population who are equipped with the STEM knowledge and capability that are required for them to adapt to and thrive in a fast-changing world and economy. All members have accepted that STEM skills are more relevant than ever. Ross Greer highlighted the global climate emergency, which is but one of the big challenges that we all face. STEM skills will drive the creativity and innovation that Scotland will need in order for it to thrive in the global marketplace and to meet the challenges, including those that arise from the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.

As many members have said, all the evidence points to the need to start engagement with STEM early. As the committee’s report suggests, children’s perceptions of who can do what kind of job form at an early age—perhaps six or seven—so, if we want to tackle ingrained gender disparity in the workforce, which many members have mentioned, we need to start young. Learning in mathematics, science and technology is progressive and needs to be built on in each stage of education. Therefore, the earlier young people can start to get to grips with the concepts and principles of the subjects the better. That is why the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre, which many members have referred to and which runs a science and technology programme for primary teachers, has been funded for many years by successive Administrations.

Next week, I will publish the second annual report of the five-year STEM strategy—I am sure that all members will pay attention to that—which will show how we are making progress on STEM.

I turn to issues that have been raised by members and are in the committee’s report. I am pleased that the committee found high levels of commitment to and enthusiasm for STEM in our schools and early years settings. I acknowledge the amount of innovation that is currently under way around the country in relation to STEM. The committee said that that must be consolidated and that we must ensure that everyone, everywhere, benefits. I could not agree more.

Jamie Halcro Johnston mentioned the need to reach out to rural and remote communities. There are a number of ways in which that is happening now. A fair proportion of grants go to rural settings for professional development for practitioners, schools and early years settings. The science centres, which the Scottish Government funds, have specific outreach programmes for rural and remote communities, and there are public transport subsidies available to ensure that schools and other groups can pay for bus travel to the centres.

A number of members mentioned teachers. We continue to provide more bursaries for career changers, so that we can get more STEM teachers into the education system. There were 108 such bursaries awarded in 2018-19, 111 in 2019-20, and the Scottish Government will, in the next couple of weeks, announce the next round of bursaries for 2020-21. Professional learning and STEM grants of nearly £2 million have assisted education practitioners in all parts of Scotland, and have involved more than 700 educational establishments and nearly 14,000 practitioners this year alone.

We have continued to support the raising aspirations in science education—RAISE—primary science development programme, and the SSERC primary cluster mentoring programme.

We have STEM advisers working with Education Scotland. They are dedicated to supporting STEM education in each of Education Scotland’s six regional improvement collaboratives, and they work alongside advisers who specialise in mathematics and digital skills. Digital skills were mentioned by many members.

We have a specific initiative that is dedicated to improving gender balance and equalities. We have taken action to raise awareness of gender bias among parents, families and teachers at all stages of the education process. We want to build on that: up to December 2019, Education Scotland’s improving gender balance and equalities officers engaged with 50 school clusters and held more than 200 engagements with practitioners. There is a lot more happening on that agenda that I could talk about. We will continue to build on our work in that area.

It was mentioned that we should be giving more funding to SSERC: I confirm that its activity around the country will expand and will not contract.

A lot is happening at all stages of education so that we can transform Scotland into a STEM nation. We are going in the right direction, but there is a lot more to do, so we welcome the committee’s report, which provides signposts to how we can make things even better.