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I will start with the context of why it is important to get STEM right in the early years. At the moment, 37 per cent of all Scottish employment is STEM related, and I am sure that that figure will only rise in the years to come. We will not channel people into the specialist engineering or tech roles of the future without getting it right now, when they are three, four or five years of age.
When I joined the Parliament, one of the first debates that I participated in was on digital skills and STEM. Four years ago, I called on ministers to tackle what I thought were shortcomings in their STEM strategy, particularly around the trend of declining teacher numbers at that time. Fast forward four years, and a Parliamentary committee has summed up the thoughts that I had then.
As we have heard, a lot of good work has been done. We now have young STEM leaders, the My World of Work website, the careers hive at the national museum of Scotland and the great work in teacher training that has been done by New College Lanarkshire, to name but a few initiatives. Arguably, though, more can and should have been done by the Government in the past four years.
The committee’s report concluded several things that I want to highlight, the first of which is about teacher training and resource. We need to ensure that there is access to appropriate training for teachers and early years practitioners to equip them with what they need to deliver an age-appropriate STEM education. Secondly, we need to enable greater access to STEM by tackling some of the gender, ethnic, social and economic imbalances that affect the take-up of STEM at later stages in life. Thirdly, we need to get the infrastructure right, to physically enable teachers to deliver a truly connected and digital curriculum. In the short time that I have, I will address those three issues.
On teacher training and resource, the report outlined the specific issue of a distinct lack of confidence among many teachers in pursuing STEM-focused activities with children. The word “confidence” crops up a number of times in the report. In her evidence to the committee, Susan Boyd, who is a teacher from Perth and Kinross, said that, even with
“all the training in the world”,
“need the staff to deliver STEM education.”
“we need to create the resources .... and then we need to teach them. We do not have enough bodies on the ground to do that effectively.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 5 June 2019; c 22, 20.]
The committee was told that STEM education cannot just be one teacher’s passion; it has to be everybody’s—every teacher must be able to deliver it to a really high quality all the time. I could not have put it better myself.
When teachers were asked to rate their levels of confidence in STEM disciplines, 50 per cent said they were confident in teaching maths and 45 per cent said that they were confident in teaching science. However, only 3 per cent said that they were confident in teaching engineering and only 2 per cent said the same for technology. Those are not new findings or significant revelations. In 2017, the Scottish Government’s own STEM strategy acknowledged that it
“requires excellence in the education offered in early learning settings” and that more interventions were needed in the younger years.
On enabling greater access, we know that STEM disengagement begins as early as six years of age, and we know that we have a problem in getting more girls and black, Asian and minority ethnic students into STEM. Therefore, it is vital that we get them interested at an early age. It is important that we encourage and inspire enthusiasm in STEM at every level of education, across gender, race and social backgrounds. Science and technology are things that everyone and anyone can get excited about, and there should be no boundaries to participation in them.
Finally, on infrastructure and connectivity, before we tackle digital innovation, we need to ensure that every school—whether it is a rural, urban, city or island school—has universal access to what it needs to teach: adequate broadband, hardware and technical support. My colleague Jamie Halcro Johnston will touch more on that subject.
What would we like to see? There is a sensible debate to be had around STEM bursaries, with the specific purpose of increasing teacher numbers in those subjects. The roll-out of the expansion of early years provision, which we have talked about in the chamber, must be delivered sustainably, and it must deliver better early years STEM teaching. We must also get digital infrastructure right in nurseries and schools.
More importantly, STEM must sit at the heart of the curriculum from the early years onward, because it both enables and assists us to get the other basics right. Core subjects can hang off the back of it, teachers can get excited about it and children can be inspired by it. Only then can we be sure that we are giving young people the very best start possible in the economies of the future. If we get it right now, it will pay off later.