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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

The debate, which is welcome, takes place in the context of widespread consensus on the importance of improving STEM education, and the number of young people who choose STEM as a path for study and their career. We have heard some examples, and we know that in the years to come we will need thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of new STEM-based professionals if we are to meet the skills demands of our economy.

We also know that we have to start young. I think that that is widely accepted. The learned societies group on Scottish STEM education said, in its submission to the committee:

“Students with low science capital who do not express STEM related aspirations by age 10 are unlikely to develop such aspirations as they get older.”

Anyone who has taught science in a secondary school, as I have done, will know that the pupils who have decided that science is not for them will have done so long before they got to secondary school. That, of course, is why the committee focused on early years and primary education.

We have heard a lot about the committee’s report and we will hear more. I want to illustrate some of the challenges that we identified by talking about my experience a couple of years ago, when a large primary school in my constituency asked me to go in and do a science lesson with the primary 7 pupils, to mark science week. Never having been one to avoid a chance to get back into the classroom, I agreed. I went into the school and undertook an experiment to measure the speed of light using chocolate buttons and the old microwave from the staff room.

I had a great time. However, when I think about the experience, I realise that it illustrates a number of the problems that the committee identified. For example, the report talks about teacher confidence. The staff at that school felt that they had to ask someone who had—in the distant past—been a science teacher in a secondary school to come in to deliver a science lesson. They should have been much better placed than I was to deliver a science lesson in primary school, but they did not have the confidence.

Secondly, the event was a one-off. It was a special occasion to mark science week, and the whole of primary 7 was marched into the hall. It was certainly not a normal Friday morning in the school.

Finally, only I got to play with the microwave—and I was certainly the only person who got anywhere near the chocolate buttons—because the school does not have the resources to enable pupils to experience doing experiments for themselves.

The committee identified all those problems in our report. On the plus side, my previous professional experience having been with older young people, I found that the younger pupils’ enthusiasm for the science was tremendous, and it was just as evident among the girls as it was among the boys. Also, the experiment was real science: I hope that it was appropriate for children, but it was not dumbed down in any way or trying to appeal to children in the way that the committee convener referred to in her quote about

“making chemistry about making a perfume kit”.—[

Official Report, Education and Skills Committee

, 27 March 2019; c 9.]

There were positives in the experience.

The long and the short of it is that the committee recommends that, when it comes to STEM education in primary schools, we need to do an awful lot better than we do by getting someone like me to go in and do an experiment with a microwave. We need teachers to be confident, we need STEM teaching to be consistent and embedded in the curriculum, and we need STEM education to be participative so that all young people get the experience of proper, hands-on experimental science. Only then will we get the step change that the report demands and that—in fairness—the Government’s STEM education strategy seeks.