Interview: Shirley-Anne Somerville on the Scottish Government's work towards a STEM strategy

Written by Kate Shannon on 7 April 2017 in Inside Politics

The Scottish Government published its draft STEM education strategy in November and work is now underway on the final version

Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science - Image credit: Scottish Government

In November, the Scottish Government published its draft STEM strategy for consultation.

It outlined future proposals for the subjects and, for the first time, plans to co-ordinate all of the work already underway to promote STEM skills across all age ranges and settings in one strategy.

Professor Sheila Rowan, Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) for Scotland, said: “Knowledge of STEM can make a huge difference to numeracy and digital skills.

“These are fundamental life skills that are increasingly important in today’s economy.

“I look forward to speaking to employers and others in the wider science sector about how we can best support the aims of this strategy and help increase STEM skills and confidence in people of all ages.”


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Launching the consultation, Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “STEM knowledge and capability doesn’t just provide significant career opportunities for individuals, it ignites a passion for learning that helps our young people to develop the skills and confidence they need to succeed in whatever field they choose.

“The draft strategy sets out the steps we believe must be taken to improve current levels of enthusiasm for STEM subjects and encourage uptake of the specialist skills necessary to work in the ever-increasing STEM sectors of the economy.

“I have set out our vision for the future but I would urge anyone with an interest to respond to this consultation.

“The future of STEM affects us all, so please ensure your voice is heard. All ideas are welcome, the bolder the better.”

The consultation closed at the end of January and when Holyrood meets Somerville, she’s busy working with her team and others on the final strategy.

When asked why STEM is so important to the Scottish Government, she is keen to point out it is vital to Scotland as a whole.

She said: “STEM skills are very important, particularly numeracy, mathematics and digital skills, and it is important that those are acquired by all our young people and indeed people already in work, needing to train.

“These skills are going to be integral to the vast majority of jobs that people have and we need to ensure they run throughout our education system.

“There’s then the added advantage of encouraging more people to take on STEM subjects because of the opportunities out there for them as individuals and for the economy.

“If we update our skills based around STEM, we will have enough people with the right skills to take up the career opportunities that are present in Scotland.

“There is a huge opportunity for Scotland to really specialise and take advantage of key growth areas.

“We are seeing more passes in STEM subject in schools than we saw in 2007 and we’re seeing more college places in these areas and the same within universities.

“I don’t think it’s true to say that these areas haven’t been popular but there’s a great opportunity for people to take more advantage of the job opportunities which exist.

“We need to increase that inspiration and enthusiasm and get more people into this area.”

Speaking of the recent consultation, Somerville and her team have been busy.

“We received 192 responses from our online consultation, but on top of that we held a number of events which I took part in,” she said.

“For example, we had one on gender which I co-chaired with the CSA [chief scientific adviser] and we organised with Equate [an organisation promoting and encouraging the advancement of women in science engineering, technology and the built environment].

“We had another event with employers which specifically looked at the skills they require.

“We engaged with young people directly and got consultation responses back from them and we’re also engaging with parents to ensure that those influences on young people’s course and career choices are taken account of.

“Those have all been very interesting and useful consultation exercises, allowing us to have a wide group discussion around a number of subjects.

“What’s heartened me is how many of them have come back to the same core challenges around how we get ready to deliver on STEM.

“Whether that’s the gender aspect, the employers or education leaders, a lot has come out from them and I hope they felt an opportunity to be able to feed in to what we’ve been doing.

“On top of that, we’ve undertaken visits to a number of schools, colleges and universities to look at what is going on there and what we can learn from good practice which is going on across Scotland. It is vital we look at how we replicate and encourage that.”

Young Scot, the national youth information and citizenship charity, was also involved in the consultation process and Somerville believes the young people’s ideas and views on STEM qualifications and careers were very important.

She said: “Another event I undertook which I found exceptionally insightful was a visit I did to my old high school, Kirkcaldy High, where the rector got together young girls from S1 to S6.

“We had a discussion around why they had been interested in STEM, what they perceived as the barriers which prevented some of their friends being interested in STEM and about how they felt as young women about taking forward this agenda and what they were going to do after school.

“They were a very bright and articulate group of young women who were a credit to the school and we had a fantastic discussion about how they felt about STEM and their place in this.”

Gender issues have long plagued STEM. According to Equate, it is estimated that only 25 per cent of the STEM sector are women.

The organisation said despite boys and girls having an equal interest in science and technology, by the time girls enter their teens, their interest dramatically falls, regardless of their academic capability in science.

Boys are more likely to pursue subjects such as physics, chemistry, engineering and computing.

Somerville said one of the key pillars in the draft STEM strategy is equity.

She told Holyrood: “It is about ensuring that we have tackled the gender-balance challenge and we need to do it because we need the maximum amount of people to get involved in STEM.

“We can’t deliver enough young people with the right qualifications unless we tackle that gender gap.

“Equity is very important but excellence is also important. I’ve talked about how there is great work going on out there across Scotland and there are some fantastic examples of what is happening.

“It is the role of government to try and ensure we can facilitate and grow that good practice to make sure everyone has the same access to excellence in this area.

“We need to ensure what we do gives us the right qualifications and skills at the end of it, so the connectedness between what the education system delivers and what the economy needs is very important.

“That’s why we have been very keen as we developed this strategy to ensure the link with the skills networks and with employers to make sure we’re getting that balance right.

“The final pillar in the strategy is around inspiration. One of the things which has continuously come up is the need to inspire young people exceptionally early.

“I undertook a visit to the University of Edinburgh not long after I became minister, where we discussed how we lose women all the way through primary school, secondary school, then college and university.

“That leaky pipe is there and it’s the same for all young children, we need to inspire them really early with an interest and enthusiasm for STEM.

“One of the other visits I did recently was to Shaw Mhor Early Years Centre in Glasgow where they have completely taken on board the STEM agenda and are developing that within an early years context.

“It was a fascinating example of how you can start that inspiration very young and clearly the children were so enthusiastic and enjoying the lessons that were there.”

Somerville said the lessons were being enjoyed by young boys and girls alike and she is keen that this comes through as the final STEM strategy is developed.

She added: “When you look at the notion of whether a subject is seen as ‘hard’ or ‘easy’, those ideas are set very early, in primary school.

“There have been countless studies recently about young girls in primary school, having a fixed idea in their heads about what’s a boy’s subject and what’s a girl’s subject.

“That’s already happening in P1 and 2. We need to be there inspiring children about science, technology, engineering, mathematics and digital skills right at the start.

“We are looking to ensure they’ve got an excellent foundation to then be able to carry that all the way through primary and secondary school.

“Again and again, we come back to the idea that by the time you make your course choices in high school, you have already been through life experiences which might bring you to take something or not take something.

“That continues all the way through your career path so it’s important we get in there and inspire young people early.

“It’s also about giving the teachers the confidence to teach STEM and tie it in with Curriculum for Excellence, which is done through many fantastic examples all the way through Scotland and through every local authority.

“The Scottish Government is already funding a lot of work where primary school teachers are trained on how to take science back into the classroom.

“What we need to do is ensure this happens for every child and we have equity and excellence across the board where we can build up the confidence within early years and primary school to make sure that happens.

“There’s also a lot which goes on in the private sector that can tie in. Many of this is within secondary school so it is how we can work with the private sector and encourage them to see the opportunities of how they can work with the early years.

“Again, the example in Glasgow was actually a partnership with SSE where they were coming in and working with the nursery children.

“There are partnerships which are going on and it’s how we can encourage and facilitate those to carry on.

“How we do it within the education sector is important, but it’s also important to see how we can encourage the private sector to play a role, because there’s a lot of enthusiasm out there from employers to do this type of work, but we can work with them to ensure we’re doing that earlier on in the curriculum.”

While gender issues are important barriers to overcome, Somerville hopes the strategy will help other groups who have previously been underrepresented in STEM.

She said: “One of the examples we looked at in the draft strategy was to do with deprivation and whether there were barriers for people from deprived communities to access science festivals, science centres and other things which the Scottish Government funds.

“We want to look at whether we are doing that in a way which facilitates groups who are underrepresented.

“It is very important that as a government we look not just at the gender aspect, important though that is, but it goes back to the point that we need the maximum amount of people to be enthused by STEM and if we miss a demographic, then we’ve missed an opportunity to take those young people as well.

“If we enthuse and inspire early then we can perhaps assist in tackling some of the perceived barriers which are out there.

“It’s not one size fits all, you need to look at the different areas of the country, whether there’re aspects of how this should be developed within rural areas, compared to how we develop that in an urban setting.

“We need to ensure there’s an equity for young people, regardless of where they are brought up and we need to look at all of that to ensure we’re really maximising the opportunities which are out there for the individuals, but to deliver the skills we need for the economy as well.

“We’ll also be setting up a reference group which will be co-chaired by the CSA and Professor Iain Hunter from the University of Strathclyde.

“That’s to ensure we are taking forward the draft strategy, still listening very much to stakeholders and driving that through to the final strategy.

“I’m determined it will be action orientated and it is very important to have this group that can work with officials to develop the final strategy and input into that so we can get the strongest document at the end
of it.”

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