Event report: those who can, teach STEM

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 7 April 2017 in Feature

Attracting the right people into science and technology teaching was a topic for discussion at this year's Holyrood STEM Scotland 2017 conference
 

Shirley-Anne Somerville, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, spekaing at STEM Scotland 2017 - Image credit: Alistair Kerr/Holyrood

There is a disparaging phrase that still prevails – ‘those that can, do; those that can’t, teach.

There was a degree of incredulity at Holyrood’s recent STEM Scotland 2017 conference in Edinburgh that this attitude still exists, but also an acknowledgement that it must be addressed if Scotland is going to train its next generation of scientists and engineers.

The problem, as education and science minister Shirley-Anne Somerville readily admitted, is that a teaching career is often pursued for “altruistic” reasons and that other careers – particularly in science and engineering – are more “financially attractive”.


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Ian Ritchie, former president of the British Computer Society and founder of tech trade body ScotlandIS, complained that Scotland “has gone backwards” in computer science teaching at a time when the local computing industry is booming.

“Nicola Sturgeon has said we need 12,000 new people with digital skills every year for the foreseeable future,” he said.

“Scotland’s universities currently graduate around 3,000 computer graduates, many of whom are from international destinations and go back, so we have got a massive, massive gap.

“It all starts in the schools and I’ve been very concerned that in the last 20 years we’ve got 14 per cent fewer computer science teachers in schools than we had 20 years ago, so we’ve gone backwards. This is terrible.

“I understand that obviously with the computing industry booming, people coming out of university with degrees probably don’t want to go into teaching because they can get much better jobs, but there must be solutions to this.”

He said Scotland does not encourage people to turn to teaching later in their careers.

“This is ridiculous – we need to do something about that,” Ritchie said.

Somerville agreed that more must be done to encourage older people with industry experience to become teachers.

“There are challenges in some areas because other careers are more financially attractive to graduates, so we need to be cognisant of that,” she said.

“But when we were doing research into the Inspiring Teaching campaign that we’re running at the moment, the people who wanted to get into teaching wanted to do it for very altruistic reasons.

“There was a certain group of graduates who wanted to get into teaching if we could prove that it is an inspirational and worthwhile career, and that is where we need to come in as a government to be able to do that.

“So we have taken action, we know that there is more that we need to do on that, and that does very much include encouraging people at different stages in their careers to come and join the teaching workforce.”

Paul Beaumont, head of section at the Scottish Education Research Centre, acknowledged that there remains a perception that “those that can’t, teach”.

“There is a degree of ignorance out there, but that is a phrase that one hears,” he said.

“The evidence about what teachers can do for their pupils and society is overwhelmingly positive, in the sense that teachers almost uniquely are gatekeepers to what pupils do beyond school.”

But Beaumont – who has worked in England, Wales and the USA – stressed that the teaching profession “is held in much higher esteem in Scotland than it is in England”.

“Teachers who go into the profession in Scotland, particularly in science, stay in teaching and do good stuff often for the rest of their careers,” he said.

“The half-life for a teacher in England is about five years.”

Maths teacher Pauline Sharp, deputy head of Drummond Community High School, rejected the notion that teaching is a fall-back profession.

“I have seen, and this is a credit to teacher training colleges, an absolute change in the student teachers and probationary teachers that we are getting in schools,” she said.

“In particular, the people who have been in industry and return to be teachers are excellent teachers coming through the colleges, who are passionate about what they do, not just about the holidays.

“I do not think they are people who could not get jobs in other areas of work.

“I agree that we do need to advertise teaching a bit more, but I don’t want it advertised in a way that people think it’s an easy option.

“We do want teachers that, like myself, are really passionate about it and we want to encourage young people into the workforce.”

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