Root, branch and STEM: improving and promoting science and technology education in Scotland

Written by Jenni Davidson on 6 April 2017 in Inside Politics

The Scottish Government needs to improve Scotland’s performance in science and technology

Children using a computer at Edinburgh International Science Festival - Image credit: Allan MacDonald/Edinburgh International Science Festival

A few weeks ago, it was reported that a secondary school in Perthshire, in Education Secretary John Swinney’s constituency, had written to parents asking if any of them with a relevant degree could help out with teaching maths temporarily due to teacher shortages.

It was an awkward story for a government that has asked to be judged on educational attainment.

Maths is not only a key curriculum subject but also the backbone of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), an area the Scottish Government wants, and needs, to increase Scotland’s skills in.

And it is not only teacher shortages that are an issue, with pupil attainment and the general uptake of STEM subjects also needing attention.


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December’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) figures, a ranking of educational attainment among 15-year-olds in OECD countries, reported Scotland’s worst-ever performance in 2015 for the three core areas compared: maths, science and reading.

It was the first time since 2000, when PISA started publishing OECD countries’ educational performance, that all three areas in Scotland had been rated as ‘average’ compared with other OECD countries.

Science had fallen from ‘above average’ since the previous study in 2012 and the other two areas remained ‘average’.

In 2000 Scotland’s performance in all three was above average. In maths, only five countries were ahead of Scotland in 2000.

In 2015 it was 14, and 12 countries were ahead of Scotland in science, with English pupils “significantly above” Scottish ones, although Wales lagged behind Scotland.

Swinney said the result showed a need for “radical reform”.

The top performing countries overall were Japan, Estonia, Finland and Canada, with Singapore outperforming all others in science.

Students in the UK were more positive about science than in most other countries, but only 23 per cent of 15-year-olds in Scotland said they expected to be working in a science-related career at the age of 30, significantly lower than in Wales (28 per cent), England (30 per cent) and Northern Ireland (33 per cent).

The OECD notes that: “In almost all countries and economies, the expectation of pursuing a career in science is strongly related to proficiency in science.”

Scotland’s engagement in STEM is a significant issue; business groups repeatedly cite workforce shortages with core skills in technology as a significant challenge facing them.

The Royal Society of Engineering estimated in 2014 that a million new science, technology and engineering professionals would be needed in the UK by 2020.

Life sciences are key area for Scotland, with Minister for Business, Paul Wheelhouse launching a target two weeks ago aiming for the sector, which employs 37,000 people, to be worth £8bn by 2025.

And the gender balance in STEM is an area that still remains unresolved, with the effect that many girls and women do not pursue, or continue with, a career in STEM, as reported in the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s 2012 report, ‘Tapping All Our Talents’.

The Scottish Government published its draft STEM strategy for consultation in November, with four priority areas targeted: raising the level of STEM skills and knowledge (including digital and numeracy), reducing equity gaps in relation to gender and deprivation, ensuring young people are inspired to study STEM, and matching STEM education and training to present and future labour market needs.

The proposed actions fall into a number of areas, including teaching, apprenticeships, engagement and linking up schools with academia and employers.

Among the actions are increasing the supply of STEM teachers into secondary schools, considering minimum entry requirements for teacher training programmes, developing career-long professional learning for teachers and increasing promotion and uptake of master’s level courses in STEM subjects and teaching.

It will also expand Modern Apprenticeships to 30,000 new starts each year with a focus on STEM opportunities, as well as work-based Foundation Apprenticeships for S4, S5 and S6 pupils and expanding its ‘Making Maths Count’ strategy.

Plans for further equity and engagement include expanding the ‘Read, Write, Count’ campaign, which encourages learning outside of school, to P4-P7 in deprived areas, expanding the ‘Improving Gender Balance Scotland’ project (run by Skills Development Scotland, the Institute of Physics and Education Scotland), implementing the Scottish Funding Council’s August 2016 gender action plan and supporting Scotland’s science centres and festivals.

Last month at a Holyrood conference, Further Education and Science Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said that a new national STEM reference group, co-chaired by Scotland’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sheila Rowan, and Professor Iain Hunter from the University of Strathclyde, will help shape the final STEM strategy.

Somerville said: “Our draft strategy is about helping to raise the levels of STEM skills and capability for everyone.

“It is also about encouraging and inspiring more people to specialise in STEM, during their education and training – but also to return to or progress their STEM learning as adults – so they can make the most of those job, career and life opportunities.

“We need the different STEM activities, initiatives and programmes to be better aligned with one another to maximise their impact.

“In other words, we need a plan that makes the excellent practice that already exists in individual schools, colleges, universities and communities systemic across the whole country.

“The strategy will be dynamic and will constantly evolve to meet the challenges of the future and we will establish a reference group to provide external support and challenge to the Government during its development.”

There were 192 responses to the draft plan from groups and members of the public.

A summary of these was published two weeks ago, along with a report on Young Scot engagement, with young people giving their thoughts on the strategy.

Among the concerns raised was a lack of coherence and connectivity across STEM education and training, a lack of measurable outcomes and an absence of evidence on the effectiveness of current initiatives.

Some also suggested that there is a lack of genuine commitment to gender equity. Resourcing constraints were highlighted by several respondents too.

Commenting on the draft report, Professor Lesley Yellowlees, chair of the Learned Societies Group (LSG), said: “A priority should be to ensure that young people look on STEM subjects as being for ‘people like them’.

“ASPIRES research shows that while most primary school-age children like science, very few of them aspire to work in science.

“There is therefore a need to promote the message that STEM provides transferable skills that enable people to keep their career options open.”

The STEM strategy is just one of a number of strategies in related policy areas such as ‘Making Maths Count’, published in September, to promote greater enthusiasm for maths among children and parents; ‘Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce’ youth employment strategy, published in 2014; Scotland’s manufacturing plan, published last August; the National Improvement Framework; the school governance review; and the Scottish Government’s updated digital strategy, published last month.

In its feedback on the draft strategy, the LSG, a consortium comprising representatives from nine science and engineering professional bodies including the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Chemistry working to promote better STEM education, called for coherence across all the different strategies and suggested that mapping should be done to ensure there are no gaps or duplication.

The LSG also called for mathematics and computer science to be better recognised as disciplines in their own right, rather than maths being seen simply as underpinning other subjects and computer science sometimes used interchangeably with digital skills and ICT.

It warns too against an “instrumentalist approach”, that is, seeing STEM education as simply necessary for the economy and employment, rather it should be looked on as “invaluable” in and of itself in developing well-rounded citizens.

The SCDI (Scottish Council for Development and Industry) is more critical than the LSG of the draft strategy, saying: “SCDI regards this consultation document as very much a consultation on the preparation of a strategy rather than a draft strategy.

“Very significant work is now needed to develop a cohesive strategy which would be recognised as such by the employers, local authorities, educational institutions, learned societies, and others which will need to work together to deliver it.”

It calls for a focus on teachers and lecturers, both the “quality and quantity”, and improved inclusion, as well as more measurable outcomes.

SCDI also references the “comprehensive, evidence-based recommendations on how to improve STEM education and training” of the STEM education committee (STEMEC), which it was a part of.

An independent group of experts, STEMEC was formed to advise the Scottish Government and partners on improvements to STEM education.

STEMEC’s final report, published in September 2016, made 43 specific recommendations on, among other things, teacher training and numbers, primary science, interdisciplinary learning and women.

STEMEC’s recommendations include: the requirements for primary teachers should be increased, in the short term requiring all trainees to have a level 5 (National 5 or equivalent) qualification in a science, with a higher requirement to be introduced in five years’ time of a level 6 (Higher or equivalent) maths and a level 6 science qualification, as well as increased science training for newly qualified teachers in the first two years.

In secondary schools, the key issue is the number of STEM-qualified teachers. “The replenishment rate is not being met and there are serious shortages in subjects such as physics, chemistry and computing studies,” STEMEC notes.

In 2014 there had been a 14 per cent drop in computing teachers over the previous two years and 12 per cent of schools did not have a computer science teacher.

But in 2015-16, new entrants to PGDE courses for secondary teaching in STEM subjects fell well below target, with, for example, 48 per cent of places left unfilled in maths and 46 per cent in computing.

STEMEC points out that simply funding teacher training places is not enough, and work needs to be done to get STEM graduates to take them up.

To recruit from industry, however, STEMEC says will require not just marketing but course restructuring and tighter timetables to minimise the loss of income while retraining.

John Swinney announced just such an initiative in November last year, which combines the one-year teacher training and school-based probationary year into a single year, with the aim of attracting 200 more teachers, particularly from industry.

The STEMEC report also calls for a greater look at not just teacher numbers, but teacher time, workload, bureaucracy and support.

Scottish teachers have some of the highest contact teaching hours per year in the OECD, more than double the teaching hours of Denmark and around a third higher than the OECD average.

STEMEC says: “We do not make any detailed proposals but identify a serious problem that is wider than STEM but needs to be addressed in a serious, sustained and rounded manner.

“It is not susceptible to ‘sound bite’ politics about teacher numbers but requires a properly researched and developed strategy that considers teacher numbers, workload, contact time and bureaucratic demands.”

It mentions that a “recurring theme” in the report is the need for time to allow teachers to collaborate effectively on research-informed learning and teaching outcomes and it recommends that a “coherent national strategy” be produced by the Scottish Government for allowing teachers time to collaborate, undertake professional learning and deliver the Curriculum for Excellence.

The publication date of the final Scottish Government STEM strategy has yet to be announced, but in the meantime the new strategy reference group will have a key task of bringing together the significant body of research, opinion and current work to promote STEM, both at a national strategy level and in terms of grassroots work and partnerships, of which there are many.

After the strategy is published, the expert reference group will become an implementation group to drive forward the actions, ensuring they have a major stake in success.

But as the European Parliament’s 2015 report, ‘Encouraging STEM Studies for the Labour Market’, concludes: “Transforming young people’s attitudes to science is a long-term project that will not occur overnight.”



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