The Learned Societies’ Group (LSG) in Scotland, which I chair, brings together learned societies and professional associations in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
We have recently submitted our response to the Scottish Government’s draft STEM Education & Training Strategy and welcomes the Government’s commitment to developing a systemic approach to providing STEM education.
The strategy aims to support those who will progress to study STEM beyond school and embark upon careers in those fields. It also seeks to ensure that the general population is equipped with an appreciation and understanding of STEM. This is especially valuable given the extent to which STEM underlies so much of current societal debate and development.
Identifying criteria for assessing progress against outcomes will be central to this and will require a lot more consideration. The outcomes are currently so broad as to make them unmeasurable.
Many of the proposed actions to support STEM are couched in general terms, such as ‘using data’, ‘exploring how’, ‘funding activity’ and ‘maximising engagement’. This demonstrates the need for an implementation plan at a far more specific level of detail. This should make clear performance indicators, key time lines and staging posts and, crucially, who will be accountable for delivery, particularly as much of this effort will be led by bodies outwith government.
The STEM strategy must integrate with other relevant Government strategies and frameworks, including the National Improvement Framework, Developing the Young Workforce, Making Maths Count and the Labour Market Strategy.
It also needs to take account of the contribution that universities and colleges can make, recognising the importance of supporting lifelong learning. We propose that the Government should organise discussions to consider the detail of how the STEM strategy is to be implemented.
A key priority linked to the need to close the attainment gap will be supporting learners so that they can see that STEM is for “people like them”.
The ASPIRES research project from King’s College, London, shows that, while most primary school age learners report liking science, very few aspire to become scientists. This demonstrates a need to promote the message that STEM enables young people to keep their career options open, providing them with highly sought-after transferable skills.
Addressing gender bias in subject choice requires holistic action, including whole-school interventions. To fully embrace diversity, the strategy needs to extend beyond encouraging more girls into STEM.
The draft strategy recognises that teacher competence has the greatest effect on student achievement, with early and primary years being crucial for STEM. However, a lack of confidence in teaching the sciences is an issue for many primary teachers. This reinforces the importance of ensuring that they are able to access STEM-specific professional development opportunities, including those delivered by the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.
This has implications for initial teacher education (ITE). Consideration should be given to whether science and mathematics should feature more prominently in entry requirements. We strongly recommend that the planned review of ITE should look at the level of STEM coverage in training programmes.
At the secondary school level there is a need to address the shortage of teachers in STEM subjects, especially in chemistry, computing science, mathematics and physics. The Government has announced new routes to recruit teachers, including in priority STEM subjects. Given the way in which teacher competence influences learners, it’s important that these routes reflect the high standards expected by the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
We appreciate that the Government consulted widely over the draft strategy and would encourage them to make full use of groups including the Scottish Science Advisory Council (SSAC) and the LSG.
In addition, the STEM Education Committee concluded its work last year in a comprehensive report which sets out specific and evidence-based recommendations for improving the provision of STEM education. We expect the final strategy to contain many of their recommendations.
Professor Lesley Yellowlees CBE FRSC FInstP FRSE is chair of the Learned Societies’ Group on Scottish STEM Education and past president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.