Next Steps for STEM Education and Training in Scotland

This half-day seminar was one in a series of similar events around public sector services provision operated by Scotland Policy Conferences. There were two sessions across the morning, the first chaired by Iain Gray, MSP and that after coffee by Clare Adamson, MSP.

The STEM Strategy

The first session was on the Scottish Government’s STEM strategy and began with a personal view and the recent history of it by Professor Iain Hunter1. He mentioned in particular the [STEM Strategy Implementation Group] (https://beta.gov.scot/groups/stem-strategy-implementation-group/)2 and summarised the STEM strategy, which was welcomed by several speakers at the seminar, as being about excellence in STEM learning, closing gaps, inspiring and connecting to the labour market. Professor Lesley Yellowlees3 and Polly Purvis4 also addressed delegates before these speakers formed the first panel for Q&A and commentary. A call for primary teachers to have more science qualifications so they can teach it (more?) was challenged, particularly in light of the narrowing of the curriculum in Scotland and the greater restrictions on accessing broad education, something I spoke about with Polly over coffee later in the morning. Societal attitudes and STEM literacy were also identified as important factors in improving engagement in STEM, particularly by girls. Creativity and confidence are the hallmarks of excellent primary science teachers, and are more important to development of STEM literate children than an extra science qualification for ITE applicants, my assertion of which during Q&A seemed to be against the zeitgeist of the seminar.

Widening participation

The panel for this session was made up of three speakers, Zoe Thomson5, Talat Yaqoob6 and Peter Finegold7. Zoe spoke very well indeed about the work she and her school have been doing to address the gender gap in STEM, drawing on the work done by the IoP’s Heather Earnshaw and in particular on unconscious bias. She also described how the school have addressed the issue of restricted subject choices, a model that I would like to see adopted across the country where possible. Talat addressed the important issue of institutional attitudes, something that I know from ex-pupils, girls who now are STEM PhDs and are working in engineering, who have reported the long struggle they have experienced not only at university, but also in the workplace, with the cultures of our society. Groupthink at conferences like this always makes me smile, then groan, then roll my eyes, and this one was no different. One delegate suggested in the discussion that gender equality should be enforced. Another that we should create “centres of excellence”. Yet another asked if initial teacher education includes “training” on unconscious bias. The chairman seemed relieved at my one-word answer.

Coffee

A conversation with Polly Purvis over coffee reconnected us – we know each other from the days when the Scottish Software Federation merged into ScotlandIS. I found that she also holds the view that there are some structural problems with the Scottish Education system which should be addressed such as the primary-secondary transition problem that leads (my words) to a costly regression in S1 and S2. Now, there may be biological reasons for this but they can certainly be mitigated by having a better structure such as the English Middle School that caters for what would be our P5-S2 range of ages and development.

Policy priorities for improving delivery of STEM education & training, new pathways into teaching

The “pathways into teaching” bit the title of this session is what attracted the attention of my school enough to send a delegate to this seminar, and brought my marketing colleague and people with a pitch from other ITE institutions along too. What a disappointment that it received hardly a mention, beyond a short question about the uptake of the £20K STEM teacher’s bursary. The four speakers for this session were Tom Renwick8, Martin McGuire9, Alastair MacGregor10 and Alison Hennessey11. Martin spoke about STEM hubs, Alison about access routes at Stirling, and Tom about being fluent in numeracy and literacy. He gave us all a handout that he spoke to but I found this surprisingly difficult to make sense of. Alastair spoke up for the technicians, and called for a reversal in the trend of undervaluing them and the underestimating the importance of good school technicians in providing good STEM education.

Priorities for business, best practice

The final session speakers were Paul Alford12 and Ken Edwards13. A number of the delegates had bailed by this point but they did miss a sensible perspective on STEM from Paul. He had a very pragmatic stance that came across in his call for contextualisation of STEM education, giving a number of examples from his industry that couldn’t really be argued with. Initiatives were mentioned throughout the morning but Academy9 stood out as a good example.

Reflections

As is often the case, there were things I would have liked to have explored further, such as differential pay for STEM teachers that reflects differentials in society. There is also the suggestion that computing teachers need to be computing graduates, a dogma that is choking supply needlessly (relatively few people in computing have computer science degrees – more likely physics or mathematics). It’s not necessary to be able to construct your own operating system to be called digitally literate, and digital literacy, perhaps along with scientific application and educational competence are what you need to teach computing in schools. Vocational (mostly online) programmes in computing are very good and keep up with developments: they surely have a place.

I was surprised by the number of delegates who weren’t afraid to reveal the shallowness of their knowledge at the same time as proclaim their expertise: there were several of these. One in particular plugged her new STEM education consultancy (including “Scotland” in the name for market impact) at the same time as asking what “growth mindset” is. Now, you may think that Carol Dweck’s work will fad (sic) away but we surely, all of us in education, are aware of what it is, and that there is something important in it for schools to connect with. Similarly with the cultural problem of adults telling their children they were “rubbish at maths”. A growth mindset is an antidote to Dunning-Krueger, but Dunning-Krueger doesn’t apply to mathematics does it?

One problem not addressed at the conference, is that there have been routes into teaching suggested that undervalue the importance of the education of educators: there is a danger, so far avoided by Scotland, I think, that we might be tempted to move towards an apprenticeship model of teacher training that will teach people the things that teachers do, without giving them the understanding or critical engagement required to know why they do them. This can only lead to what Feynman would call a “cargo cult” of new teachers and a further devaluing of the profession, something that I was pleased to hear Iain Gray14 call out in his introduction at the start of the day.

Finally, the networking opportunity at this seminar was enjoyable, including my conversation with a former choreographer, now dance educator, who shared with me the belief that creativity and the arts are important features of society, and that engineering requires design thinking and an appreciation of not just function but aesthetics. She was pleased to see at least one speaker use the STEAM acronym in their deck.

A transcript of the presentations and discussions will be published by the organisers in a few weeks.


  1. University of Strathclyde and SSAC member. 
  2. This group has always struck me as an odd mixture of academics and politicians. I would have thought that to implement a STEM strategy, you might need business and industry more than local government and social workers. 
  3. University of Edinburgh and LSG member. 
  4. Chief Exec of ScotlandIS
  5. Depute Head Teacher at Woodmill High School, Fife. 
  6. Director of Equate Scotland
  7. Head of Education Policy at the IMechE. He introduced his presentation on policy of improving gender balance in engineering by stating, “I’m not a politician, I’m not a woman, and I’m not an Engineer.” It was a good presentation despite his caveats. 
  8. <http://www.mathsontrack.com/> 
  9. Principal of New College, Lanarkshire
  10. CEO of SSERC
  11. STEM Education lecturer, University of Stirling
  12. Standards and Qualification manager at CITB
  13. Education Programme Lead, SDS
  14. Iain was a Physics and Mathematics teacher.