LSG: STEM education and training strategy

The Learned Societies’ Group (LSG), which brings together the learned societies and professional associations with a focus on the provision of STEM at school, is pleased to respond to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the draft STEM Education and Training Strategy. We welcome the Government’s commitment to bringing forward the strategy as a means of developing a systemic approach for the provision of STEM education and training in and across Government, its agencies and other partners.

We welcome the fact that the Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) has been involved in preparing the draft strategy. It will be crucial to ensure that its development takes full account of the evidence base and expertise which is available to the Scottish Government. We were disappointed to learn that the Scottish Science Advisory Council (SSAC), Scotland’s highest level science advisory body whose role is to provide independent advice to the Government, was not invited to contribute to the development of the draft strategy prior to its publication. We very much hope that the Government will seek input from the SSAC as
the strategy is further developed.

The STEM Education Committee (STEMEC) submitted its final report3 to the Government in May 2016 which set out 43 evidence-based recommendations for securing continuing improvement of Scottish STEM education. The development of the STEM strategy presented an ideal opportunity to build on the many constructive and specific suggestions made by STEMEC. However, we are concerned that the draft strategy is a missed opportunity in this regard as it makes only passing reference to STEMEC’s final report.

Many of the recommendations and issues raised in the STEMEC report had been highlighted by the work of its predecessor in the Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group (SEEAG) Report of 2012. Going back further, the SSAC report of 2003, Why Science Education Matters, also made recommendations for supporting and improving science education in schools. What these reports demonstrate, along with regular Government and Parliamentary consideration of these issues, is that there is a consistent view over a reasonably long timeframe of the main issues which need to be addressed in improving the
delivery of STEM education. The challenge for the Scottish Government will be to marshal the output of these reports and related developments in the form of a cohesive and comprehensive strategy for Scotland. This will require a focus on the processes by which strategic, system-wide change can be implemented. As part of this, it will be important that the STEM strategy makes strategic connections to other relevant Government strategies and frameworks, including the National Improvement Framework (NIF), the Making Maths Count initiative and the ongoing review of school governance, among others.
While these developments are mentioned within the document, the strategic nature of these connections should be strengthened. We believe that a coordinated strategic approach across Government and its partners will be crucial in order to ensure effective progress and avoid the creation of unhelpful silos.

While the current draft sets out an extensive range of actions, great care needs to be taken so as to ensure that the actions identified are appropriate. There is currently a clear gap within the strategy between the outcomes and actions identified, and the way in which progress towards their achievement will be assessed. This is understandable since it is an early draft. However, it is crucial that all those whose actions will be defined by the strategy are clear on what is expected of them. This demonstrates the need for an implementation plan at a far more specific level than the current strategy, making clear the success criteria, notably those which are quantifiable, key timelines and staging posts, and who will be accountable for delivery. The LSG would be pleased to contribute to the development of an implementation plan.

The lifespan of the strategy should be clarified as the current version makes a number of references to the CSA by name. We anticipate that the intention is for the strategy to remainin place beyond the term of office of the current CSA. This raises the related question of how does the Government intend to review and, as necessary, modify the strategy to ensure it remains fit for purpose.

We have not commented on every consultation question and, where we have considered it appropriate to do so, have grouped together related questions. We should be pleased to discuss our response with the Scottish Government and look forward to contributing to further iterations of the strategy.

SUMMARY

The Learned Societies’ Group (LSG) welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to bringing forward a STEM Education and Training Strategy. However, we would have expected the strategy to draw more extensively and explicitly on the many constructive, specific and evidence-based suggestions of the STEM Education Committee (STEMEC) final report. We would not wish the STEM strategy to be a missed opportunity in this regard.

There is a need to ensure coherence and coordination across all relevant Government strategies and frameworks, including the STEM Strategy, National Improvement Framework (NIF), Making Maths Count initiative, Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce and School Governance Review. While these developments are mentioned within the STEM strategy, the strategic nature of these connections needs to be strengthened.

Notably, the Deputy First Minister has stated that he is prioritising the NIF focus on literacy, numeracy, and health and well-being over science. While it is absolutely right that Government should articulate priorities, it needs to be alive to the consequences of this decision for STEM subjects, and the signal this sends out to learners, parents and schools, in particular.

The draft strategy presents an impressive list of existing and proposed actions. Careful attention needs to be given to the criteria used for their selection, how they are to be implemented and how they will be assessed. Identification of appropriate and measurable criteria for assessing progress will be central to realising the strategy. Appropriate baseline data will need to be identified and collected. This demonstrates the need for an implementation plan at a far more specific level of detail than is present in the current strategy. The LSG would be pleased to contribute to its development.

Consideration should be given to whether there is a way in which the range of STEM activity and engagement could be mapped to support a better understanding of what is available and where, and to identify duplication and/or gaps in provision and access.

We are clear that gender stereotyping needs to be tackled across the whole school environment as responsibility for this does not rest solely with the STEM subjects. It also extends beyond encouraging more girls in to STEM.

While the importance of Mathematics in underpinning STEM is clearly stated, using this as a definition of Mathematics is too limiting. Similarly, the strategy needs to recognise Computing Science as being distinct from the focus on digital skills. Both Mathematics and Computing Science should be reflected in the strategy as being disciplines in their own right.

While the strategy rightly recognises the importance of STEM from the economic and employment perspectives, care needs to be taken to avoid an instrumentalist approach. STEM education in itself is invaluable in terms of helping to develop well-rounded, informed and enquiring citizens.

A priority will be to ensure that young people perceive STEM as being for “people like me”. ASPIRES research shows that while most primary school age children like science, very few of them aspire to work in science. Family ‘science capital’ is a key influence. There is a need to promote the message that STEM provides transferable skills that enable people to keep their career options open.

The strategy recognises that teacher competence has the greatest effect on student achievement, with the early and primary years being particularly crucial for STEM. High-quality initial teacher education and ongoing subject-specific professional development are central to this. We strongly recommend that the planned review of the content of ITE programmes should be extended to consider STEM provision within the primary programmes.

The Government needs to make clear what value will be added by the proposal to establish a Scottish STEM ambassador network in addition to the UK programme which currently operates in Scotland. Strategic clarity is required to ensure efficient use of limited resource and to avoid confusion.

Download this Advice Paper