As we welcome new and old ministers back into the halls of Westminster and they are no doubt identifying their key priorities for the first one hundred days, may I suggest something a little radical?
In terms education, and especially the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), perhaps they should take time to look carefully at what already exists, is making progress, and is revered worldwide. In other words, continue to invest in the existing support that is making a difference, and is making the UK a model for many other countries around the world.
World-wide demand for STEM
Concerns about STEM skills, of course are neither new, nor UK-centric. Whilst the Royal Academy of Engineering estimated a few years ago that the UK economy needs an additional 100,000 engineers per year to achieve its full potential, other countries tell a similar story. France, for example, is estimated to train around 30,000 engineers each year, whilst there is a demand for at least 40,000; it may be an even greater surprise to learn that Germany estimates a shortfall of 200,000 STEM graduates each year.
What is unique for the UK is the strategic view that has been taken around STEM skills by successive governments for some time. Professor Sir Gareth Roberts’ ‘Set for Success’ report kicked off a chain of events which now places us in a position which many other countries wish they could emulate. This includes a strong, established infrastructure supporting those teaching STEM subjects to young people from early years to post-16 comprising of: the National Science Learning Network; the National STEM Centre; the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching of Mathematics; and the STEM Ambassadors programme. In addition, we benefit from a wonderful array of enhancement and enrichment schemes ranging from the CREST Awards and the Big Bang Fair, to smaller local efforts.
Continued collaboration is key
What makes this possible is unparalleled collaboration between successive governments, employers and organisations, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. A partnership which, united in ensuring all young people have access to a great STEM education, has lasted for over a decade. This has been crucial in enabling those supporting teachers of STEM through high impact subject-specific professional development. A good example of this is Project ENTHUSE, which has enabled the National Science Learning Centre to work intensively with over 14,000 teachers and leaders of science, in the process impacting many hundreds of thousands of young people across the UK.
What is also unique about this is the focus put on supporting teachers of STEM, not just targeting support directly at young people which, whilst vital, will not result in the systemic change that education systems worldwide require if the STEM skills challenge is to be addressed. As McKinsey stated in their 2007 report
“No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers”.
Nowhere is this more true than in science and other STEM subjects – as the Wellcome Trust says:
The future of science depends on the quality of science teaching today.
And whilst there is still much to be done, the results of this long-term investment and faith of governments, employers and charitable trusts are really beginning to come through. This includes;
- an increase in both the number and proportion of A levels being taken in STEM subjects over the last five years with chemistry and mathematics showing particularly positive rises
- 98,000 students beginning STEM undergraduate courses in 2014, the highest level ever recorded
Underpinning this, we have a much greater awareness of the importance and value of STEM subjects for all young people across the school and college system, with STEM enhancement & enrichment activities, as well as teacher on-going development, reaching further into the school and college sector than ever before.
We need to get better at communicating the opportunity and satisfaction of the whole range of STEM-related careers to young people, their parents and their teachers. Campaigns such as the Your Life initiative are helping pull together communications and signposting opportunities. Project ENTHUSE is enabling teachers to spend up to two weeks with a STEM employer, opening the lid on the variety of roles, from the more traditional graduate path to the equally important apprenticeship and technician routes. As one participating teacher said:
We also need to ensure that supporting primary teachers, and engaging primary aged children, is given the priority it deserves. Research such as the Aspires project shows that, whilst young people are positive about science and STEM as a whole, they form ideas very early on regarding whether they ‘see themselves as a scientist’ (or engineer, or technologist). At the same time, we know anecdotally that a perceived lack of focus on science from Ofsted, even though it remains firmly a core subject at primary level, has encouraged some primary heads to see it as ‘second best. In some cases this relegates it from the regular timetable to a single science week, or even worse. This perception is not necessarily ill-founded – an informal survey of around 100 primary Ofsted reports found just one mention of science. Just one!
But perhaps the biggest challenge to the progress that has been made is the tendency of funders, including governments, to always be looking beyond what is in place and – whilst always capable of further improvement – is making a difference, in favour of ‘a better mousetrap’. After all, with something as ‘now’ as STEM, there is always someone coming to a Minister’s door offering a new magical, overnight solution. However, as Marc Durando of European Schoolnet, who sees efforts to support STEM education all over the world, says:
“It is important not to reinvent but to support and strengthen what has already proven its success and to work on successful mainstreaming mechanisms”.
As Ian McDaid, Head of Science at Balby Carr Community Academy in Doncaster puts it:
“Don’t take away the support upon which so many teachers depend. Every day, we see it helping ensure our STEM teaching changes lives. There is a greater need than ever to increase the support and profile of STEM subjects nationally if we are to compete in the global market. This is important enough to command cross party support to enable the National Science Learning Network to further expand and improve the essential support provided for teachers”.