James Tooze discusses our latest work on STEM education

The UK’s science and engineering base is only as strong as the people who work within it. The UK Government’s drive to make the UK a ‘science superpower’ will require a larger pipeline of young people becoming scientists, researchers and technicians. It is also important that everyone across the country is able to participate and prosper in a more research-intensive society. It is vital, therefore, that young people can receive a far-reaching and well-rounded science education in school.

CaSE has recently been taking a focus on the domestic education pipeline, with a particular view to supporting science education in schools. Our recent publication, Inspiring Innovation, was produced in collaboration with experts across the domestic education policy sector. We have also recently worked alongside Engineering UK in their new report Securing our Future, looking at STEM careers advice and provision in England. This blog will reflect on some of the key learnings from these reports.

A confident and empowered workforce

Vital to driving improved learning outcomes are well-trained and valued teachers, supported by school leaders to develop their skills. Continuing professional development (CPD) for the teaching workforce has been shown to have a significant positive impact on teacher retention, particularly through the early years of teacher’s careers. The ability to retain teachers is crucial as they quickly become more effective in improving attainment as they gain experience on the job. The introduction of an Early Career Framework in England from September 2021 will provide funding to entitle newly qualified teachers to access high-quality CPD within the first two years and learning from the outcomes of this initiative will be crucial in helping young teachers to develop. Scotland already has a commitment to ensure teachers receive 35 hours of CPD a year, while Wales and Northern Ireland do not require teachers to undertake regular CPD.

This access to high-quality CPD in science subjects is also important in supporting teacher confidence in teaching science in the classroom. Teaching science content is often influenced by own experiences and background, with statistics showing that in 2016 only 5% of primary school teachers have a qualification at A-level or above in mathematics or science. The ability to access and be empowered to take part in science specific CPD by school leadership is key in developing this confidence. The Institute of Physics’ report, Subjects Matter, describes a number of steps to develop a system of CPD provision that can support subject-specific training.

Implementing inclusive science and engineering careers advice

Children at the age of 7 are already forming opinions on their careers based on factors including race, gender and socio-economic status and disparities in educational attainment are the greatest driver of regional variation in productivity across the UK. Creating a truly inclusive and diverse science and engineering workforce in the long-term comes from empowering all children to believe that they can become a scientist or engineer.

In Securing our Future, 200 teachers and careers leads were interviewed to understand how careers provision could be better supported. Just over three quarters (76%) of the careers leaders and STEM teachers surveyed for the report say that it has become more difficult to engage with employers since the start of the pandemic, with many saying that careers activities have been put on hold because of time pressures. The report also found that the digital divide affects access to STEM careers activities in schools and colleges in England, particularly in poorer areas. 68% of schools with above average Free School Meal eligibility (FSM) said a lack of access to technology and internet was a barrier, compared to 36% of schools with below average FSM.

Against a complex backdrop of social factors, becoming a scientist or an engineer can quickly seem impossible for young people. While there is no silver bullet in attracting more young people to a career in research and innovation, the provision of high-quality careers advice can give students an understanding of how they start a career in science or engineering. Providing clear guidance for pupils and linking learning to real-world examples of science and research can also help to counter disadvantages some pupils might experience outside of the classroom. 41% of school children with a parent working in STEM felt encouraged to study STEM subjects, compared to 26% of those whose parents worked in a non-STEM related field, whilst half of GCSE students think the only way to attain a STEM job is through a university degree.

Exploration of hands-on, experimental science

Practical science lessons in the classroom brings basic scientific principles to life in a way that can nurture curiosity in young people and allow life-long passion for science to flourish. The development of practical and technical skills are essential in building a future pipeline of scientists, engineers and technicians. Reports such as the 2019 Wellcome Science Education Tracker suggest that while most students want to do more practical work, this is especially the case among disadvantaged students and those least engaged in science.

The pandemic has caused significant issues for practical science, not least because children haven’t been in schools for the majority of the last year. Survey data in England showed that the majority of science teachers and leaders were not satisfied with their school’s or college’s provision for practical work during lockdown, and nearly 90% were concerned over the pressure to catch up on missed content during the March 2020 lockdown. GCSE and A-level examinations in 2021 are set to allow students to study practical requirements through demonstrations and simulations, but this must not provide a long-term solution and governments must require a return to hands-on practical science as soon as it is safe to do so.

An issue also remains around school science technicians, an often undervalued but integral part of practical science in schools. Surveys suggest that school technicians feel there is little prospect of progression within their career and the majority of technicians are over the age of 40. It is clear that more needs to be done to attract and retain young people within the technician profession, and the package offered to these individuals will need to be enhanced in order to support technical staff.

The Government and Devolved Administrations have the perfect opportunity to put high-quality science education at the heart of its ‘levelling-up’ agenda and the UK’s future prosperity. In order for the UK to truly transform it’s economy to become more innovative, these long-term policy choices are required for sustainable growth.

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