The UK’s skills gap in science, technology, engineering and maths has been widely acknowledged, but the measures needed to address it are less clear. Here, Donna Johnson, Head of the Science & Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub, lays out the current debate and argues for cross-sector support between schools and universities and a focus on primary science education.
- An emerging gender gap, poor careers advice in schools, Science and Maths teacher shortages and negative stereotypes all contribute to the UK’s STEM skills shortage
- There is a pressing need to ensure that primary children do not lose that latent interest and enthusiasm for the world around them and the science that underpins this
- Primary science is currently undervalued and is lacking strategic action to address deficiencies in provision and accountability
- The Government’s Green Paper on the industrial strategy takes a very linear approach to skills investment
- There should be more reciprocity in University-School relationships; cross-sector support can be mutually beneficial
- We need stronger incentives for senior leaders in primary schools to implement the new primary science curriculum effectively
It’s like a familiar pop tune that plays on repeat. It’s catchy; you’ve been humming it for weeks, but you can’t seem to figure out how it ends and you’re not even sure of all the lyrics. No, not the latest Justin Bieber ‘ear worm’, I’m talking about the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Agenda; the UK STEM Skills Shortage. We all know it’s a thing, we talk about it a lot; it trips off the tongue, but what does it really mean and why are we still struggling to find the solution?
The STEM skills gap has been widely documented over the past 15 years, with Sir Gareth Robert’s Report, ‘SET for Success’ in April 2002 setting the scene and providing the catalyst for a country’s concern and subsequent action to increase the number of higher skilled STEM professionals entering the workforce. An emerging gender gap, poor careers advice in schools, Science and Maths teacher shortages and negative STEM stereotypes were identified then and are still prevalent across the UK today. Despite our best efforts, we are still discussing what we started decades ago, just like that well-known pop song. Have we moved on at all?
Over the years, the UK Government has consistently invested in programmes to build the STEM workforce. We see funded programmes designed to reduce negative stereotypes around STEM industries through role models in schools such as the STEM Ambassadors programme. Or national events and competitions designed to popularise and contextualise STEM subjects in schools and colleges such as the British Science Association’s British Science Week and Engineering UK’s Big Bang Fair.
Membership organisations, notably the Institute of Physics, have invested in projects to increase the numbers of women studying STEM subjects at A-level and beyond. STEM Industries are sponsoring schools, academies, colleges and University Technical Colleges (UTCs) in the hope of influencing the talent pipeline.
However, much of these investments have focused on secondary school pupils, particularly those in late Key Stage 3 and 4 (13 – 16 year olds) who are in the process of choosing GCSE options to study. Is this too late and have their young minds already been influenced earlier in their school careers?
Primary science education
Evidence from the Wellcome Trust shows that children’s interest in science is shaped before they leave primary school and stereotypes that affect career choices are made before young people even reach secondary school. It is widely acknowledged that there is a pressing need to ensure that children do not lose that latent interest and enthusiasm for the world around them and the science that underpins this.
However, Primary science is currently undervalued and is lacking strategic action to address deficiencies in provision, including the need for more expertise. Despite primary science being a core subject, accountability for primary science is lacking at all levels.
The ten pillars
The UK Government’s recent (January 2017) Green Paper, ‘Building Our Industrial Strategy’ sets out 10 pillars, one of which focuses solely on the need to close the ever present skills gap.
The investment in research, innovation, industry and education are all much needed and should be commended. However, what is notable and continues to be a common issue is the very linear approach taken to skills investment. If we focus in on the role of Higher Education, traditionally, School-University partnerships operate within what can be considered a deficit model, where schools are seen as requiring expertise, enlightenment and guidance from the Higher Education Institution. Very rarely, if ever, is the partnership seen as an opportunity for symbiosis.
University STEM faculties provide outreach to encourage wider participation of local young people into Higher Education, to increase recruitment and to provide enrichment for school subjects. Universities are increasingly called upon to provide governance, leadership and even sponsorship for schools, to help shape their learning offer for young people; the University students of the future. However, how much do Universities actually know about teaching and learning or leadership in the school classroom environment?
In 2016, the Department for Education introduced the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) for Higher Education as a way of: ‘Better informing students’ choices about what and where to study’; ‘Raising esteem for teaching’ and ‘Recognising and rewarding excellent teaching’.
Participating Higher Education providers received a gold, silver or bronze award in April 2017 reflecting the excellence of their teaching, learning environment and Undergraduate student outcomes. The University of Manchester received a Silver award in June 2017. Therefore, improvements in teaching and learning across the University are a priority and parity of esteem between research and teaching and learning is expected to support this.
Science & Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub (SEERIH)
The University of Manchester’s SEERIH was founded in 2014 and is a specialist hub for the development of science and engineering education. SEERIH engages ‘teachers’ with innovative, research-led teaching and learning practice through partnership-invigorated programmes of continuous professional development (CPD) targeted at achieving quality outcomes for learners. Through a cross-sector approach, ‘teachers’ include those from primary and secondary schools, as well as University academics.
‘Across the Divide’
Across the Divide is a cross-sector research project conducted by SEERIH, designed to question how the brokerage of university-school partnerships can influence university academics’ pedagogic practice in STEM. This research deliberately challenges the tendency for university-school partnerships to adopt what Greany et al term “a hierarchical approach in which the university dominates and practitioner knowledge is devalued.”
In seeking alternatives to universities doing to schools, this project draws upon the concept of a relational approach to engagement as espoused by Warren et al (2009) to inform its approach.
The role that a change agent such as SEERIH can play, is highlighted as not only challenging the tendency for school-university partnerships to adopt a hierarchical approach but in actively designing CPD opportunities that simultaneously support school teachers to become subject leaders in STEM education and academics to become leaders in STEM pedagogy in higher education (Ralls et al. 2017).
In conclusion, I present two main areas to address some of the concerns voiced in this piece, through effective cross-sector working:
- Consider the reciprocity of University-School relationships; cross-sector support can be mutually beneficial. Pedagogy and ‘teaching and learning’ techniques used in schools for decades are novel approaches for some University lecturers.
- Value the importance of primary school science learning and introduce stronger incentives for senior leaders to implement the new primary science curriculum effectively. We should provide funding and incentives for both Industry and Higher Education to target their STEM enrichment programmes towards the primary phase to effect change before it’s too late.