It’s not too late to build a world-class STEM education system | Professor David Cole-Hamilton

Professor David Cole-Hamilton FRSE is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and interim chair of the Learned Societies’ Group on Scottish STEM education.

A man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a door

A review of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) – the cornerstone of Scottish education – ­is set to be published in June and should be regarded as a matter of great significance to the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM for short.

Calls for an independent evaluation of CfE have been years in the making and the recommendations from this review which is being carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), will undoubtedly be pored over by policymakers.

The Learned Societies’ Group on Scottish STEM Education (LSG) submitted oral evidence to the OECD’s review, drawing together key issues in need of further national action. As we await OECD’s final word on the curriculum, we take this opportunity to highlight some of our concerns.

CfE began as a promising development and it is still laudable for its forward-thinking and holistic aims. It is also not too late for these ambitions to be realised and used to build a world-class STEM education system. However, we have to first recognise the wider context that has hindered its delivery. Even the best-designed STEM curriculum will falter in the face of pervasive – and persistent – structural challenges.

“it is almost impossible for teachers to juggle the demands of multi-course teaching without inordinate increases in workload.”

Reforming the senior phase led to a narrowing of subject choice, sowing the initial seeds for a review of CfE and contributing to declines in enrolment in STEM subjects at SCQF levels 4 and 5 since 2014.

Secondly, Scotland faces shortages of subject-specialist teachers and secondary school laboratory technicians, both of which are critical to delivering the kind of engrossing STEM experiences that are apt to inspire a lifelong interest in these subjects.

More widely, classrooms are having to resort to multi-course teaching – the difficult practice of teaching more than one course in the same timeslot – to combat the effects of limited staff capacity and timetabling pressures. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for teachers to juggle the demands of multi-course teaching without inordinate increases in workload.

Finally, primary teachers can lack confidence in teaching STEM; an increased focus on STEM subjects in primary teacher education, both initial and career-long, is required to build teachers’ knowledge and understanding in these subjects.

Among its widespread havoc, COVID-19 upended many of our traditional approaches to education, from empty classrooms to exam cancellations. Many of these adjustments were profoundly stressful and the greatest impacts often fell on the most disadvantaged learners. However, they also prompted important questions and challenged longstanding assumptions of what it means to assess learning.

As the pandemic and its aftershocks subside, it might be that some of these changes persist and gain further traction. For example, there could be an opportunity to reconfigure assessments to improve their effectiveness and reduce teacher workloads. However, rather than rushing into any large-scale educational upheavals on the back of post-COVID recovery, any lessons learned will need to be mindfully and sensitively applied, ensuring they bring genuine benefit for teachers, parents, and pupils alike.

In summary, STEM education in Scotland faces a number of obstacles. While valuable in its own right, its role in building the next generation of problem-solvers and keeping Scotland’s economy and research sectors internationally competitive cannot be denied.

As the STEM Strategy and recent Logan Report echo, STEM education must be seen as a national priority, with infrastructure in place to empower teachers and promote pupils’ success. With the right systemic changes, Curriculum for Excellence can live up to its name – and support an exceptional STEM education system in the process.

Professor David Cole-Hamilton FRSE is Emeritus Professor at the School of Chemistry at the University of St Andrews and interim chair of the LSG.
This article originally featured in The Herald.
The RSE’s Fellows’ Blog series offers personal views from our Fellows on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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Publication Date

May 2021