Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 10, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 10 November 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Accessible Hospital Transport, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Climate Change Action, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education and Training Strategy, Decision Time


Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education and Training Strategy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-02418, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on the Scottish Government’s consultation on a strategy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and training. I call Shirley-Anne Somerville to speak to and move the motion—you have around 12 minutes, cabinet secretary.


The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Thank you for the promotion, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am terribly sorry, Mr Swinney. I call the minister to speak.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

On Tuesday this week, I had the great privilege of spending time with the children and teachers at Cargenbridge primary school in Dumfries. There I saw primary 6 and 7 pupils enjoying an interesting and lively lesson making kaleidoscopes, learning along the way about the principles of light and combining science, technology and mathematics into one practical, lively and very interesting lesson. I also heard how the school’s close partnership with a local manufacturer, which was developed over a number of years, is helping the children at the school develop an appreciation of the skills needed in the workplace.

I was at that primary school to launch the Government’s consultation on a STEM education and training strategy for Scotland. What I saw there encapsulates the priorities of the strategy perfectly: excellence, which means a deep attention to learning and teaching quality; equity, which means ensuring a quality experience for all, regardless of gender or circumstances; inspiration, which means inspiring and enthusing people to study the STEM subjects; and connection, which means the school making the most of links with local employers to bring learning to life and local employers securing their talent pipeline.

Put simply, all children and young people need to have that kind of experience during their school years. On that—and only that—I agree with the Labour and Conservative amendments when they say that urgent action is required to develop STEM skills, knowledge and capability. Members can be assured that such action is indeed well under way.

The consultation that I launched on Tuesday sets out an ambitious and comprehensive plan. It is the first ever single plan co-ordinating all our activity across Government on developing Scotland’s STEM talent and capability.

I thank Professor Sheila Rowan, Scotland’s chief scientific adviser, for helping me to develop the strategy and for agreeing to help the Government forge strong links with the science community as we take the strategy forward.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the cornerstones of modern life and of a modern, competitive economy. We all need to be STEM literate to succeed at work, particularly in the growing range of careers and occupations that are dependent on specialist STEM skills, and—as I saw at Cargenbridge on Tuesday—the STEM subjects ignite our curiosity about the world around us.

All our children and young people need to be able to develop STEM skills and confidence throughout their education, as do adults. That is why we are already taking action. The developing the young workforce programme is driving action nationally, regionally and locally to ensure that children and young people gain the STEM capability that they will need in the workplace. We have the most comprehensive package of support for science engagement in the United Kingdom through our science centres and festivals. We are taking action to support science provision all the way through primary school. That includes a three-year £1 million partnership with the Wood Foundation, which from this month will see primary science leaders in place in the initial five participating local authorities and an investment this year of £855,000 to upskill primary and secondary teachers and technicians.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Yesterday the cabinet secretary made the fair point at a science conference close to Parliament that the number of pupils who sit science, maths and computer subjects at higher level has been falling. Will the strategy deal with exactly that point? Can the minister explain to Parliament why those numbers are going in the wrong direction?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The numbers are going down in part because the number of students in one particular school year was lower. There has been an increase in numbers in areas such as human biology and computing science. However, Tavish Scott highlights the important point that we need to enthuse more pupils to take part in all the STEM subjects in our schools. We recognise that there was a dip last year, although over the longer term the numbers are pointing in the right direction.

I know that the Opposition likes to pluck statistics out of one year, particularly if it is a bad one, but the overall trends are positive. Since 2007, there has been a 7 per cent increase in passes at higher level in STEM subjects. We want to keep that long-term trend on track and enable more people to study for STEM-related qualifications and—crucially—to achieve them.

We all agree that the gender balance in STEM needs to be addressed. In that area too, we are making progress, as the number of girls who are taking and passing highers in key STEM subjects has increased since 2007.

There are other challenges, and our strategy sets out how we will tackle them.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I welcome the strategy’s intentions in relation to gender segregation, but will the minister commit to pushing the issue right up the agenda? The minister and I recently attended the Equate Scotland reception and heard from many women who are enjoying fabulous careers in STEM. It is really important that we ensure that all our young people have the opportunity to be involved. Will the minister commit to ensuring that they all have the chance to attend the fabulous science festivals and events that take place in Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Alison Johnstone raises two important points. On the point about girls and young women taking up STEM subjects, I recently had the opportunity to visit City of Glasgow College, where I met some women who were taking part in a women-only first-year engineering course, which was very important to them. It will be interesting to tease out that point during the consultation and get some evidence because that approach has clearly made a difference to those women and we need to look at how we can extend and incorporate it to help women in STEM.

On the point about science festivals and centres, the strategy already states that we need to extend those opportunities to every young person in Scotland, regardless of where they are. I am particularly keen to seek advice and suggestions on how we target rural areas, those in deprived communities and young women to ensure that they all get the maximum benefit that they can in that respect. I am happy to take those points on board.

The strategy highlights that we need to improve levels of enthusiasm for STEM skills and knowledge to raise attainment and aspirations in learning, life and work. We also need to encourage and promote the uptake of the more specialist STEM skills that are required to gain employment in the growing STEM sectors in our economy.

As I mentioned, there are four priority themes in the strategy: excellence, equity, inspiration and connection. On the theme of excellence, we will take action to improve the number of STEM teachers in secondary schools. We will build on the success of last year’s marketing campaign to attract more people with STEM undergraduate degrees into teaching. New and innovative routes into STEM teaching will be in place from the next academic year onwards, and we will help teachers and educators, particularly those in primary schools, to build their own STEM capabilities and confidence.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Can the minister spell out in more detail what those alternative routes might be and what they will mean in terms of qualifications and time spent in training? Will there be a guarantee that full teaching qualifications will be required before people can teach in a classroom?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will not go into detail on that in this debate. The delivery of the consultation on that will come soon, and we have had a number of responses. It is important that we secure people with qualifications to work in our schools, but we should encourage them to get into the area, rather than changing the basis of teaching in our schools. Qualifications are still very important within that.

We will deliver the making maths count recommendations for improving young people’s confidence and fluency in mathematics, and we will continue to encourage colleges and universities to prioritise STEM courses through the outcome agreement process.

On the theme of equity, we will take action to address gender bias in young people’s career options, including by expanding our successful collaboration with the Institute of Physics improving gender balance project. We will seek ways to tackle gender imbalance in college and university STEM courses, and also in modern apprenticeship routes, through the equality action plan.

On the theme of inspiration, as I mentioned to Alison Johnstone, we are keen to support the science centres and festivals to engage people of all ages in STEM and to direct that effort at hard-to-reach individuals, groups and communities in deprived, rural and remote areas. The making maths count group said earlier this year that the Government needed to do more to help people understand the relevance of mathematics to daily life and work, and we will do that by finding new ways to promote the value and benefit of broader STEM learning.

On the theme of connection, we will embed awareness of STEM careers in STEM teaching and learning at school, and we will help practitioners to do that. We will encourage schools to use labour market information and their links with employers to design and deliver a relevant STEM curriculum for their children and young people. We will promote new pathways into STEM careers, including the continued expansion of the pathways that can begin at school—for example, through foundation apprenticeships.

Actions that cut across all the themes include our important manifesto commitment to ensure that a Scottish STEM ambassador programme is developed to inspire young people, helping more schools develop high-quality, embedded partnerships with local employers and individuals, including in the public and third sectors—like the example that I saw at Cargenbridge—and encouraging peer-to-peer mentoring and support in relation to STEM. We will also explore hub arrangements to achieve deeper connections and collaborations between education and employers, and will learn from international best practice on that. I give the example of the LUMA centres in Finland, which were mentioned in the recent report by the science, technology, engineering and mathematics education committee.

This is just the start. We are open to new thinking, creative solutions and bold ideas. During the consultation process, I am particularly keen to hear from children and young people as well as from parents and carers. We also want to hear from education practitioners, employers and the STEM community. I am pleased that many in the sector have already commended our move to consult, including Professor Yellowlees, the convener of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s learned societies group on STEM education.

It is disappointing, therefore, that the Opposition parties have united today to retread largely inaccurate claims. We all agree there is more to do, but consulting on the strategy shows our willingness and absolute commitment to address all those claims and, indeed, to listen to others’ ideas. If the Opposition parties have any suggestions, I would like to hear them. While we wait for that to happen, I will get on with working with the chief scientific adviser to engage with the larger sector and with the community to see how we can develop a STEM strategy that will enable us to meet the demands and challenges of our economy and build the society that we want to see now and in the future.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the Scottish Government consultation, A STEM Education and Training Strategy for Scotland, and its four key priority areas for action, which are excellence, equality, inspiration and connection; acknowledges the importance of STEM to increasing economic competitiveness, tackling inequality and raising educational attainment, and recognises that there is more to do to develop STEM skills, knowledge and capability if the demands and challenges of the economy are to be met and build the society that Scotland wants to see now and in the future.


Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am interested in the minister’s comment that this is just the beginning and that she wants to hear suggestions from the Opposition parties. I looked back at the past decade of parliamentary debates on STEM, and I was struck not only by their frequency but by the consistency of the propositions made by individual parties. I do not agree with all of them, but in many cases I agree broadly with what members have proposed, and I suspect that this afternoon’s debate will be no different, because there is a strong argument that the Opposition has been making sensible suggestions for quite a long period of time, despite which we seem to be standing still to some extent.

Let me be clear: there is no disagreement with what the Scottish Government’s motion says, but it leaves out something very significant. If we consider what was said in the introduction to the science and engineering education advisory group report of 2012, when the Scottish Government, quite rightly, identified that energy and life sciences were two key priorities in Scotland, the question is: what has held us back? We all use statistics to our own advantage, but the overall set of statistics on STEM is not good.

I remind members of Tim Peake’s words when he came back from that wonderful space mission and spoke to thousands of youngsters. He said:

“Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do anything.”

It was a message to us all that there are lots of budding scientists out there, but something is holding them back. That is what we must address in the debate.

I suggest that, in Scotland, a large part of the problem relates to teacher shortages in schools—not general shortages but specific shortages. That was hinted at by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills when he spoke to the Royal Society of Chemistry yesterday.

I am sure that, this afternoon, Opposition parties will use statistics from work that has been done over quite a long period. I will summarise the figures. Over a decade, there are 410 fewer maths teachers, 187 fewer computing teachers and 105 fewer chemistry teachers. There are also concerns that there will be decreases in other subjects, not least because, as Tavish Scott said, there are some worrying downturns when it comes to higher and advanced higher entries. Yes, it is true that some cohorts of pupils have declined in number but, over a 10-year period, that is still a worrying downturn. Ten out of 32 local authorities have had trouble recruiting a computing teacher and 12 per cent of schools do not have a computing science teacher at all.

Computing at school Scotland is not the only organisation to be critical of that. The STEMEC report notes a failure to meet the targets—

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Is Liz Smith pleased to welcome the figures from last year, which showed that student intake numbers in chemistry, physics, maths and computing are up? While there are issues that we need to take on board, we have been increasing the number of students for five years in a row and we are taking action year by year.

Liz Smith

I have the statistics right in front of me, but there are general statistics on top of that that produce a trend that is not particularly encouraging. If we put that together with the problem of teacher recruitment, we see that there is a serious issue—that is what we are driving at this afternoon.

A very good call was made by the Royal Society of Chemistry, whose event we were all at yesterday. Two years ago, it made that specific claim about having dedicated science teachers in primary schools. That is one of the best suggestions that we can put forward, because that is the very age when we want to ensure that they are most inspired by—

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Liz Smith knows the seriousness with which I am intent on addressing this issue, but she must also complete some of her arguments. She frequently comes to the chamber to demand that the Government prioritises literacy and numeracy and, in the curriculum guidance that I issued in August, that is precisely what I have done. Now she says that we have to have dedicated primary school teachers specialising in science. There needs to be a rounded consistency in the arguments that Liz Smith puts forward, because there is a logical inconsistency in demanding that we prioritise literacy and numeracy and then saying, “But you’ve got to do this thing as well.” That is a point that I make frequently to the Conservatives, who are not shy about coming forward with that argument, but then allow the issues that they demand we concentrate on in the curriculum to proliferate.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I can allow you some extra time, Ms Smith.

Liz Smith

Cabinet secretary, it is not an either/or situation. At the Royal Society of Chemistry event yesterday, when you were asked by a member of the audience whether you would put the same priority on science as on literacy and numeracy, you were equivocal in your comments. This is something that we need to—

John Swinney

I will respond if time is on our side—

Liz Smith

Carry on.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We do not have too much time, Mr Swinney.

John Swinney

I will address some of the issues later. However, I was not equivocal at all. I made it clear that I was giving greater priority to literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, and that I could not give priority to everything. If there was anything equivocal about my answer, I hope that I have said it more bluntly in Parliament today. I simply point out the contradiction in Liz Smith’s argument that we need to strengthen literacy and numeracy, and science as well. The broad general education must cover all of these issues, but priority must be given to certain factors.

Liz Smith

Cabinet secretary, I am not disagreeing about literacy and numeracy. However, you made the commitment in 2012 on the importance of the life sciences and the STEM subjects for the national economy, never mind education. There is no contradiction—all of those things are what is good for education in Scotland just now.

I will make progress on some other aspects of what I want to say.

John Swinney

You have got a long way to go.

Liz Smith

I do not mind staying on the point that we are discussing, because it is important and I have received a huge number of emails since the event yesterday, when we again made a commitment on primary school science teaching, which is a fundamental, core aspect of the issue that must be addressed.

Some of the colleges and universities have done a lot of tremendously good work, and the minister was correct to point that out. Nonetheless, we need to expand on what is being done, and it may be that the issue is wider. Earlier, Daniel Johnson asked about the pathways into the profession, and I think that we need to have some answers on that. It is vital that we know what the intention is. Again, it is not a contradiction to argue that we can have highly professional teaching at the same time as allowing other people who have an expertise and an enthusiasm to come and do some science teaching. I will be pleased if the Government is considering that, but I would like to have some detail on that, because it is an important point.

We have been here before—in fact, we have been where we are for a very long time. I have been assiduous in going through the debates that we have had in this chamber on this subject, as well as the debates that have been held in learned societies, royal societies and so on, and I can say that we are standing still—we are not moving forward. If there is one plea that I would make to the Scottish Government this evening, in conjunction with the other Opposition parties, it is that it should put some priority on the teaching of science.

I move amendment S5M-02418.1, to leave out from “and recognises” to end and insert:

“in particular, notes that, two years on, there has been no response from the Scottish Government to the call for fully trained science teachers in primary schools made by the Royal Societies and no reversal of the recent and damaging cuts to the numbers of Scottish secondary school teachers in key STEM subjects, and therefore considers that urgent action is required to develop STEM skills, knowledge and capability if Scotland is to meet the demands and challenges of the economy and build the society it wants to see now and in the future.”


Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I welcome the Government’s strategy for education and training. It would be churlish not to at least welcome the fact that there is a strategy before us—that has to be a good thing. However, we cannot ignore the fact that, as Liz Smith noted, it has been a long time coming. Of course, it is not actually here yet, since this week’s document is a consultation on the strategy, which we are told is due next March. That is not to say that much work has not been done on the issue over the years, most notably by STEMEC, which published its own report a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, at the science in the Parliament event, the cabinet secretary said that he hoped that the members of STEMEC would recognise that the themes of its report are reflected in the Government document. I think that the members of that committee will indeed be able to recognise that that is the case and will be pleased to see that. However, I fear that they will be disappointed by the fact that the Government’s document fails to reflect the clear and practical recommendations that they made. In truth, it replaces many of those recommendations with rather pious hopes.

Consider, for example, the issue of the shortage of teachers in STEM. I freely admit that teacher education institutions have increased their spaces for STEM teachers, but we know that they struggle to fill all of those places, particularly in some subjects such as physics and computer science. STEMEC makes suggestions to address that, such as the use of incentives. That approach has been adopted elsewhere in the UK, but the Scottish Government has always resisted it.

The Government’s strategy itself says that it will

“Improve the pipeline of STEM teachers into secondary schools”

without telling us how it will do that. Its only suggestion sounds rather like a dilution of professional standards. Perhaps it is not, but the minister’s explanation has not left us any the wiser.

What about the Scottish schools education research centre, to which STEMEC devotes a whole section? That institution has been driving innovation in science teaching since my days as a science teacher. It is well known, well used and well trusted by the profession but, although STEMEC recommends funding the expansion of the institution, with its proven track record, the Government strategy ignores SSERC altogether.

On science in primary schools, which Liz Smith talked about, STEMEC makes clear proposals on, for example, raising the requirement for STEM qualifications for new entrants in the primary teaching profession and providing specific STEM support for new primary teachers in their first years in the profession. Although the Government document acknowledges that the early years and primary school are crucial to STEM, it has no new plan, no new action and no new funding to reflect the importance of that.

Indeed, if there is one theme of the STEMEC report that the Government document does not reflect, it is inaction. These recommendations had already been made in the SEEAG report in 2012 and were largely set out in the excellence in science teaching report in 2011. Indeed, most of them were presaged in 2003 in the science advisory committee’s report, “Why Science Education Matters: Supporting and Improving Science Education in Scottish Schools”, and over the years, many of the same points have been made by bodies such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh. What the report itself says is, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. Nothing has changed 13 years on and the Government is still consulting on what to do instead of getting on with doing what everyone is telling it that it must do.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

The motion and, I think, the amendments talk about innovation. Does the member agree that places such as the Glasgow Science Centre, which has been married up with curriculum for excellence and brings science into primary schools, represent a good and innovative way of embracing young primary school kids and helping them to learn about and enjoy science?

Iain Gray

I absolutely do, but what STEMEC would tell the member is that primary teachers’ confidence in building on that kind of engagement is critical to improving science teaching in our primary schools. It is not an either/or; it is about building on something that the STEMEC report says should be supported.

If there is one thing that characterises science, it is its empiricism. Any valid theory must be testable with reference to the real world and real-world observations. To test my hypothesis that the Government has not done enough on STEM, we should look at the data. It tells us that we have lost 800 teachers in STEM subjects over the past 10 years; that the number of laboratory assistants in schools is down by half since 2007 and of technicians is down by a quarter; and that average annual spend on science is, in primary schools, £1.62 per pupil compared with £2.89 in England and, in secondary schools, is £7.33 compared with more than £10 in England. Those are not my figures—they come from the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

For years, we have been telling ministers that STEM subjects are being squeezed in the curriculum. We are now seeing the impact on highers, with pupils last year sitting more than 4,000 fewer STEM highers. That is not a blip but a trend that has been evident in secondary 4 for some years and is now coming through into S5 and S6.

Science can never ignore the evidence, which is why it is not enough to welcome the strategy or to consult seriously without acknowledging the decline in outcomes and the failure over years to deliver on recommendations from bodies such as STEMEC. That is why we have lodged the amendment we have.

I have to give Mr Swinney credit for what he said at yesterday’s science in the Parliament conference. He acknowledged of his own accord the fall in the number of STEM teachers and the decline in the number of STEM highers in the past year. I say to the minister that if what we say about the statistics is inaccurate, the cabinet secretary shares in that inaccuracy. The honesty on his part was commendable and, for that reason, I see no reason why the Government should not accept the amendments.

Although the cabinet secretary may have accepted yesterday the challenges that exist for STEM education, the strategy does not rise to meet them—largely, it is more of the same. Unless the Government returns next year with clear, practical and funded solutions such as those recommended by STEMEC, we risk the same slow decline in STEM education over the next 10 years as we have seen over the past 10.

I move amendment S5M-02418.1.1, to insert after “key STEM subjects”:

“; further notes that, in the past year, there has been a fall in the number of pupils taking science and mathematics Highers, girls are still under-represented in most STEM Highers and that there has been a lack of progress in girls taking these subjects”.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We now move to the open debate, in which speeches should be of no more than five minutes. I remind all members that they should speak through the chair and not directly to each other during debates.


Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I declare an interest, as a board member of the Scottish schools education research centre, which Iain Gray highly commended today.

Presiding Officer, there’s been a murder—a pure dead bad murder. I think that I have got some attention now, which is exactly what science departments and faculties and primary schools across Scotland have done by hosting “CSI” events in their curriculum to intrigue, inspire and entertain pupils. In 2013, St Aidan’s primary school in my area had a visit from a forensic specialist to crack a case. It was not a murder; it was a chocolate heist from the staffroom. During the six-week project, the children learned how to examine fingerprints and hair samples, use digital microscopes and work field science. They worked on hair fibre and powder analysis, fingerprinting and dental forensics, all to solve the crime of who had stolen the chocolates from the staffroom. The headteacher says that it was an amazing experience for the young people as part of their ComputerXplorers classes, and the children really enjoyed it. The project involved learning about not just science but information and communications technology, problem solving and working in a team.

That is the sort of great experience that we want for all children in Scotland. I realise that there is a lack of confidence in some primary schools about tackling such issues and giving young people such experiences. I commend the SSERC for its broadcasting of seminars into schools, which it calls cookalongs. The necessary equipment for the lesson is provided to the primary school and the teacher delivers a lesson along with the expert. That allows the pupils to get the advantage of hearing from an expert in the field and it builds the confidence of the teacher in delivering science.

One of the important things about the strategy will be inspiration. It is key that we encourage, motivate and inspire our young people. A long, long time ago and—as we might well touch on multiverse theory this afternoon—perhaps even in a galaxy far, far away, my inspiration came from watching old BBC broadcasts of David Attenborough programmes and “Horizon” and the occasional Open University broadcast late at night, along with reading science fiction. I learned about my hero, Richard Feynman, from his autobiography, “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character”. That made me curious about physics and code breaking, which led to my career in IT, and to curiosity itself. Young people today can view every one of Mr Feynman’s lectures online. I remember the first time that I heard his voice at the time of the Challenger disaster—hitherto, it had just been in my imagination as a young woman. We have to get inspiring people such as Richard Feynman to reach our young people today.

How do we inspire young people in a world that is overloaded with information on the world wide web? Just this weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting in the Parliament a CERN TED talks event, which was delivered from CERN. CERN is of course engaged in educational programmes and many Scottish schools have taken part in those over the years. The talk covered oceanography, drone technology—imagine we could really play quidditch!—dark matter, DNA editing, medical testing biotechnology and neurons, literacy using subtitling of Bollywood movies and block-chains and artificial intelligence. It was quite an afternoon. I was delighted to be joined by some of our colleagues from the chamber, including Jenny Gilruth, who brought along her sister, who is a physics teacher and who I am sure was inspired by the event.

Why is that so important? There were two TED talks that I want to bring to the chamber’s attention. Kate Stafford did one on oceanography, which was amazing. Another one, on do-it-yourself science, was given by a scientist who was involved in the oil disaster in the US and who founded a not-for-profit organisation called Public Lab, which engages with communities and helps design DIY research tools for grass-roots science. It is an example of real communities benefiting from scientists coming in who know a lot about the local area.

The most important TED talk was by Sheila Rowan, on gravity waves. Why was it important? What could inspire our young people more than our very own home-grown expert in her area, the director of the institute for gravitational research at the University of Glasgow?

We should be using those examples to inspire our young women and STEM teaching in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

I am loth to stop you giving that explanation. I do not know what block-chains are, but no doubt somebody in the debate will tell me.


Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

I declare an interest as a member of Aberdeen City Council.

I am sure that all members across the chamber recognise the excellent reputation that Scotland has around the globe as a true leader in STEM subjects. Since the dawn of the Scottish enlightenment, Scotland has demonstrated its dynamic entrepreneurial spirit. When the enlightenment met the industrial revolution, our combination of sheer intellectual endeavour and commercial might shaped a new world and a new economic outlook. Scotland cemented herself as the home of ideas. We recognise the great scientific achievements in our history from the discovery of antibiotics and tropical medicine to the invention of the steam engine and the television. We must aim to channel that historic success into the promotion of important STEM education and training for future generations to come.

Given our proud heritage, it is increasingly alarming that, when it comes to the Government’s record on STEM education and training, we have a legacy that is less than satisfactory. A significant failure of the Government is that at all age cohorts and Scottish credit and qualifications framework levels the uptake of and attainment in STEM subjects by girls and women significantly lags behind that of their male counterparts. Despite boys and girls having an equal interest in science and technology at a young age, girls’ engagement in STEM declines as they progress through the education system and, as such, it is boys who are more likely to proceed with subjects such as physics, chemistry, engineering and computing.

Keir Bloomer, who was one of the architects of curriculum for excellence, has warned that we need to do much more to improve basic skills. At secondary school, girls represent only 7 per cent of entries for higher technological studies and 20 per of entries for higher computing, and between 2011 and 2016 the number of female students taking higher biology fell by an astounding 21 per cent.

From such statistics it is obvious that not enough is being done by this SNP Government to encourage girls to take up these vitally important subjects, which are increasingly becoming more attractive and sought after in a technologically advancing economy. Equate Scotland says:

“The possibilities in the industry are limitless, but for women the opportunities are limited.”

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Is Ross Thomson seriously saying that, over the generations, there have always been opportunities for women in STEM subjects and workplaces?

Ross Thomson

There are opportunities, although we need to do more. Stuart McMillan should come to the Equate Scotland reception—I know that there will be things in Parliament this week. We should be working together to ensure that we attract more women and girls into not just STEM but apprenticeships. There is a culture change and image change that the Parliament and the Government need to help with.

It is hard to believe that such damning figures are unrelated to the critical shortage of qualified teachers in schools across Scotland. Therefore, before girls and women can overcome those “limited” opportunities, the Scottish Government must effectively address the challenge that we face in recruiting teachers.

In my region—North East Scotland—we still face a major teacher recruitment crisis. There is a growing shortage of secondary teachers of STEM subjects. Aberdeen City Council, in particular, has been very open about the problems that it has faced in recruiting and retaining teachers despite a range of initiatives including cash incentives and offers of low-cost accommodation. Only last year, we asked for assistance in the shape of a weighting allowance to take account of the high cost of living and for a review of the funding settlement for local authorities. However, so far, that has been ignored and, therefore, the chronic shortage of teachers means that we are now in danger of some schools having to close their doors altogether.

We urgently need to examine the roots of that complex problem. When seven councils covering a geographic area from Shetland to Oban come together to say the same thing, it becomes a national issue that transcends party politics and which we must work together to address. The north-east desperately needs the Scottish Government to provide meaningful support to help to address the problem, which is crippling our schools and doing our young people a disservice. For Scotland to flourish and continue to lead the world in STEM, we need qualified teachers in our classrooms, which is why I will support the amendment in the name of Liz Smith and urge members across the chamber to do the same.


Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

The motion commends the Government’s STEM education and training strategy to Parliament. It is clear that there is a link between the Government’s aspirations to close the attainment gap and to upskill the next generation, especially of girls, in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Yesterday, Donald Trump became President-elect of the most powerful economy in the world. In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton commented:

“to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”

I note the Labour Party amendment, which comments on the decrease in the number of pupils taking STEM subjects. Since 2007, the total number of pupils across Scotland’s high schools has decreased by nearly 30,000, so there is an overall trend of decline in our pupil population. However, £88 million of Scottish Government funding is being spent this year alone to support the Government’s commitment to maintain teacher numbers and redress the balance.

For too long, subject choice in our secondary schools has been gendered. A survey that was conducted recently by Equate Scotland found that more than 70 per cent of girls, women, teachers and employers want regular talks in Scottish schools promoting STEM subjects to girls.

I am delighted that the First Minister has backed Equate Scotland’s report. She has put on record her commitment to work in partnership to address the underrepresentation of women in STEM courses and careers such as physics. Indeed, my youngest sister—whom Clare Adamson has already mentioned and who rejoices every time I mention her in a parliamentary speech—was the only girl in her higher and advanced higher physics class at school. Despite the gender segregation that she experienced at school, she is now a physics teacher in the First Minister’s constituency.

The STEM consultation commits the Government to working with schools and employers to prevent bias in career choice and to encourage more diverse subject choices in order to meet the participation improvement targets. Between 2007 and 2016, the numbers of entries by girls to the main science higher qualifications, including computing, were up by 3 per cent. The numbers of passes for girls in higher chemistry and physics are up 8 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. Passes by girls in biology are down 16.9 per cent, but that is in the context of a 62 per cent increase in passes by girls in human biology. As a former secondary teacher, I would say that the delivery of human biology differs across the country, so schools perhaps need to consider the courses that they provide and their uptake, because many girls prefer to specialise in human biology as opposed to biology in general.

When I was at school, I studied chemistry and physics at standard grade. Chemistry will forever to me be a world of moles and atoms—somewhere I could see no logic—but physics I loved. I loved it because I had a great teacher: Mr Pearce. He was a great teacher because he took time to explain things. We measured velocity in class and I pinched my little sister’s Duplo truck and watched it roll down a plank and on to our wooden science benches. We measured the distance, the time and the speed, and I remember using the same equation in maths and suddenly understanding the links between physics and maths. It was like a lightbulb going on in my head.

Members will know that the Government is committed to closing the attainment gap between Scotland’s poorest and its richest pupils. To do that, we need to raise ambition in the next generation. Therefore, increasing uptake in the STEM subjects will be vital.

I recently visited the new Levenmouth campus of Fife College, which has been supported by the provision of more than £25 million of Scottish Government funding. Fife College’s STEM strategy is focused on reducing inequalities, reducing the number of low-income households and raising educational attainment while reducing educational inequality. I spoke to one of the tutors at the college about the gender make-up of his engineering classes. He told me that, when the college manages to get girls through the front door, they are not just good but brilliant. He agreed with me that, rather than being about the quality of the female students who present for engineering courses, the issue is about building their confidence in school to the extent that they can believe in and realise their capabilities in engineering.

Traditional stereotypical notions of what constitute an engineer persist, but the STEM consultation framework explicitly seeks to take action to reduce equity gaps, particularly in relation to deprivation and gender. The Scottish Government’s STEM strategy is ambitious for Scotland’s future. It seeks to redress the gender imbalance in subject choice and to build confidence among the next generation in the belief that STEM subjects can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of gender.

Yesterday, many members were devastated by the fact that Hillary Clinton had not managed to smash one of the largest glass ceilings in elected politics, but the Scottish Government’s STEM strategy sets out a route map for Scotland’s girls to become future lead learners in science, technology, engineering and maths, which is something that everyone in the chamber should support.


Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

We have heard a lot about provision of STEM education in schools. For me, a key point is the expectation that by 2030 more than 7 million jobs in the UK will depend on science skills. Those science roles are exactly what we need—high-quality, high-skilled and highly paid jobs for which emerging economies will struggle to compete with us.

By 2030, the four-year-olds and five-year-olds who started primary school this summer will be in work or at university. If current spending levels continue, pupils in England with the same academic ability and the same aptitude for science will have enjoyed more than 10 years of state education during which—according to a report that has been published by the learned societies group on Scottish STEM education—80 per cent more will have been spent on science equipment in primary school and 27 per cent more in secondary school than will have been spent in Scotland.

There is also the issue of science technicians and support staff. Last year, I submitted to all 32 local authorities a freedom of information request on science technician numbers. I found that there had been a drop in the overall number of science technicians and that one authority had cut the number of technician staff by more than 50 per cent. Technicians are the staff who maintain and repair the practical science equipment that our schools have and they are the people who set up the science labs and the complex experiments that teaching staff just do not have the time to set up. It is hard to imagine that those numbers will increase as budget cuts to local authorities continue to bite.

If the Scottish Government wants to talk about inspiration as one of the four key priorities for action, I suggest that the best way to inspire young people to pursue a career in STEM is through teaching them practical science. The minister’s description of the work that the pupils were doing in the school that she visited is a perfect example. However, if we are to allow that to happen, we must address the imbalance between what is spent on practical science equipment and staff in the rest of the UK and what is spent in Scotland.

That would also go some way to addressing another of the Government’s key priority action areas—inequality. The learned societies group also reported that 98 per cent of Scottish schools are dependent on external funding for science equipment. We are in a situation in this country in which middle-class communities have the ability to support activities in schools that will improve the life chances of pupils to a level that deprived communities struggle to match. The Scottish Government should aim to level the playing field for all schools by supporting increased funding for science equipment.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mark Griffin has raised some interesting points about lab technicians and equipment, which are matters for local authorities. However, the school that I visited did not need expensive equipment: the kaleidoscopes were made from Pringles tubes—other tubes are available for making kaleidoscopes. The equipment was created through innovative teaching. What I was saying in my speech was that through SSERC and other bodies we can create innovative and experimental teaching, using everyday objects to explore science in the real world. Expenditure is one thing, but we are investing in the teachers for everyone to experience that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will give you some time back, Mr Griffin, because that was quite a long intervention.

Mark Griffin

Thank you.

I accept that teachers can employ innovative methods, but for complex science equipment we will need a bit more than a Pringles tube. There is such a big disparity: 80 per cent more is spent in England than in Scotland on practical science equipment. That will have an impact on pupils in Scotland.

I was also speaking about inequality. I have mentioned before that I studied mechanical engineering at university, which is a key source of skills and graduates for many of the growing sectors in Scotland that provide fantastic opportunities for highly skilled and highly paid work. On my course were 120 students, only four of whom were women. We must also consider the issue of female STEM graduates leaving their professions and going on to employment in other fields. How the Government opens up careers in science and technology to half the population will determine how successful it is in tackling the issue of inequality in STEM.

Other members have mentioned Equate Scotland, which has recommended tackling the problem through recruitment of more female STEM teachers so that there is no visible gender difference. Another step is to ensure that guidance teachers and school careers advisers are trained in guiding students to embrace what they are good at, rather than their encouraging students to study, or discouraging them from studying, a subject based on their sex. There is work being done to stop the bias in guidance in schools, through which girls are guided towards biology. It would be interesting to hear the Government’s response to those suggestions.

It is clear that there are big challenges with falling teacher numbers, a reduction in science support staff and shortfalls in funding for equipment. However, at the same time there is a big prize to aim for if the situation is resolved: 7 million highly paid science jobs. We can aim for that, and we can achieve it.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

You asked about block-chain, Presiding Officer. It would take rather longer than five minutes to explain, but I will say that one commercial product that you may be familiar with that depends on block-chain technology is the electronic currency called bitcoin. I will leave that with you, Presiding Officer.

Ross Thomson—unfortunately he has left, but he can read this speech later—said that the Scots invented the steam engine. They did not—a guy called Hero, who was a Greek philosopher and thinker, invented the steam turbine in 100 AD. It is thought that he was building on ideas from 200 years before that. We Scots invented most things, but we can concede on one or two.

Richard Feynman has been mentioned: he was a terrific communicator and teacher. As a member of the commission that investigated the Challenger space shuttle disaster, he was gagged and not allowed to speak, but at the press conference, he was able to show what had happened without saying a single word. I have talked about that before—members can read about it in some of my old speeches.

I want briefly to pick up on the role of gender. When I started in computers in the 1960s, about 50 per cent of people who were working in programming were female. The reason was that working in computers was an unknown profession that was not sexy and did not draw people. Furthermore, the great heroes of computing are mostly female. Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, was Charles Babbage’s computer programmer for his analytical engine, which was a mechanical computer. She developed the first algorithm for computer programming, and algorithms are how we develop computer programmes today. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was the person who created the way in which we now develop computer programmes, in particular using COBOL—common business-oriented language. She is also responsible for the term “computer bug”, which she used when a bug—an American word for moth—got trapped in the electromechanical contacts of a computer. Anyone who goes to the Smithsonian Institution can see the bug that Grace Hopper sellotaped into a laboratory notebook in 1944. The differentiation between male and female engagement in computing is a comparatively modern thing and I have no explanation for why it has happened.

I want to talk about education, but not in the way that it is being talked about now. I am an autodidact, which means that the gaps in my knowledge are entirely my fault and nobody else’s. I did have inspirational teachers, including Doc Inglis—a bluff Lancastrian who took my first-year class around the school searching for infinity. We looked in the dustbins and behind the blackboard. The point is that I remember that to this day—that is what inspiring teachers do. When I was in sixth year, he came and did his tax return with us, either to show us how little money he got paid for putting up with us or to show us that there is a practical application for being numerate.

People say that they are uncomfortable with numbers. Whenever people say that to me, I ask, “Do you think you could give me an 11-digit number?”, and they say, “Oh, no! Certainly not.” Then I ask, “Well—does this number mean anything to you? It’s zero, one, three, one, three, four, eight, five thousand.” People in the Scottish Parliament will, I hope, say “Oh, yes. I know that number. It’s the number for the Parliament switchboard.” Everybody has a basic ability to engage with numbers, but it is subconscious and we do not realise that we have it.

The key thing that is perhaps omitted from any numeracy strategy is ensuring that parents and families can create a number-friendly environment at the outset of children’s lives, which can make a difference to their attitudes to numbers at a later stage in their lives. There are science games that we can play, for example. My four-year-old goddaughter and I dissolved salt crystals because she had seen a rock crystal and asked what a crystal was, and I said “Here’s a crystal.” We dissolved it in water, then we put that in a pan, boiled it off and got the salt back. She went away and briefed her nursery class on that piece of science.

When she next comes to see me, we are going to do a couple of things. We will use a mixture of alum and vinegar to write a message on the white of a hard-boiled egg through the shell. The message can be read only when the shell is peeled off, and we will discuss why that matters. Next, because young children are always somewhat scatological, we will use human urine to write a message on a piece of paper; it will disappear but then reappear when we heat the bit of paper.

There are lots of things that we can engage kids with that will make a real difference to their attitude to numbers and to science, and equip them with a questioning mind. At the end of the day, I am not bothered about what knowledge anybody has; if they have a questioning mind, they are going to get knowledge themselves about what matters to them. That is what will ultimately make them successful in life. All the business about teaching STEM subjects to support the economy and so on is entirely secondary. I want to see successful, happy and engaged people in STEM subjects. If we, individually and as parents and families, help with that, we will make substantial progress. I hope that that is ultimately reflected in the strategy that we end up with.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I was loth to stop you, Mr Stevenson, in your journey through quaint scientific experiments. I will need to read your speech later in the Official Report.

The next speaker is Tavish Scott, to be followed by Stuart McMillan. Mr Scott, follow that, please.


Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. It is always a great pleasure to follow Mr Stevenson. I think that I heard him say earlier that he goes back and reads his old speeches. The speech that he just gave will be worthy of reading many times, from many different perspectives. There were so many references in it to so many different things that I am not going to mention them, because I would be defeated by them all.

Instead, I will start by referring to evidence that was given to the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee yesterday when, as part of our budget considerations, we looked at the future of Skills Development Scotland.

In its submission to the committee, the Confederation of British Industry Scotland said, in relation to the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics:

“Most young people attribute their decision to pursue STEM subjects to an inspirational teacher”.

That appears to be a good place to start. It is why the CBI and others—there was much mention of Sir Ian Wood’s work in this broad area—think that they have a role in providing assistance in that regard.

It is about not just inspirational teachers and the number of teachers—there has been much statistical analysis of that—but who a young person’s parents are and what they do. At home in Shetland I know plenty of young men of my son’s age who are engineers because their dads are either in an engineering business or work in the oil industry and had an influence on their choices. There is of course a role for schools and for teachers to be all that they can be in encouraging the next generation—girls as well as boys, as Alison Johnstone rightly said, given the woeful statistics on girls becoming scientists, IT professionals or engineers—but it is also about the influence of the family.

Work has been done that strongly illustrates that the earlier the teaching of science happens in school the better. I take the cabinet secretary’s point about the pressures in primary school. It was not long ago that parents and the profession were being told that learning two languages at primary school was the overriding priority. I was at my primary school-age son’s parents night the other evening, and in the 10-minute slot that his mum and I were given to consider how his schooling was going we got nine minutes on numeracy and literacy, before I asked, “But how is he actually doing?” As a parent, I confess that I am concerned about the push on just two areas. Of course numeracy and literacy are important, but we need to remember that primary school is also about enabling kids to grow up and become little social characters in their own right.

I take the wider point that the cabinet secretary made and that other members implicitly recognised about the pressures under which we put primary school teachers and about how the early teaching of science, admirable as it is, can fit into the curriculum.

Given the concerns that we have all expressed about the workload on teachers at primary and secondary levels, we cannot have this debate without being consistent in that regard. I was quizzing the cabinet secretary the other day—I do not think that he was wholly thanking me for that—on the benchmarks that the Government has just issued to primary and secondary schools. My observation, which is shared by many teaching professionals, is that Education Scotland needed to reduce the Es and Os—the experiences and outcomes—at the same time as it introduced the benchmarks. In other words, can there be a reduction in teacher workload and paperwork alongside the introduction of benchmarks that I am told are sensible and constructive? If we are loading science on to all that as well, we need to recognise the impact on primary and secondary schools.

On secondary schools, I cannot be the only parent who knows that his son cannot do three science subjects in fifth year. The school timetable under curriculum for excellence, certainly in most schools that I know about, simply does not facilitate that, because of the narrowing of choice that has happened. We cannot see the issues in isolation. I welcome the strategy, as Iain Gray rightly did, but as we aspire to encourage more pupils to take STEM subjects, we need at least to be alive to the reality, which is that curriculum for excellence is reducing schools’ ability to provide choice and offer three sciences in the way in which my school did many moons ago—not that I did three sciences.

Members talked about the cabinet secretary’s remarks yesterday. I thought that he was commendably fair on the challenges, as Iain Gray rightly said. All that the Opposition is doing today is saying that those challenges have been around for some time. We have all been in the Parliament for a considerable time and, as Liz Smith said, we want the strategy to deliver on those challenges. The Parliament is encouraging the Government to do that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you. I have no spare time now; I ask for speeches of a tight five minutes.


Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

It has been an interesting and informative debate. I always enjoy the contributions from my colleague Stewart Stevenson, because I know that I will learn one or two things.

I want to touch on two points, one of which was raised in Stewart Stevenson’s contribution and one in Ross Thomson’s.

Ross Thomson spoke about opportunities and I want to gently make him aware of the situation in the heavy engineering and shipbuilding sectors. In the past four years, Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow hired its first ever female technical apprentice. The member should think about the fact that it took until the past four years before the first ever female shipbuilding apprenticeship was given on a shipyard on the Clyde.

There have not always been opportunities for females in STEM areas. My colleague Stewart Stevenson talked about the computing sector and the figure of 50 per cent females, but the opportunities in shipbuilding and heavy engineering were certainly not always there.

I welcome the STEM consultation and the four key priorities of excellence, equality, inspiration and connection. Progress has been made but there is still more to do. We can say that for every single walk of life; there is always more that people can do.

There has been a 3 per cent increase in the number of girls entering science qualifications, including computing, since 2007. The number of girls passing higher chemistry and physics is up by 8 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. There is a 62 per cent increase in the number of girls passing human biology, which helps to explain the 16.9 per cent decrease in girls taking biology. In 2014-15, there were 27 per cent more female full-time equivalent science and maths students, and 55 per cent more full-time equivalent engineering students in colleges compared with 2006-07.

The figures are positive and should be welcomed by all but, as I have said, we can always do more. The increase in the number of college students is hugely important.

On Monday, I attended the Inverclyde alliance community planning partnership meeting. We heard a hugely informative presentation from the principal of West College Scotland, Audrey Cumberford, part of which centred on the college’s refocused drive on STEM subjects. There is an increase in local demand for people who have STEM qualifications. Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow has an ambitious and welcome apprenticeship programme, and it has a link with the college to help to deliver it. As a result, there are now more female apprentices.

The consultation is welcome, but I also believe that every MSP has a role to play in helping to satisfy our economic challenges. If we are not already doing so, we should be promoting the STEM subjects when we talk to our constituents, whether they are young or older. I urge all members to promote the consultation. I have written to every school in my constituency to make them aware of the consultation and have asked the head teachers to pass the information on to students, teachers and parents.

I want to touch on another point that was raised during today’s First Minister’s questions. Murdo Fraser talked about a “Scottish shambles”. Notwithstanding the talking down of our nation, I am sure that members, including Mr Fraser, will agree that there are many examples of shambolic projects elsewhere. The initial cost estimate for Hinkley Point C was £14 billion and it is now up to £37 billion. The cost of HS2 has continued to increase and is now up to £55.7 billion; the cost per kilometre is 10 times that of the cost of global counterparts. Trident has also seen continuous increases in prices and it is now reported to be at £205 billion. Deloitte estimates that the refurbishment of the Westminster Parliament will cost between £3 billion and £4.3 billion and others have highlighted higher figures.

I raise those issues to highlight two things. First, as well as STEM challenges in dealing with such huge projects, I encourage the UK Government to get some accountants involved to limit the exorbitant increases, if the projects actually go ahead. Secondly, before Mr Fraser talks down Scotland, he should consider the actions and mathematical illiteracy of his political masters in London.


Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

First, I thank Jenny Gilruth for putting some doubts in my head about whether d equals s over t or t equals d over s. I always got that triangle wrong at school, but I will go away and research it.

Today’s debate is important. There have been interesting speeches from across the chamber. Scotland as a nation encompasses a strong global reputation for its excellence in STEM subjects, and it is through the talent and entrepreneurial spirit of Scottish people that we have built the great nation that we are today. STEM subjects are important because they cover such a far-reaching spectrum of industries and job opportunities that are so crucial to the Scottish economy’s future success.

As our economy modernises, it is our duty to ensure that the Scots of tomorrow are given the opportunity to play their part in that economy. An example close to my heart is the digital economy. There is huge growth in that sector, but with the growth comes a huge demand for programmers, engineers and software developers to keep up with the demand. We know that every year there are 11,000 digital job vacancies, but we are only ever able to fill about half of them. If we are struggling to meet the industry’s demands today, it will surely be even more challenging to keep up with its demands tomorrow. The need to train people has never been more paramount.

The problem does not exist just in the digital industry. We are seeing a worrying trend that exposes how underprepared our workforce is to adapt to future market changes. For example, a recent survey by Pearson and the CBI underlined that Scotland is simply not producing enough STEM graduates to keep up with the demands of the modern Scottish market. A separate survey by the CBI found that 42 per cent of STEM recruits fall short in relation to the skills that their employers expect them to have.

Stuart McMillan made some valid points. It is our duty to be ambassadors for STEM subjects. I was interested to hear members’ experiences of what inspired them in the sciences. We all have a personal story of something that we saw on television, something that we did at school or someone who nurtured our interest in the sciences or technology. That is an important point, because we can talk about statistics and rises and falls in trends, but the issue is about inspiring young people to get involved in sciences. Although the consultation mentioned great projects, we could do much more as MSPs.

Analysis in the United States shows that 40 per cent of American STEM graduates do not work in a field directly related to what they studied. In other words, graduating from a STEM field offers graduates greater flexibility in their career choices.

The debate is important in Scotland because we know that physics-based sectors account for more than £12.5 billion of the Scottish economic output. We estimate that more than 180,000 people are directly employed in those sectors. Many sectors that the Scottish economy relies on for its future success, such as oil and gas, agriculture, energy and renewables are in turn reliant on STEM graduates. It was only last week that I stood in this very spot and talked about digital participation and how 17 per cent of Scottish schools lack a specialist IT teacher. How can we expect our young to succeed in the digital world of tomorrow if we are not providing them with enough teachers today?

It is even more worrying, as other members have alluded to, that there is such a disparity in the number of female students in STEM subjects. Fewer than a third of physics higher students are women, and Skills Development Scotland points out that only 13 per cent of STEM jobs are occupied by females.

In my region, it is great to see that Ayrshire College has recognised the problem and in response has put together specific programmes to address it. The college’s “This Ayrshire girl can” tag is, I hope, very successful. I would like to see that extended to “This Scottish girl can”.

My colleague Liz Smith rightly pointed out, as did Tavish Scott, that this debate has happened before; there is a bit of a groundhog day feel to the chamber. The Scottish Government’s agenda has been complacent to date and I hope that it listens intently to what has been said by all the parties and puts more immediate focus on STEM subjects.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

On the question of how far the groundhog travelled, d = s x t. I thought that I would put you out of your misery.


Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

Presiding Officer,

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Those were the words of astronomer Professor Carl Sagan, who inspired generations—young and old—to love science and all that it could do for mankind. He was a brilliant communicator who was behind the Pioneer plaque and the golden record in the Voyager project in 1977, which took the first messages from earth into space.

Since he died in 1998, some pretty incredible things have become known. We know that the universe is accelerating as it expands, when we thought that it was slowing down. We know something about dark energy and dark matter and how they make that process happen. We have discovered the Higgs boson particle, which is thought to be responsible for all the mass in the universe. Traces of water have been found on the moon and on Mars. Only this year, a potentially habitable planet has been discovered about 4 light years away from earth.

Today, we have Professor Brian Cox—a truly inspiring physicist whose fantastic television programmes are capturing the minds of countless numbers of youngsters and getting them hooked on science. Inspiring our young people is the key that opens the door to more incredible discoveries and underpins the success of the strategies and systems that we put in place to enable all that to happen.

The STEM strategy that has just been published for consultation builds on achievements to date, gathers together in one place much of the work that is under way and seeks views on how we might solve the many issues that we still face, which members have recognised. The strategy talks about enthusing and inspiring our young people, asking them what they think, offering more training and skills, reaching out to females and making the vital connections with colleges, universities and employers that can be the basis for a wonderful career in STEM. All those points are positive and there is an emphasis on how we might overcome some of the problems that we face.

Money helps, of course, and I am pleased that a substantial investment is being made to upskill primary and secondary science teachers, technicians and local authority champions and to give practical support for science teachers. On top of that, a further significant investment of £12 million has been targeted at retraining some of our oil and gas workers to become STEM teachers.

I particularly like the digital schools programme idea to try digital skills development in schools. I commend East Ayrshire Council’s initiative to make iPads available to every pupil and teacher in a number of schools to encourage learning, no matter where the pupils may be. For me, a crucial intervention that must take place is to try to retain the enthusiasm that primary school children have for science, which they all too often lose as soon as they get to secondary school—particularly girls.

To complement the strategy, I would like to suggest a number of ideas for us to consider further. Perhaps we should establish more school science clubs and have young scientists of the year awards, with prizes and recognition events that overlap with the late primary and early secondary years. Maybe we should encourage science lectures in our primary and secondary schools, with practising scientists telling our young people about their work by using demonstrations and multimedia.

Could we have national science recognition and achievement awards in Scotland, similar to the scheme that President Obama introduced in 2008 just after he was first elected? I hope that they will not be abolished by President Trump. Could we identify youngsters with an aptitude for science and see how we can nurture that aptitude so that they do not disconnect from science as they move to secondary school? We could also do with more dedicated science TV channels that broadcast at the right times of the day and are aimed at youngsters and adults.

I hope that some of those ideas might be taken up and might see the light of day if we are to make Scotland a special place for science and technology. Scotland has a wonderful history of achievement in science that we should all be proud of. The strategies and systems that we devise certainly need to be correct, but they will work only if we enthuse and excite the next generation of young scientists in Scotland to make incredible discoveries that are unknown to us at the moment.

I am certain that we have the youngsters in Scotland right now who will make those incredible discoveries if we excite them enough about science and make it possible for them to achieve great things. Somewhere in Scotland, something incredible is waiting to be known by our young scientists-to-be, so let us back the strategy, excite and encourage our youngsters to embrace science and watch the next generation of incredible discoveries unfold here in Scotland.


Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

We have heard some interesting and knowledgeable speeches—they were certainly more knowledgeable than any speech that I could give, and I am not talking only about Stewart Stevenson’s speech.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, particularly as we celebrate world science centre day. Scotland has a strong reputation in the STEM subjects and we must continue to build on that and put in place a strong foundation for those who want to follow a career in STEM. We are going about that and moving forward in the right way.

I will highlight a number of organisations whose actions enthuse me and others about science, mathematics and all the other areas that we have discussed. Those subjects can be exciting not just career-wise but in all respects. The three organisations are FemEng in Rwanda, Glasgow Science Centre and Kidney Research UK. I have visited them and hosted events for them in Parliament.

Last night, I hosted an event for Kidney Research UK, which pioneers renal research. All the contributors who spoke at the event said that the reason why £9.5 million of investment in renal research is coming to Scotland is that we have excellent universities, scientists and research facilities. The Kidney Research UK report “Pioneering renal research in Scotland” states:

“The representation of Scotland’s scientists, clinicians and kidney patients has been vital to two of Kidney Research UK’s biggest ever initiatives.”

That tells us something about how well Scotland does in that field.

FemEng is a student network that was established in 2013 by Ellen Simmons, who is a biomedical engineering student at the University of Glasgow. FemEng students have been running programmes, activities and workshops for schools to promote science and engineering. That is a new and revolutionary method of reaching out in which young people are very interested.

FemEng students went to Rwanda to set up an innovative scientific programme, led by University of Glasgow engineering and science students, to work with female students from Rwanda. It was fantastic: the team worked with 500 Rwandan schoolgirls and encouraged them to take up further subjects in science and engineering. That is a unique and progressive way of learning. It involved everyone—the groups of young women in Rwanda and the students from Glasgow university—and gave them the opportunities that science can offer. I hope that such work will continue.

Members may have seen the BodyWorks on tour project on display in Parliament last week. It was created by the Glasgow Science Centre and is full of fun, interactive and—most important—educational work stations, and it has been touring schools throughout the country. It inspires children to interact with the exhibits and speaks to them about the body, health and wellbeing. It takes science to the masses, including schoolchildren from primary school onwards. It was amazing—I thoroughly enjoyed it and it gave me more insight into how mathematics and stem cells all link together.

Glasgow Science Centre has embraced the challenge of getting our kids excited about and interested in science. As I said when I intervened on Iain Gray, the centre has an extensive education programme that is linked to curriculum for excellence and a large collection of resources for teachers to access and use in the classroom. We should aspire to that provision in all areas, and I congratulate the centre on its work.

Just this week, to mark world science centre day, schoolchildren attended the centre to plant a tree that will grow from pips from the apple tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s theories about gravity. The centre presents science in such a way that young kids thoroughly enjoy it, and that is how we move forward.

The projects that I mentioned encapsulate the key priorities that are mentioned in the Scottish Government’s motion, which are

“excellence, equality, inspiration and connection”,

and I look forward to further projects.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Daniel Johnson to close for Labour. You have five minutes.


Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

We have had much discussion in Parliament about STEM, and with good reason. Science, technology, engineering and maths are the foundations of our country’s future and economy. We have had discussions about enterprise agencies, innovation and modern apprenticeships, and if we are to embrace the changes that our economy is facing, STEM is critical. Both Mark Griffin and Jamie Greene did a good job this afternoon of laying the context for that. Mark Griffin outlined that by 2030 there will be 7 million jobs in the UK that are dependent on science, and Jamie Greene highlighted the opportunities and challenges that the digital economy will bring.

As much as STEM is important for new jobs, it is also important for doing old jobs in new ways. As much as we will have geneticists using robots to carry out their genetics work, we will also find that builders are only too aware that technology is coming their way, too, with three-dimensional printing technologies and off-site prefabrication. Every single one of our jobs will be touched by technology: from doctors to teachers to shopkeepers to civil servants and chefs—maybe even politicians. We will all need to understand how to use science and technology to do our daily jobs.

As we look at the debate and try to embrace those changes, it is important that we understand the status quo. We have to understand where we are so that we can make a plan. I know that the minister was a little unwilling to go straight into statistics, so I will talk about the experience of a physics teachers from my constituency, who came to talk to me about the challenge of teaching national 4 and national 5 together. Part of both those curricula is teaching about waves. The problem is that she has to teach in a single class the concept of sound waves for national 4 along with electromagnetic waves for national 5, which is deeply challenging. It means that one of those subjects will be taught in an unsatisfactory way.

Furthermore, she told me that her school’s resource budget is stretched by buying new stop clocks for the labs. Perhaps one can teach English with tatty books, but science needs resources. As Mark Griffin pointed out, resourcing in Scotland lags behind that in the rest of the UK, with £7.33 being spent per pupil in Scotland compared with £10.12 in England.

I almost wanted to laugh when Shirley-Anne Somerville brought up Pringles tubes as a serious alternative to spending in classrooms. Frankly, science needs to be resourced; it needs support. When one couples suggestions such as that with the facts that we have been losing two science teachers a week in Scotland, and that our technicians have been cut by a quarter and lab assistants by half since 2007, one can see the very serious situation that we face in science laboratories in our schools. We need support, we need resource and we need a curriculum that works.

I agree with much of what the Scottish Government says in its strategy, and a strategy is important and urgent, but the question is this: what is the Government doing? We need more teachers, but all we have in the strategy is discussion of a “pipeline”. I used to be a management consultant, so I can smell management jargon when it is put in front of me: one talks about pipelines when one does not want to talk about the complexities or challenges of what one has to deliver. Talking about a pipeline in order to make people imagine that it is as simple as bolting something together and turning on a tap is not good enough. The reality is that we have only a trickle of teachers coming through; we are barely replacing the teachers who are exiting the profession.

We need a strategy, but what we have is a consultation. Iain Gray was right to point out that the strategy needs resources behind it and a plan with a specific timetable, because there is urgency. Liz Smith was absolutely right to point out that it is not a new set of challenges, and that this is not a new Government. It is a Government that has had 10 years to deal with the issues, but time after time in Parliament we come back to the subject, and we have had consultation after consultation. The challenges are not new, so we need action now.

The paucity of the plan comes under real scrutiny when we look at gender—Jenny Gilruth and Ross Thomson were absolutely right to raise the challenges of gender. However, all we have in the plan is warm words about what is already happening, vague promises of funding for external organisations and support for existing work. Quite simply, that is not good enough—it does not deal with the underlying challenges that need to be dealt with.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Johnson. You must conclude.

Daniel Johnson

The reality is—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No—you must conclude. That is a good place to stop. You have done your five minutes.

Edward Mountain has seven minutes.


Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I was rather nervous when I was asked to speak in the debate because I remembered what I was always told at school—that I could have done better. However, it appears that I am in good company this afternoon and that we could all do better.

There is agreement across the chamber that STEM subjects provide a broad spectrum of valuable and versatile skills, from analysis to problem solving. Those skills are vital as pupils progress through school, further education, higher education and apprenticeships, and on to their chosen careers.

We have also heard that one of the most serious issues that we need to address, which should cause us all concern, is the low number of girls taking up STEM subjects at secondary school and the consequent fall in the number of girls in STEM subjects at higher level. Higher maths is down by 2 per cent, physics by 7 per cent and biology by 21 per cent. Not enough is being done to encourage girls to take up those vital subjects—subjects that are becoming increasingly attractive and sought after in this technologically advancing economy.

The Government cannot claim that it has made progress if it accepts that, as the figures show, the number of STEM teachers has fallen. As my colleague Liz Smith and Daniel Johnson said, there is a major problem with recruitment of teachers. Since 2007, more than 100 STEM teachers have been cut every year. That is 410 fewer maths teachers, 187 fewer computing teachers and 105 fewer chemistry teachers. We need to replace those teachers. I agree with Tavish Scott and Stewart Stevenson that the teachers need to be inspirational in order to encourage people into STEM subjects. If the Government is to seize upon the opportunities and possibilities that STEM subjects can offer, surely it will accept that a strong foundation can be built only if there are sufficient teachers.

In a nutshell, Ross Thomson made it clear that if we do not encourage girls to have an active interest in STEM subjects at a young age—by which I mean primary school age—there is less chance of encouraging them to have an interest in STEM subjects in further and higher education. When I looked at the figures, it appeared that of the female students who graduate in STEM subjects the vast majority—73 per cent—do not go on to a STEM occupation. Quite frankly, that is not good enough. We must all accept that huge improvements need to be made there. It falls on the Government, which rightly champions gender equality, to accept that it needs to work on that, and that, in the past seven years, it has failed to do so.

I turn to the role that UK businesses can play in relation to STEM. As Jamie Greene mentioned, we need to do more work on apprenticeships. In 2015, the UK Government announced that it was introducing an apprenticeship levy, which could fund up to 3 million apprenticeships. We need to ensure that some of those are STEM apprenticeships so that we encourage people into that area.

I do not have sufficient time to go into major detail, but I will give two examples that I believe work: the club TechFuture Girls that is run by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and CDI Apps for Good. Those are excellent industry examples in which apprenticeships are encouraged. The Scottish Government must step up to the mark and do more to encourage businesses to grow apprenticeships.

I thought that it would be interesting before I conclude to highlight what is being achieved by two countries. First, in Germany, the federal Ministry of Education and Research has developed a long-term strategic partnership between science and business and has launched two initiatives to further that aim: one is its leading-edge cluster competition, and the other is a public-private partnership to foster innovation. Important components of those initiatives include collaborative research and development and the development of innovative academic training and degree programmes. The German federal Government promotes the system of vocational education and training as a key factor in maintaining a low rate of youth unemployment. The fact that it maintains a rate of 8.2 per cent, which is the lowest in Europe, must make that approach worthy of consideration.

Secondly, in the Netherlands, the Government and education and business sectors have commissioned Bèta Techniek. I am acutely aware that I could run out of time, so I will not explain that initiative. If the Government would like further information on that, I will be happy to supply it.

It is clear to me that it will take an holistic approach to solve the problem. We need to make scientific careers more attractive to young people while being innovative in education to ensure that we engage young people at the earliest possible age. We should target industry, schools and universities, policymakers and specific regional and economic sectors to help us with that. We also need to target girls and women specifically, as well as ethnic minorities.

In conclusion, Scotland has had an excellent reputation over the centuries for performing well and being a world leader in STEM subjects. As Ross Thomson has said, Scotland has proved itself as an entrepreneurial and innovative centre of Europe. From the discovery of antibiotics and tropical medicine to the invention of the steam engine and the television, we recognise our history of great achievement in science, which we must build on. We must aim to channel that success into the promotion of STEM education in the future.

It is therefore with great sadness that I note that the Government has not taken positive action on 63 of the recommendations in the second science and engineering education advisory group report, which was published in 2012. To me, that is more than disappointing. The Government has let itself down and it has let Scotland down. Perhaps we should concentrate more on our future and what we can do for our children than on harping on about what has gone on in the past.


The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

I point out to Mr Mountain that he concluded by talking about the need to focus on the future rather than harping on about the past, even though he had just delivered a speech in which he harped on about the past. That is an interesting contradiction in the Conservatives’ line of argument.

The highlight of the debate for me was undoubtedly the speech by Stewart Stevenson. I think that I speak for all members in that regard. It does not take much imagination to conceive of Mr Stevenson as a school pupil searching for infinity in his classroom with energy and enthusiasm. It is quite an endearing picture for us all to contemplate.

I will set out the Government’s purpose in taking forward the STEM strategy and the consultation that has been the subject of debate this afternoon. The process has been led by the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Shirley-Anne Somerville, and has been significantly informed by the contribution of our chief scientific adviser, Professor Sheila Rowan. It is important that those who have been entrusted with taking forward the science agenda in the Government are given our support in advancing what is an important subject. However, it is not lost on me that the people to whom leadership of our agenda on science is entrusted—our science minister and our chief scientific adviser—are women. That is indicative of the Government’s determination to tackle the gender imbalance in the pursuit of science in our country.

However, the Government acknowledges that there is much more that needs to be done to advance all these arguments. We will disagree on many points that have been mentioned this afternoon, but it is clear that we are all agreed on the question of strengthening the relationship between addressing the gender imbalance in STEM and increasing participation in STEM. I am happy to confirm to Parliament today that the Government will, in a focused way, consider the aims of the strategy to ensure that the fundamental issue of addressing the gender imbalance is at the heart of all that we do in taking forward the next steps of the strategy.

Jamie Greene

If the Government is so committed to increasing the number of females studying in Scotland, why has there been a 41 per cent decrease in the number of women in colleges in Scotland in eight years?

John Swinney

As the data will show, the level of female participation in full-time equivalent college places is on the increase. That is because the Government has concentrated on college places that will support the journey into work for individuals, which is the purpose of college education.

A number of colleagues across the political spectrum have paid tribute to my candour yesterday at the Royal Society of Chemistry. I appreciate that, because the Government goes into this debate determined to strengthen the delivery of STEM in Scotland and maximise its effectiveness. Of course, the Government should be challenged on such questions. However, it is equally valid for the Opposition to look carefully at what it is being asked to vote for in the Opposition amendments, and I want to spend a little bit of time going through them.

The first part of the Conservative amendment laments the fact that

“there has been no response from the Scottish Government to the call for fully trained science teachers in primary schools”,

despite my answering that question myself—and I have been in office for only a few months—at yesterday’s Royal Society of Chemistry event. Moreover, the Opposition knows full well that curriculum for excellence is founded on the principle of our primary school teachers being generalists who are supported to deliver the education that young people require. That is why the Government is investing in the Scottish schools education research centre: to upskill primary and secondary teachers and technicians so that they can make that contribution.

Liz Smith

Does the cabinet secretary not accept that, in the calls being made by the learned societies and the groups made up of specialists in physics, chemistry, biology and so on, they are making the very point that they want those specialisms? They feel that the evidence that has been alluded to in many speeches this afternoon highlights a severe problem in the STEM area, which is not delivering the goods that the Scottish Government set out in 2012.

John Swinney

We will not always be able to do what all the learned societies want us to do. Curriculum for excellence is based on the delivery of a broad general education; indeed, Mr Scott made that point in what I thought was a very thoughtful contribution to the debate.

Liz Smith cannot dodge the point that I made in my earlier intervention. She regularly comes to the chamber demanding that we focus on literacy and numeracy, but today she comes demanding that we focus on science.

Liz Smith

Will the cabinet secretary give way?

John Swinney

No. I have given way already, and I have more ground to cover.

The contradiction at the heart of the Conservative amendment is laid bare on that question, but the contradiction goes further. In the second part of her amendment, Liz Smith laments that there has been

“no reversal of the recent and damaging cuts to the numbers of Scottish secondary school teachers in key STEM subjects”.

Again, this takes us to some of the dilemmas at the heart of education. I do not choose—and I have no ability to choose—the teachers in individual schools in the country. That is properly the preserve of local authorities. However, Liz Smith and others come here and complain about my trying to ensure that local authorities can take forward some of the Government’s priorities on teacher numbers. I have put money into the financial settlement to enable that.

Liz Smith

It is not the Conservatives who are making these points but the teaching profession, colleges, universities and businesses. Does the cabinet secretary not accept that?

John Swinney

I do not know how it is not the Conservatives who are making these points; after all, they are in the Conservative amendment that members of the Parliament are being asked to vote on.

My point is that Liz Smith is at the front of the queue, trying to protect local authorities’ rights to take decisions on education, but the burden of her amendment is that, somehow, I should be telling local authorities how many science teachers they should have in their schools. The number of teachers in our schools today is higher than it would have been had I not put in place constraints on local authorities’ ability to reduce teacher numbers, which is what the local authorities wanted to do. Teacher numbers in Scotland are at their current level because we put money in to ensure that that would be the case.

Daniel Johnson

If the cabinet secretary wants to talk about constraints, how about the constraint of an 11 per cent fall in local authority budgets? Given that education is one of the largest items in those budgets, does he not think that that somewhat constrains their ability to employ science teachers? [Interruption.]

John Swinney

I do not know why the Conservatives are applauding, because they have been savaging public expenditure in the United Kingdom since 2010. That is the explanation for the reductions in budgets in Scotland. It is because of the austerity agenda of the United Kingdom Government.

Iain Gray’s amendment raises points about levels of participation in the STEM subjects. I am the first to accept that there are challenges in encouraging young people to become involved in those subjects. However, at the heart of the strategy is the determination to inspire and motivate young people to undertake that pursuit and to ensure that they are given the insight, energy and enthusiasm to make that contribution. That is at the heart of the Government’s strategy on STEM, and it is what we want to ensure is the case in classrooms in Scotland. It is what we will focus on in taking forward an agenda that has the ambition of ensuring that Scotland is equipped with the STEM potential and capability to meet the economic challenges of the future. That lies at the heart of the Government’s agenda.