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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 26, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 26 October 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Disability Sport, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Strategy, Diet and Obesity Strategy, Hydro Nation, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Strategy

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Our first item of business this afternoon is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics strategy for education and training. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

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

I am delighted to lay before Parliament today a STEM education and training strategy for Scotland that focuses on excellence, equity, connection and inspiration. Indeed, only this morning, I was privileged—as I have been, on a wide range of visits in recent months to science centres, festivals, early years centres, schools, colleges and universities—to see inspiration in action. I visited the Jimmy Dunnachie family learning centre in Glasgow, which has established a strong STEM pre-school curriculum, with hands-on activities and exciting topics. I saw for myself how those activities are capturing the imaginations of the centre’s young learners. It was also great to hear about the partnerships that the centre has forged with the University of Strathclyde and with young STEM ambassadors from local schools, one of whom I had the chance to meet on my visit.

Enthusing and engaging children from the earliest years in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are at the heart of the centre’s activity. It was an absolute pleasure to see children exploring STEM in all its forms. That work is key to setting children of all ages—boys and girls—from a range of backgrounds on a journey of wonder on which they can learn to question, to experiment, to problem solve and to always ask “Why?” and “What next?” With some estimates suggesting that 65 per cent of pre-school children will work in careers and jobs that do not yet exist, their future is truly one of opportunity. We must give them, and the children I met in Glasgow today, the tools that they need to seize it.

This STEM strategy has a clear focus and a strong purpose: quite simply, to be a nation with ambition, Scotland must become a STEM nation. If we are to realise the ambition that is set out in our programme for government to build a modern, dynamic and open economy that benefits everyone in Scotland, we must support everyone in Scotland to develop their STEM capability and skills. All the sectors that feature in our vision for a high-technology, low-carbon economy have one golden thread: they all require workforces with STEM-related skills to develop and grow.

The strategy has been shaped by extensive discussion and dialogue. It began with a debate in Parliament marking the start of the formal consultation exercise. That consultation was available online and included a series of events covering specific interests groups such as education leaders and people involved in gender equality and business engagement. I also established a short-life expert reference group to provide support and challenge in finalising the strategy. The group was co-chaired by Professor Sheila Rowan, the chief scientific adviser for Scotland, who is here in Parliament today, and Professor Iain Hunter from the University of Strathclyde. I am grateful to them and to all members of the reference group for giving so generously of their time and expertise.

The strategy seeks to address four key challenges: the need to ensure that people are encouraged to develop an interest in STEM that is reinforced throughout their lives; the need to ensure that our education system has the right number of practitioners with the right skills to deliver excellent learning and teaching; the need to build a system that equips people with the skills that employers need and has the flexibility to respond effectively to change; and the need to tackle the gender imbalances and other inequities that exist across STEM education and training. It does so by focusing on four key themes and aims.

First, we must build the capacity of the education and training system to deliver excellent STEM learning. Earlier this month, the Deputy First Minister announced a new scheme to provide bursaries for anyone changing career to train as a STEM teacher. From August 2018, 100 bursaries of £20,000 will be available to people who are giving up an existing career to undertake teacher training in the STEM subjects. The initial focus will be on subjects in which we currently have a shortage of students in teacher training: physics, mathematics, technical education and computing science. Applicants will be expected to have a relevant degree at 2.1 or above, with suitable subject content. Minimum entry requirements for teacher education courses will also apply.

However, we must also provide appropriate support and professional learning opportunities for teachers and other practitioners. We will create a new network of STEM specialist advisers to work with early years providers and schools to ensure that the sharing of best practice and emerging evidence is at the heart of excellence in STEM learning and teaching. The new network will be operational by December 2018, and advisers will work with the new regional improvement collaboratives that are being established in partnership with local government as part of our education reforms.

To support STEM learning in schools, we will continue to fund the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre and our partnership with the Wood Foundation on the raising aspirations in science education programme, as well as investing in new resources for practitioners. Crucially, that will include support for STEM learning and inspiration in the early years, as we expand the early years workforce in Scotland.

It is vital that we give everyone the opportunity to fulfil their STEM potential and to contribute to Scotland’s economic prosperity. Our second aim therefore focuses on closing equity gaps in participation and attainment in STEM. We will take action to improve the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM learning and to tackle unconscious bias and gender stereotyping that creates barriers to participation, access and attainment. That must start from the earliest years and should be sustained right through the education system at all levels. It will include action to tackle gender segregation and promote equality of opportunity in the early years, in apprenticeships and on college and university courses. We will work closely with equalities experts in the third sector to create a dedicated team to embed practice from the successful Institute of Physics gender balance project across all schools by 2022.

Thirdly, I have already spoken of the importance of inspiring children, young people and adults to study STEM and to continue their studies to obtain more specialist skills. The current UK STEM ambassador programme provides a strong network of support for education. We can do more, however. We will establish a new young STEM leaders programme to stimulate the development of peer mentoring in STEM. That will start in 2018 and will be fully operational by 2022. It will focus on children and young people who are currently in education, so as to complement existing STEM ambassadors.

Earlier today I announced funding of £2.65 million to support the work and activity of Scotland’s four science centres, and I am proud that we are the only Government in the UK to provide such financial support to science centres. They have a key role to play, not only in inspiring STEM in children, young people and adults, but in helping to tackle inequity. We will therefore target our funding to enable the centres and science festivals to further encourage girls, in particular, and, more generally, people from deprived, rural and remote communities to engage in informal STEM learning and experiences.

The fourth aim seeks to connect the STEM education and training offer with labour-market need, both now and in the future. To increase collaboration and connection, we will create a new STEM hub network to strengthen regional-level collaboration among partners, including universities, science centres and employers. The network will focus on building partnerships between secondary schools and colleges in 2018, and will broaden out to include primary and early learning settings during 2019.

Of course, colleges and universities in Scotland are already taking action to prioritise STEM teaching and courses. Our universities are world leading and are at the cutting edge of research and innovation across the spectrum of STEM disciplines. Our colleges are increasingly playing a central role in co-ordinating the approach to STEM across their regions and with partners, including businesses and employers, to deliver our aim of increasing the number of modern apprenticeship starts to 30,000.

We will build on this solid foundation in three ways. We will increase the number of college and university student placements with employers in STEM curriculum areas; we will increase the number of graduate and post-qualification internships offered with STEM employers; and, to complement the approach being taken through the developing the young workforce programme to improve careers guidance from three to 18, we will ensure that college and university students have access to the best advice and guidance about STEM careers.

We must challenge our institutions to go further, faster. We invest in our colleges and universities with confidence but, in the ever more competitive global economy, we must look to them to work with us and with partners in industry to ensure that their curricular offer to students and support for researchers remain world leading and are always current.

This STEM education and training strategy for Scotland is deliberately bold and ambitious. It has a five-year lifetime, from 2017 until 2022, and delivery starts now. That focus on delivery must be relentless, so we will measure progress and success through key performance indicators. Work on developing those has begun, and they will be published by the end of the year. I will also chair an implementation group involving expert external advice to drive forward delivery. That group will produce annual reports on progress and provide these to Parliament.

I am confident that, through the actions in the strategy, we can unlock the opportunities that the future holds for all Scotland to flourish, thrive and become a STEM nation.

This is not the Scottish Government’s strategy, nor even that of the Scottish Parliament, although I hope that all members and parliamentary groups will support it. It is Scotland’s STEM education and training strategy, and everyone in our education system, across the public, private and third sectors and in key businesses and industries has a role to play. I am proud to present it to Parliament today.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the minister for prior sight of her statement. I broadly welcome the measures that she has announced, although it should be noted that some of the conclusions and the recommendations are exactly the same as those that were contained in the science and engineering education advisory group’s 2012 report, which suggests that progress has been painfully slow.

I have a couple of questions to put to the minister. First, in 2015, the Royal Society of Chemistry called for us to have specialist science teachers in primary schools on the back of evidence that it had collected suggesting that primary 4 to 7 is the best age to capture the imagination of young people when it comes to science. The Scottish Government rejected that call on the ground of cost, but it has since found money to support bursaries for graduates who might be persuaded into teaching from other professions. Will the Scottish Government commit to a proportion of that bursary support going into science specialism in primary schools?

Secondly, the minister is clearly well aware of recent Scottish Qualifications Authority trends in STEM. She will know that, in 2007, there were 50,231 SQA higher entries in STEM, and that, in 2013, there was an increase in numbers to 54,618, which was pleasing. However, with the new highers programme, entries for 2016 were only 41,054 and, in the same period, the number of STEM teachers in secondary schools fell from 6,037 to 5,864. Does the minister accept that, notwithstanding the recent demographic trends, the reduction in STEM teacher numbers is a serious part of the subject-choice issue and partly explains why insufficient pupils are studying STEM subjects at higher level?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I take up Liz Smith on one of her points. I disagree with the idea that the best time to inspire young people is between primary 4 and 7. This morning, I was in an early years setting with children aged four to five who were utterly engaged and enthused in STEM. The headteacher was very keen to press the view that we need to start at that stage and not wait until primary 4 because, as the research has shown, by the age of seven, children, particularly young girls, think in terms of what is a boy subject and what is a girl subject. Primary 4 is already too late, and we have lost some young people because of that.

On Liz Smith’s point about specialist STEM teachers, I said in my statement that we will invest in a network of specialist STEM advisers who will support and share the good practice that happens across Scotland with each and every school. I saw great examples of what an adviser can bring to a collection of schools in the work that we have done in partnership with the Wood Foundation. That is why we have followed the process that we have.

On the number of young people taking STEM subjects, Liz Smith is right to point out that the school cohort is falling. Between 2010 and 2016, the secondary 4 to secondary 6 cohort has fallen by 5.6 per cent. That explains some of the STEM statistics. If we compare 2007 and 2017, we see that 13.4 per cent more young people passed the full range of STEM highers, so we are seeing progress. However, that increase is not enough, which is why we have the strategy and is exactly why we are putting in place today the schemes to encourage more young people into making STEM choices.

Within curriculum for excellence, we need to look at the senior phase, across three years. We need to allow schools to choose the subject choices and curriculum at a local level, while allowing young people to have a wide range of subject choices available to them, including the sciences.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

The minister will get no argument from Labour that Scotland must be, as it has been historically, a STEM nation, so a strategy to achieve that is welcome. The question is this: is the strategy urgent or bold enough? Liz Smith is right that we have, since 2007, lost more than 800 STEM teachers from our schools. Enrolment and pass rates in STEM subjects in recent years have fallen not just at higher level, but at national 4 and 5 levels.

Meanwhile, STEM teacher training places lie unfilled. In maths alone, universities have filled fewer than half their available places. We have long argued for bursaries as an incentive for STEM trainee teachers, so those that have been announced are welcome, but will the minister explain why they are only for career changers? We urgently need new physics, maths and computer science graduates also to choose teaching; they need to be incentivised, as well.

As long as our teachers are among the poorest paid and most overworked in the world, the profession will not attract the STEM talent that we need. What will the Scottish Government do to fix teachers’ pay and workload in order to make teaching an attractive option for all graduates—especially graduates in STEM subjects?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As Iain Gray knows, teacher pay is negotiated through the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, which is made up of representatives from local government, unions and the Scottish Government. Those discussions are on-going; the Scottish Government is playing its part in that process and is committed to securing an outcome. The Deputy First Minister has said many times that he is committed to tackling teacher workload, and he has demonstrated that in his time in post, particularly in respect of nationals 4 and 5.

Iain Gray talked about teacher recruitment. I am pleased that he welcomed the bursaries for student teachers in STEM subjects. It is important that we encourage more people into those subjects, but that is only one of the actions that the Government is taking. We have invested £88 million this year so that every school can access the right numbers of teachers, and we are working with local authorities to increase teacher numbers to reach an additional 253 teachers this year.

We are increasing funding and places at our universities in order to recruit teacher trainers, and we are developing new ways for individuals to get into teaching. Unfortunately, some of the places have not been filled, but when the final figures are produced at the end of next month, we hope to see an increase in levels over last year’s levels.

Work is on-going and we continue to look at innovative solutions through new routes into teaching and through bursaries, which demonstrates our commitment.

James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

I welcome the minister’s statement and the continuing recognition of the importance of STEM and the strategy that has been laid out. Will the minister expand further on how she plans to strengthen the partnerships between school, colleges, universities and employers, and how she will encourage such things as workplace opportunities for students within STEM curriculum areas?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We are already seeing strengthening partnerships between schools, colleges and employers and, increasingly, there are opportunities for young people to undertake work placements through the my world of work and developing the young workforce programmes. That includes a growing number of foundation apprenticeships that start at school, and modern and graduate apprenticeships.

We will build on that through the work in the STEM strategy around the new network of STEM hubs that I mentioned, which will be important in linking, in the first instance, secondary schools and colleges, before broadening out into wider collaboration. It is important that we get the different sections of the education system to work coherently together to build inspiration and enthusiasm for STEM, and thereby ensure that more young people not only take STEM subjects in school, but go on to take them in college and university, or in an apprenticeship, and then get into STEM careers.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

In February 2017, as part of the Scottish Government’s strategy to encourage greater uptake of STEM, it was recommended that STEM graduates be able to undertake postgraduate courses at the same time as they undertake the probationary teaching course. Will the minister say how many graduates have taken up that option in the academic year 2017-18? What plans does the Scottish Government have to extend the approach?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is important that we look at different ways of getting individuals into teaching—not just people who are at university doing their first degree, but people who are changing career, at whom bursaries are aimed. I will write to Oliver Mundell with the numbers. I think that the scheme that he mentioned and the other schemes that I have talked about today demonstrate our commitment to considering a wide variety of options that will enable people to come into STEM subjects and STEM teaching.

As I go about on visits, one of the challenges that I hear about is that of encouraging people who are undertaking their first degree who might never have thought about entering the teaching profession. I have seen excellent approaches being taken by the University of Glasgow to encourage students who are studying for a first degree—in particular in computing science—to move into STEM teaching, which is a particularly challenging area.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I remind members that I am a parliamentary liaison officer on education.

Will the minister explain how the Scottish Government will support external organisations in linking the STEM strategy to curriculum for excellence, particularly with regard to the experiences and outcomes in the science curriculum?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

A great opportunity that we have in encouraging interaction with STEM is presented by the great goodwill of businesses and employers in the private sector, who want to get involved in what is happening in our schools, colleges and universities. Businesses want to bring their expertise and inspiration into the school setting.

The challenge at the moment is that there is a plethora of great ideas out there, many of which are directed at the senior phase and at pupils who are already interested in STEM, rather than at the primary school and early years settings. As part of the strategy, Education Scotland will bring those ideas together so that teachers and educators can consider what is relevant to the area of curriculum for excellence that they teach their classes, and so decide which project will be most beneficial to them. I hope that that will enable us to get the best of what is on offer, and that it will encourage more private sector businesses and employers to get involved in the primary school and early years settings, in particular.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The strategy gives key responsibility to Skills Development Scotland for improving gender equality in STEM careers. Given that last year only 40 per cent of MA starts were women, and that the figure has declined since 2012, is it right to have such confidence in SDS? Is the minister proud of SDS’s track record on apprenticeships in STEM?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We have to face up to the fact that there are challenges to do with the number of young women who are taking STEM subjects at school, who are in STEM apprenticeships, and who are studying STEM subjects at college and at university. We have to look carefully at the issue and consider how to tackle it.

SDS is doing a great deal of on-going work, particularly on apprenticeships, to encourage employers to see the benefit of taking on not just more apprentices but more women apprentices.

A challenge that we must all face is that we see young women’s interest in STEM decrease as they go on to specialise in different areas. SDS will have to face up to that challenge, as will the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, our universities and our colleges. They are well up for that challenge.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I draw members’ attention to my declaration in the register of members’ interests: I am a board member of the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre and a member of the British Computer Society.

Will the funding council review the criteria and routes for entry into teaching for computing graduates, in order to allow them to teach computing alongside other curriculum subjects including maths and physics, rather than their being constrained by the current route, which puts them in schools’ business studies departments?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The entry requirements for initial teacher education are set by the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Provision for the GTCS to award computing graduates provisional registration in dual subjects exists, provided that the student meets the entry requirements for teacher education, which provide that the initial degree must have sufficient content of the subjects that will be taught.

From August 2017, there will be further flexibility for dual registration in order to enable probationers who hold, or are working towards, a teaching qualification in two subjects to elect to do their probation year in both subjects, thereby successfully gaining the standard for full registration in both subjects. That includes combinations of STEM subjects, including computing and maths.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

On the recently announced bursaries, I previously submitted a written question on whether qualification for a bursary would depend on the industry in which the applicant had previously worked and on the length of time that they had been in the workplace. The Deputy First Minister confirmed that eligibility will not be based on the industry, and the minister has confirmed that it will be based on qualification. Will the minister confirm for how long an individual must have been in the workplace to qualify as a career changer, and why the Government will use that as the correct criterion?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am more than happy to speak to Ross Greer further about his suggestions for how the bursary will work. If he has particular issues, concerns or suggestions in particular areas, we will be more than happy to look at those, as we progress into the detail.

The important aspect of the scheme is that it is to encourage more individuals from a variety of STEM industries to bring that experience of STEM and their work-life experience directly into the classroom. If Mr Greer has particular suggestions about what would make that scheme more successful, I will be more than happy to work with him on that.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

By what date does the minister expect the teacher shortages in STEM subjects will be overcome, particularly in the north-east’s Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council areas?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I have said in answers to other members, the Scottish Government is undertaking a range of initiatives to deal with the challenges that we face in teacher recruitment—in particular, in some STEM subjects. The bursaries that I have just spoken about with Mr Greer represent one of those initiatives. If Mr Rumbles would like to take the same positive attitude as Mr Greer has taken, and work with the Government on positive suggestions, I will be more than happy to hear them.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

As someone who taught a technology subject at further education level until last year, I warmly welcome today’s statement on the STEM strategy.

The minister will be aware of the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee’s recent report on the gender pay gap. How will the STEM strategy help to close the gender pay gap, given that people who work in STEM sectors are generally better paid than most, but the sectors are still stubbornly gender-segregated?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Gillian Martin has raised an important point. We need to look not only at what happens in schools and the education system, but at what happens when young people, in particular young women, take up posts in STEM industries. Scotland’s full-time gender pay gap of 6.6 per cent remains below that of the United Kingdom, but is marginally higher than it was in the previous year. We have come a long way, but we have not come far enough. Ms Martin should be assured that equality for women is at the heart of the Scottish Government’s vision for an equal Scotland. Our programme for Government contains a number of commitments for progressing, including legislating for gender balance on public boards and confirming the full membership of our advisory council on women and girls. We will keep pushing for further progress and will keep taking decisive action to tackle the drivers of the pay gap.

Powers over flexible working, including parental leave and pay, are reserved to the UK Government, but we are doing all that we can to ensure flexible working practices by funding, for example, family friendly working Scotland, which is working to change workplace cultures. We are also investing in programmes to help women get back into work after career breaks, including in STEM industries.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

According to Skills Development Scotland, in 2015-16, only 79 of the 1,458 young people who started engineering and energy-related modern apprenticeships were female. In 2016-17, that number had fallen to 67 of 1,185. That means that just over 5 per cent of the young people who started engineering and energy-related modern apprenticeships were female. What real progress is the minister aiming for over the course of the current parliamentary session in terms of the number of young women who start engineering and energy-related modern apprenticeships?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in answer to an earlier question, SDS is looking at that in great detail. We have a gender action plan that sets out the work that SDS will do on apprenticeships.

There are also gender action plans from the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council for universities and colleges to tackle the gender gap that exists in some of their STEM subjects.

It will be difficult to make progress on the issue, but we need progress. The figures that Jamie Halcro Johnston pointed out show the wide gap between the numbers of women and men coming forward for apprenticeships. We will make progress partly through careers advice and the opportunities that are presented to girls when they are still at school in terms of subject choice and looking at future avenues. Taking up an apprenticeship, particularly in engineering, might not be the first thing that is presented to them and might not be something that other influencers, including parents, families and teachers, present to them as positive options.

We have a challenge to take on in respect of inspiring young girls to take part, and in ensuring that families and educators see the opportunities that women can have when they take on such courses. That is why the work that I talked about with regard to careers advice is important. We must ensure that we look at the advice that young women between the ages of 3 and 18 are getting, including on apprenticeship offers in engineering.

Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

As other members do, I warmly welcome the fact that the strategy sees training and recruiting new STEM teachers as a priority. However, inspiring young people into STEM will also be key. Will the minister say more about the young STEM leaders programme and how that initiative will be taken forward—in particular, on how it will engage young people from deprived communities?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The young STEM leaders project will work alongside the UK network for STEM ambassadors. One aspect that works particularly well is young people inspiring other young people to take on STEM opportunities so that they can see someone from their own community and of their own gender and background taking on STEM subjects, succeeding in them and having career opportunities afterwards. I saw that in the work that I was doing in Glasgow this morning, where I saw young people in secondary school inspiring pupils in a primary school, who were then inspiring pupils in an early years setting. That work goes on with university students, too. It has been proved to cause a change in attitude not just among students, but among teachers, which is why we are looking to make that activity more systemic throughout Scotland.