This year’s Liberal Democrat conference took place in Glasgow so it was probably inevitable – and understandable – that the wholly Scottish Panel convened for the Royal Society’s final Party Conference event (read about the Conservative and Labour party conferences) should engage in a little post-referendum banter at the beginning of the debate. Nonetheless, as the discussion around the various strands of the Royal Society’s Vision for science and mathematics education developed, a palpable sense of agreement developed between the Panel and the many Liberal Democrat Party members in the audience.
Scotland’s decision that ‘we are better together’ means that collaborative efforts can continue in order to ensure the UK’s education systems are genuinely world class and can meet the UK-wide requirement for one million new science, engineering and technology professionals by 2020. Dr Allan Colquhoun of the company Selex ES suggested we have a very rocky road ahead as industry is ‘desperate for people now’, let alone in 5 years’ time, and the problem will only get worse given the UK has an ageing population and so long as the numbers of girls entering careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics remain persistently low. He said the problem is best tackled at primary school level and recommended that all primary and secondary schools should have a science and engineering club.
It is also at primary level, perhaps, where the ingrained culture that it’s ‘OK’ to be bad at mathematics might be tackled most effectively. Simon Wright MP, a mathematician himself, was adamant that with great teachers ‘everyone can do maths’, but we need to invest much in developing and supporting the teaching workforce.
While the central function of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in promoting economic success is ‘not questionable’ (Keir Bloomer, an architect of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence), more needs to be done to put them centre-stage in the UK’s education systems.
Professor Sally Brown, a member of the Royal Society’s Vision Committee, highlighted three ‘big ideas’ within the report that would help achieve this:
- ensuring all young people study science and mathematics to age 18 in a form that is right for them;
- creating continuity in the evolving curriculum, rather than radical change, to support teaching and encourage an environment that promotes innovation; and
- attracting science and mathematics teachers and assuring their status by recognising them as integral to the wider science, technology, engineering and mathematics community, supporting them to undertake regular professional development and giving them an increased role in assessment.
It was suggested that while the way in which Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence has been implemented leaves much to be desired (eg a lack of piloting), elements of Scotland’s education system can help us achieve our Vision. These include its broader framework, valuing of vocational pathways and, as Fiona Maciver (a science teacher at Shawlands Academy) commented, an increasingly interdisciplinary approach to science teaching and learning.
All in all the meeting showed that, given the UK has four distinct education systems, a range of complementary approaches can help us to achieve our Vision for science and maths education. The journey begins here.