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Publication - Report

Supporting Scotland's STEM Education and Culture - Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group - second report

Published: 28 Feb 2012
Part of:

Recommendations for improving the profile of science in the community and enhancing science and engineering education.

133 page PDF


133 page PDF


Supporting Scotland's STEM Education and Culture - Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group - second report

133 page PDF



Training STEM teachers

The Trends in International Maths and Science Survey ( TIMSS) [6] and Programme for International Student Assessment ( PISA) [8] studies have highlighted major concerns about the performance of Scottish pupils in science and mathematics at primary and on into lower secondary level. The limited knowledge and understanding in mathematics and science of primary teachers and the resulting lack of confidence are identified from data in the TIMSS 2007 report as a major cause for concern. The Donaldson Report [12] addresses wider issues of teacher quality, training and professional development across the Scottish education system. Here we examine the importance of teacher quality with specific focus on STEM subjects, in the process reaching broadly similar conclusions but with some important differences.

The importance of teacher quality

"The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers" [ 21]

Research on the relative international performance of education systems such as the PISA and TIMSS studies have become key drivers of educational reform. The research evidence [21],[22] indicates that in many OECD countries including the UK, there has been little or no measurable increase in standards of literacy and numeracy over several decades, in spite of recurring educational and policy reform. The same countries (Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, South Korea) repeatedly top the PISA league tables. A McKinsey report (2007) [21] has found a positive association between high-performing systems and the level of teacher qualification. Another study (Goe, 2007) [23] indicates that a teacher's academic calibre impacts on pupil achievement.

The principal determining factor for the success of high-performing education systems is neither class sizes nor teacher salaries but rather the quality of the teachers. The best performing education systems attract the best teachers, recruited from amongst the best university graduates. Teaching is elevated to a high-status profession, requiring high grades and selective entry to graduate teacher training. However, a high class of degree is not a guarantee of aptitude for a career in teaching and rigorous selection criteria and processes should be applied to all applicants to ITE to ensure the best quality applicants are selected.

In the teaching of physics at GCSE and A-level, teacher qualifications on entering ITE are found to be the second most important explanatory variable influencing pupil performance after pupil ability [24] . Teachers are the most important factor in determining the quality of primary science and mathematics education [25] . Teaching specialisms in primary science and mathematics are not generally recorded across the UK [13],[26] , and data on the UK's teaching workforce are not sufficiently detailed [13] , so that the scale of the problem is uncertain. Nonetheless, primary teachers with a first degree and ITE training qualification in science and mathematics represent only 3% and 2% respectively of the total number of primary teachers in England [13] . These figures are likely to give a good measure of the scale and nature of the challenge confronting primary STEM teaching.

Recommendation 2.1
It is recommended that the Scottish Government ensures that a clear and detailed record of the qualifications and capacities of the STEM teacher workforce in Scotland, particularly in the primary sector, is developed and maintained to inform the reform of initial teacher education and to address the weaknesses in STEM teaching in primary education measured in the 2008 TIMSS report.

This recommendation is also consonant with Recommendation 6 of the Royal Society Report [13] , and will assist with the development and delivery of CPD programmes.

Recruitment and retention of STEM teachers

While, in general, Scotland has not experienced problems met in England in recruitment into its one-year PGDE and four-year BEd degrees, across the UK there have been difficulties in attracting science and mathematics graduates into the teaching profession [12] , which has been seen as a less desirable or less financially rewarding career path than business, industry and other employment sectors. Potential shortages in the number and quality of teachers in some STEM areas compared to other subject areas should be borne in mind in any wider strategies for raising the qualifications required for entry into the teaching profession in Scotland.

Universities have an important contribution to make in encouraging high-quality STEM graduates and those with high-level aptitudes and skills for teaching into careers in teaching. Science and engineering graduates are now expected as part of their training to be increasingly aware of the importance of communicating and explaining their subject knowledge and understanding and its wider relevance to society. Many students receive formal training and practice in science engagement work at some level, enabling young graduates to recognise and develop their own capacities for communicating their subjects in a range of contexts including school education. Programmes such as STEM Ambassadors greatly enhance both the awareness and capability of young science graduates for careers in teaching.

The Teach First Programme - a successful recruitment model?

Based on the successful Teach for America programme [27] , the Teach First programme [28] in England selects exceptional graduates and aims to transform them into effective and inspirational teachers, focusing its efforts into areas of educational disadvantage and social deprivation. Selected graduates are expected to commit a minimum of two years to teaching. An early OFSTED report on the programme commented " a commitment to excellence is a significant feature of the programme, with over half of trainees demonstrating outstanding teaching capabilities and 83% being good or better'' [29] . In 2011, the programme accepted only 15% of applicants, compared to 39% of applicants for university-based teacher training in England in 2010 30. About half of entrants to the programme now have postgraduate work experience prior to entry. Importantly, 65% of those who enrolled for the Teach First programme in 2003, its launch year, are still working in schools or other areas of education, whereas the Royal Society concluded that about half of mathematics and science teachers drop out of the profession within 5 years of starting their more traditional teacher training [30] . The implication of this comparison is that retention of teachers in the profession may also be directly related to the calibre of recruits to the profession . The Teach First programme provides strong evidence and support for teacher quality as a major factor in transformational improvement and improved teacher retention, and may provide a route to improving the recruitment of talented and high-quality science graduates into the teaching profession in Scotland. Currently, graduates from Scottish universities are regularly recruited into the Teach First programme in England, demonstrating the interest that the programme already attracts in Scotland.

Recommendation 2.2
The Scottish Government should adapt a programme to Scotland with similar aims and aspirations to the Teach First Programme.

Initial teacher education: tackling the primary STEM challenge

The relatively poor performance of Scottish primary science and mathematics education in international performance surveys has been highlighted above. The 2003 SSAC report recognised that the lack of science specialists and the absence of science teaching facilities and technical support in primary schools were major obstacles to sustaining the interest of young people in science across the transition into secondary education, and to improving the uptake of science and the standard of science educational attainment in secondary education. This problem may in principle be addressed by strategies and interventions at several different points in the professional development of teachers, such as:

  • the selection and selection criteria for initial teacher education ( ITE)
  • during ITE ( PGDE and BEd)
  • induction and post-induction STEM professional development
  • introduction of secondary science specialists into primary schools.

The Donaldson Report [ 12] does not address the problems of primary ITE training and development with respect to any one subject area (other than literacy and numeracy). However, Donaldson observes that " it is neither necessary nor feasible for a teacher to be a subject expert in all areas of the primary curriculum, but ….all teachers [have to] have sufficient understanding to stretch and progress children's learning and to diagnose and remedy any conceptual or other learning problems which may undermine their progress. Weakness in the performance of children, particularly in primary education, can stem from low levels of confidence amongst teachers about their own knowledge of what they are teaching. This…is particularly the case in literacy, mathematics, science and modern foreign languages.'' Thus the problem is not peculiar to science, even if research has shown its effects to be particularly acute in science.

In their seminal work from 1995 Confidence and Understanding in Teaching Science and Technology in Primary Schools, Harlen, Holroyd and Byrne [31] reported "this research shows that in Scotland, primary teachers' confidence about teaching science and technology is less than for almost all other curriculum aspects'' and ''we have concluded that the proportion of primary teachers who do not themselves understand the concepts they have to teach must be seen as a problem''. Little in the literature would suggest this situation has changed for the better in the subsequent 16 years. In 1997 Harlen and Holroyd [32] reported that teachers lacking confidence tended to rely on 'safe'' teaching methods such as work books, and underplaying questioning and discussion.

A recurrent finding of the Scottish Survey of Achievement is that teachers lack confidence in science, and systematically over-estimate pupils' attainment. In the 2007 survey [ 33] whereas teachers thought that only about 30% of P7 pupils were operating at 5-14 level C or below in science, the tests administered as part of the survey found that about 94% were operating at this level. The same survey found that the proportion of primary teachers who said they were 'very confident' in teaching a science lesson to P7 was 28% for biology, 11% for chemistry and 10% for physics.

From analysis of PISA data McKinsey [20] reported a relationship between system performance and selective entry requirements for ITE for primary teachers. If more trainee teachers with good science and mathematics qualifications up to and including degree level are to be attracted into primary teaching, then it would make sense if the recruitment and entry criteria reflect this by setting targets for selection of a larger proportion of trainee teachers with good science and mathematics qualifications to at least Scottish Credit Qualification Level 6 (Higher) or beyond , while also attracting more science and mathematics graduates, as part of a wider drive to increase teacher quality to a level that matches the best standards set by the most successful education systems internationally.

In Scotland and across the UK, primary teacher training has been generalist, even although entrants may have studied specific subjects, and little attention appears to have been paid to the numbers and proportions of primary subject specialists. While risks are perceived in putting specialist science and mathematics teachers into primary schools, for example by causing demotivation and 'deskilling' of generalist teachers, it is both reasonable and arguably essential for them to have ready access to specialist advice to meet the requirements of the curriculum. That specialist advice is currently very limited.

Primary ITE and training in Scotland is delivered in the four-year BEd degree and the one-year PGDE degree, the planning numbers for 2010-11 being 800 and 400 respectively. Recognising that the location of Scottish ITE within universities has yet to realise the full potential of their belonging to the wider academic community with its wider learning possibilities, and that the BEd degree can over-emphasise technical skills at the expense of broader and more academically challenging areas, Donaldson [12] (Recommendation 11) recommends that " the traditional BEd degree should be phased out and replaced with degrees that combine in-depth academic study in areas beyond education with professional studies and development''. If implemented, this recommendation opens up the possibility of introducing a greater degree of subject specialism into and across a primary teaching profession founded on the model of practitioners as generalists. Although it is not entirely clear the extent to which this outcome was intended, it would offer particular advantages in creating a primary teacher cohort with a STEM specialism, supporting and extending the existing professional subject knowledge of primary teachers. While there are evident dangers in any shift from generalist to specialist teaching in primary education, we believe that an increase in subject specialism in science and mathematics is necessary and best addresses the weaknesses identified in international studies. This is consonant with the wider and overarching recommendation in the Royal Society 'State of the Nation' Report [13] that specialist teachers and their subjects need to come to the fore in the delivery of STEM education :

This strategy provides a better solution than deploying secondary science teachers in primary schools insofar as teachers would have developed their more specialist STEM teaching skills within a primary training context, although there remains some urgency in ensuring that young learners and their teachers are confident and knowledgeable about STEM subjects. As a short-term expedient, secondary STEM teachers could meet regularly with teachers in associated primary schools to discuss and negotiate the depth of learning required at various stages.

In summary, we recognise that while all primary teachers are expected to teach the STEM subjects, the research evidence and the Royal Society ' State of the Nation' Report highlight that primary STEM teaching is currently a major weakness.

Recommendation 2.3
It is recommended that Scottish Government, Universities and the General Teaching Council for Scotland ( GTCS) support and implement the following Donaldson Report recommendations in relation to STEM Primary ITE:

Recommendation 12 (Donaldson Report)
Increased emphasis should be given to ensuring that primary students have sufficient understanding of the areas they are expected to teach.

Recommendation 13 (Donaldson Report)
Clear expectations about necessary prior learning for teacher education courses should be developed together with diagnostic assessments and online resources to allow students to reach that baseline in advance of formally embarking on a course. This mechanism could also be used to support existing teachers.

Recommendation 14 (Donaldson Report)
The professional component in programmes of initial teacher education should address more directly areas where teachers experience greatest difficulty and where we know that Scottish education needs to improve. That will require a radical reappraisal of present courses and of the guidelines provided by GTCS.

There would be much less scope for introducing similar specialist education and training in STEM into the one-year postgraduate PGDE, unless it is extended to 18 months or two years as described on p40 of the Donaldson Report. The PGDE currently attracts very small numbers of graduates with a science degree . A key question for implementation of the Donaldson Report recommendations for PGDE primary teacher education in Scotland is whether and to what extent all graduate PGDE primary students should undertake subject learning across the piece (including science) with no subject specific extension other than literacy, numeracy, health and well-being (generalists), or rather undertake subject extension and enrichment to match their degree subjects (specialists) - or both.

Young teachers responding to a poll (Donaldson chart 4.1; p35) [12] on the most useful aspects of their initial teacher education identified a greater focus on subject content and knowledge as the third most useful aspect after classroom management and pedagogy. Donaldson identifies core elements of teacher learning (Standard for Initial Teacher Education) for every student, and encourages diversity of practice and the possibility of greater specialism. University ITE is likely to introduce a diversity of practice in PGDE education and training. Balance is important. It would be counter-productive if primary teachers have no science within their ITE training yet are still expected to deliver the full range of CfE experience and outcomes. Selection and selection criteria for primary ITE students across Scotland are crucial to achieving a balance of provision, specialism and qualification sufficient to ensure a major improvement in knowledge of STEM topics through recruitment of high quality STEM graduates. At the same time, the universities have a role to play in encouraging more graduates across a range of science disciplines into primary science teaching.

It is important that primary ITE students have an understanding that the STEM subjects are more than just a body of knowledge to be learned. This is best achieved by exposure to the study and practise of STEM subjects including the application of the scientific method, developing practical skills, data analysis and problem solving. Currently, there is no requirement for students entering Primary Teaching ITE to have studied science or technology subjects beyond that covered in the general education phase of secondary education or mathematics beyond SCQF level 5.

We note the establishment of the National Partnership Group ( NPD) and the progress it has made ( and recommend that it gives consideration in its work to the particular needs of primary schools and their teachers.

Recommendation 2.4
It is recommended that in order to move the profession to a stronger base the Scottish Government in partnership with universities establishes targets for increasing the number of trainee teachers admitted to Primary Teaching ITE with enhanced STEM qualifications by:

  • admitting an increased number of students with STEM qualifications up to and including degree level
  • raising now the qualification requirement for Primary Teaching students to include a minimum of SCQF level five or above in a science and mathematics, increasing to SCQF level 6 or above in a science and mathematics within five years
  • acquiring and making available on an annual basis data on the STEM qualifications of ITE applicants and recruits.

Recommendation 2.5
It is recommended that the National Partnership Group considers the particular needs of primary schools and their teachers.

Primary-secondary transition

Transitions in our education system are about ensuring smooth learning progression and cultural adjustments, clearly understood choices leading to appropriate qualifications and well signposted pathways.

An increased intake of trainee primary teachers with much stronger science and mathematics qualifications up to and including degree level, with additional subject extension and enrichment during ITE, would introduce the necessary level of STEM knowledge and specialism at primary level. This in itself would ensure a much smoother learning progression and cultural adjustment across the primary-secondary transition by 'blurring' the transition. The resulting increase in learner knowledge, understanding and teacher confidence would benefit not only subject knowledge and understanding but also science subject enjoyment and uptake through the critical period of subject choice at CfE levels 3 and 4.

There are a number of STEM projects in place that work successfully across the primary-secondary transition using a cluster approach, typically involving a secondary school and its associated primary schools. These clusters constitute an increasingly common example of professional (teacher) learning communities, which are discussed in detail in part 5.