Insights from Equate’s Director – June 2021

There is nothing more annoying than a leak.   You just know that sooner or later that little drip, drip, drip, is going to lead to a big splish splosh in all the places you’d rather it didn’t.  And leaks in the wrong place at the wrong time are never going to have a happy outcome. Or a cheap one!

And so it goes with the STEM skills pipeline.   The leaky pipeline in STEM is not new – the problems with under-representation of women and minority groups have resulted in many an action plan and initiative.  While there has been no lack of energy or enthusiasm the pace and coordination of change is not at the level it needs to be to either meet existing STEM skills gaps never mind the emerging STEM skill roles that will be required.  The green jobs agenda will have to be accelerated as the reality of the challenges of climate change finally begin to grip policymakers, and demand for the estimated 18 million new jobs that will emerge.

Having worked in STEM organisations for many years, I am reminded of two questions that engineers would ask.   What is the problem you are trying fix, and what is the root cause of the problem?  We pretty much know the problem – but it is at the root cause that real focus and attention is urgently required.

Sticking with that philosophy two recent events have caught my attention.   The publication of The Logan Report and the proposed shake-up of Scottish education/SQA.

The Logan Report presents some far-reaching ideas that the Scottish Government have committed to implement in this new Parliamentary term. At a root cause level, there are interesting headlines to explore.  It’s hard not to disagree with the call for a nationwide, cross-sector, and truly collaborative approach – but to deliver that suggests government take a similar cross-cutting portfolio approach – aligning policy, funding, and measurement to the strategic investments so that they deliver the required inter-connected outcomes.

Focusing on education Logan highlights examples that can definitely be applied across the wider education sector and STEM teaching.  Logan calls for the teaching of computer science to be taught as a mandatory part of the curriculum, taught by specialist teachers.

However, an RSE Report highlights the leaky pipeline with a 25% decrease in the number of computer science teachers since 2005, 17% of Scottish schools not having the staff to deliver the subject, and that pupil numbers taking the subject are falling, and of those only 14% are female.

While wider initiatives are underway (SMARTSTEMS, CodeClan, etc) the scale and timescales to make impactful change requires a more strategic, radical, and consistent intervention.

Logan asserts that if we are genuine in our ambitions to be a competitive technology economy a more-than-incremental approach to the problem will be required to formal teaching of computer science. But just read here STEM subjects generally.

Formal teaching of Computing Science does not start until third year in Secondary school (and is considered an optional subject).  Gender stereotypes have already taken hold with on average 84% of students studying higher Computing Science male in any given year. While formal teaching of physics, chemistry, biology, and maths starts from Secondary year one these key subjects are optional through subject choices by the end of year two.

If we say that STEM and green jobs are our priority – for our economy, our climate change action plans, and our wider societal inclusive aims, is this approach sending the right signals to parents, carers, and young people about the importance of STEM subjects in terms of their future career, their ability to pay the bills, keep a home, feed themselves and their family?

If there is to be a shake-up of education, and also the way that computer science is taught, is there a more fundamentally opportunity to be seized and to redefine education for what – and just as importantly – what next?