The UK's ability to grow and succeed in the future will rely on ensuring that we have the skills and knowledge needed for our high value sectors to thrive. Many of these sectors rely on a supply of science skills, at graduate and technician level.

But we have a pipeline issue for STEM in the UK – there are simply not enough young people pursuing further study or careers in these sectors.

Much of the focus on tackling this issue so far has focused at secondary level and above, but provision of apprenticeships and encouragement to choose sciences at 16 will only take us so far in addressing this, as young people's educational choices are forming well before that.

By the time they reach secondary school too many children have already 'switched off' to science subjects, despite the fact that science offers a route into interesting and well-paid jobs.

In this report we look at how to address this issue earlier in the school system – at primary school – reviewing existing evidence and reporting on a new survey of primary school teachers conducted for this report.

Unless science is exciting, interesting and challenging in primary school, the pipeline will clog long before secondary level.

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We need to tackle the challenges early on, otherwise anything else further down the line just becomes a sticking plaster. And this will require all of the different stakeholders to work together: businesses, universities, government and schools themselves.

Teaching science at primary schools presents a specific set of challenges, including finding curriculum time, the level of priority given to science, the confidence of generalist primary teachers to teach science and a relative lack of professional development around the subject. Our survey shows that over half of teachers in England report science getting less important in the curriculum, and many schools setting aside too little time. The position elsewhere in the UK is more positive, but challenges remain. Given the importance of the subject, it is time for action – but this should not be driven by a return to testing.

Despite a wide range of good practice taking place, driven by businesses, universities and schools themselves, links between the three to support science are still too rare. This is disappointing, as the feedback from these schemes is usually positive, and such links can present a solution to issues around staff confidence and professional development, as well as inspiring students. This kind of engagement should be encouraged and incentivised – and businesses and universities need to do more

There is a lot of STEM education support from businesses and universities – as they recognise clearly the issues around the talent pipeline, and are committed to helping rectify this issue. But more support is needed for primary schools in particular – tackling the problem early on should be a priority.

SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Set a target for England's schools to be the best in Europe - and in the top five worldwide – by 2020 to science. Adopt a similar target in the other nations.
  • Develop a new science education strategy covering all levels of education – primary, secondary and tertiary.
  • Primary schools should ensure that professional development for science is of a high standard, and that it is undertaken on a regular basis.
  • All primary schools should have a subject leader for science in place to drive a continual focus on the subject.
  • A new Ofsted inspection framework should find space to reward schools for meaningful engagement with the wider community of key subjects like science, especially businesses and universities.
  • Businesses and universities need to step up to the challenge too – and ensure that they explicitly consider outreach into primary schools.
  • As part of CPD, the potential for teachers to spend some time in businesses and universities to enhance their understanding of the theory and application of science should be developed – and promoted to both schools and professionals.
  • Assess the success of existing primary school schemes, in search of lessons for science.
  • The new 'Careers and Enterprise Company' should include primary in its thinking, with the next government committing to funding this for the term of the next Parliament.

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