STEM SUBJECTS AND THE SSAT
STEM SUBJECTS AND THE SSAT
NFER Research suggests scope for a new STEM specialism in schools
But poor uptake of triple science is not helping
Early in the last decade, much evidence emerged to suggest that the popularity of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects was in decline. This trend was of particular concern given the acknowledged importance of the science-based economy in the UK and its impact on our competitiveness. There were thought to be a number of reasons for this. Firstly, many young people had negative perceptions and experiences of STEM subjects. Second, there has been a relative lack of information on, and awareness of, STEM related careers. Third there has been a perceived shortage of specialist teachers in schools. And, finally, some schools have had too little awareness of, and engagement with, STEM interventions.
Specialists schools have been regarded as an important element in the Governments STEM strategy.
A STEM pathfinder programme, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and managed by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), aimed to help networks of specialist schools to design and deliver integrated STEM activities through a programme of continuing professional development, and provision of resources, consultancy and advice to schools.
The NFER was commissioned by the SSAT to evaluate this pathfinder project. It delivered its report at the end of 2009- ‘Evaluation of the 2008-09 DCSF-funded Specialist Schools and Academies Trust STEM Pathfinder Programme.’ The driver for the pathfinder was DCSF’s interest in whether a STEM specialism could be manageable and advantageous for schools, and the types of activities that schools carried out were those that could potentially form part of a STEM specialism. Schools generally had little history of undertaking integrated STEM activities, and what experience there was tended to involve all departments delivering activities that related to a school’s specialist subject. The NFER study found that integrated STEM activities can lead to significant benefits for pupils, teachers, schools and the wider community. It found evidence too that successful activities were underpinned by certain characteristics relating to the school, the planning of activities, and the activities themselves.
It did however acknowledge that “benefits can arguably also be achieved through innovative activities in individual STEM subjects (e.g. increased interest in a subject; development of skills such as independent learning), there are some benefits that are achieved only through the integration of STEM subjects in the curriculum and in enrichment activities (e.g. understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of many STEM careers and the combined application of STEM subjects in ‘real-world’ situations).”
The authors felt that there is potential value in all schools delivering integrated STEM activities, as benefits occur when such activities are delivered as part of another existing specialism (i.e. as has been seen through the pathfinder evaluation). However, there could be more benefit if such activities and approaches are developed further through a STEM specialism. So the reports main conclusion was that SSAT/DCSF should pursue the idea of a STEM specialism.
One major factor threatening advances in STEM, but not alluded to in this report, is the shortage of specialist teachers in maths and the sciences, including in so called Specialist schools ,many of which are not Specialist in any meaningful sense of the word . Nor the fact that so few state pupils opt to take triple science. In the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps, the Government set a target for all pupils achieving at least level 6 at Key Stage 3 to be entitled to study triple science GCSE by September 2008. However only about a third of maintained schools currently enter pupils in triple science. Again FSM pupils are way behind the curve .Only 2% of children eligible for free school meals studied triple science in 2007 for example.
While independent schools account for 9% of all GCSE entries they make up 18% of entries into triple science and while grammar schools accounted for 6.5% of all entries they made up 17% of those in triple science. And look at A levels. In 2007, physics came 11th in a listing of the 28 most frequently taken A-levels, behind even psychology, sports studies, design & technology, and expressive arts.
Recent evidence to the Select Commitee this month suggests that more than one in four secondary schools are unable to offer A-level physics because of a shortage of teachers. Peter Main, of the Institute of Physics, who provided the figure, blamed “incoherent” policy changes. The number of pupils studying A-level physics has fallen from about 45,000 a year in the late 1980s to about 29,000 now, although the figure has begun to rise slightly in the recent past.
Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson found in their 2009 study ‘Specialist Science schools’ that Specialist Science schools were “not distinctively scientific”. In 2007, more pupils in music, languages and maths & computing schools than in Specialist science schools obtained an A grade in A-level physics, though fewer did so in technology, engineering, business & enterprise and sports schools.
Dr Robinson said at the time “It could be argued that specialist schools were a useful way of freshening up ‘bog standard’ comprehensives. But it seems to have left us with a lot of schools with names that do not mean very much. It is odd having music and languages schools that do better in science than the science schools.” Indeed, their research found that a quarter of the science schools had chosen their specialism on the basis of strength in the subject, but a fifth had done so because they were weak in it and saw specialist status as a lever for improvement. Crucially the main benefit schools saw in being specialist was the extra money they could access.
The more pupils that take triple science the better for the future of STEM subjects. Triple science at GCSE clearly gives pupils the best preparation for science A levels. It is hardly fair that some pupils cannot study triple science simply because of which school they go to. Given what Professor Smithers and Dr Robinson found in their study one has to question whether giving schools a ‘STEM’ specialism the big idea coming out of this report will make any difference at all .The challenges are rather more fundamental. And the SSAT which supports so -called ‘Specialist’ schools has a decidedly patchy track record in making a measurable difference to pupils performance in maths and the sciences
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