STEM - Get with the programme

20th May 2011 at 01:00
Developments in STEM, whether in exam boards or hi-tech industries like video games, move fast. Gerald Haigh explores the latest issues surrounding triple science, ICT and design and technology

How do you recruit students to a triple science GCSE course? Well, your science GCSE candidates could always make a musical recruitment video to show to younger children. That's exactly what the older students did at Millais School, a girls' specialist language college in Horsham, East Sussex. Available on YouTube, We Took Triple Science, and We Liked It!, was prepared entirely by the girls for children and parents to see at the school's options choice evening. Student voice is always a strong persuader when it comes to "selling" option choices, and this good-hearted offering is full of enthusiasm.

Science and maths are strong at Millais, says deputy head Shirley Springer. "This year we'll have four option groups doing triple science - around 100 students. It's grown hugely over 10 years. It's well staffed and we give it plenty of curriculum time."

It's not a bad record, you might think, at a language specialist girls' school, and it's certainly not done at the expense of either the other science qualifications or the rest of the curriculum. "We're inclusive and trying for excellence across all areas," says Ms Springer.

That's well in line with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust's take on STEM. Sue Sissling, who heads the trust's STEM network, says: "We're focused on excellence in subjects such as science, maths and design and technology as drivers of our national economic performance. It is also important that there is a balanced, relevant and inspiring curriculum for all children at each stage of their education."

That's also the view of the exam boards on science choices, including Gerard Ducker, head of GCSE science at AQA. "This sort of decision is always best left in the capable hands of the teachers to work with students to decide what the best route is for them, based on their ability, learning style and aspirations," he says. "It is really important, though, that all students have access to the full range of qualifications to enable them to develop their full potential."

There's no doubting the willingness of schools to take on the responsibility. Alexandra High School in Sandwell, West Midlands, a steadily improving National Challenge school with a business and enterprise specialism, serves a disadvantaged community, and meeting the very diverse needs of its students is a constant preoccupation. Deputy head Julie Goddard says: "We do offer triple science in one of our option blocks this year, but it's difficult. Not because of any external pressures, but because of accommodating students who want to do vocational qualifications, too."

Inevitably, there are pressures on staffing. "We had an offer for a STEM teacher to take a business secondment and our immediate thought was that we couldn't afford to let anyone go. It's not that we don't value that opportunity, but you don't want to lose someone for a term when there are high levels of accountability at stake."

On top of all that, of course, Alexandra, in common with all secondary schools, has to decide on its attitude to the English Baccalaureate (EBac) - and there, for the moment, it is in a holding pattern. "Our governing body is giving us full backing not to make any drastic changes led by the EBac," says Ms Goddard. "It's certainly possible for our students to leave with the EBac, but we haven't put it at the heart of our decision making."

There's a similar take on the EBac at Victory Academy in Norwich, where assistant principal Dr Dawn Allen says: "We offer triple science, applied science, core and additional, BTEC - whatever is right for the student. It wouldn't be right just to put them on a course to get the EBac."

Still, option choices are exactly that, and there are parents who want their children to get an EBac. At John Cabot Academy in Bristol, where science is popular and successful, EBac choices have led to the loss of a BTEC science course - students are offered core and additional science instead. This option also attracts some away from triple science, so numbers have fallen there, too.

"They know they can still do A-levels from core and additional," says acting head of science Helen Rogerson. "The school hasn't forced the students to follow the EBac, but has shown the parents statements from the white paper about the importance of it."

Mark Dawe, chief executive of exam board OCR, says: "OCR's own research with teachers suggests that the EBac will not have a significant impact on the numbers of young people studying STEM subjects from 14 to 16.

"The EBac may cause some schools to switch entries from pre-vocational courses such as OCR level 2 Nationals in science to GCSEs in the sciences. However, we know schools will not make hasty decisions and will judge that, for some students, courses such as OCR Nationals and GCSE additional applied science - which do not count towards the EBac - are much better suited to their learning styles."

The gaming skills gap

Ms Sissling's mention of "national economic performance" refers, of course, to STEM's main raison d'etre. The trouble is that education is aiming at a moving target. Nothing demonstrates the reality of this more than the exponential growth of the gaming and video-effects industries, which have grown in a short time to become major UK earners and employers. On this subject, the February 2011 Next Gen skills report (often referred to as the Livingstone-Hope report, after its authors) should be required reading in schools. Commissioned by the last government, the 88-page report sets its stall out from the start: "At over #163;2 billion in global sales, the UK's video games sector is bigger than either its film or music industries, and visual effects, the fastest growing component of the UK's film industry, grew at an explosive 16.8 per cent between 2006 and 2008."

Then follows a troubling analysis of how the market - and the UK's strength within it - depends on a stream of recruits with a combination of creative and programming skills that aren't adequately covered in the school curriculum. It's a skills gap that troubles teachers of ICT such as Mike Elward, assistant headteacher and director of e-learning at St Crispin's, a specialist maths, computing and leadership school in Wokingham, Berkshire. "There is no sort of programming component within the ICT curriculum," he says. "Our students are experiencing what it's like to be end users of a range of software, rather than what it's like to construct something using whatever programming language is appropriate."

Mr Elward is working round this by using the existing ICT curriculum and linking it to maths. "They get some of the discipline and the rigour," he says. "But it doesn't compare with what our students at the top end of the school experience in the A-level computing course."

Part of the answer, recommends the Next Gen report, would be to add computer science to the national curriculum, leading to its own GCSE within the new EBac.

The report also calls for better employer engagement, and to that end, trade organisation the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) launched its Video Games Ambassador Scheme in March in partnership with STEMNET. Role models from the industry will encourage students of all ages to study the subjects required for careers in the video-games industry.

Technology's challenge

The problem of keeping in touch with industry technology is highlighted, too, by a March 2011 Ofsted report, Meeting Technological Challenges? Design and Technology in Schools 2007-10. While celebrating creative problem-solving practice in both primary and secondary classrooms, the report identifies weaknesses in both teaching and student take-up in the areas of electronics, control and CADCAM.

The Design and Technology Association, though, points to the unique power of DT as an integrating strand and driver of innovation. Assistant chief executive Andy Mitchell reels off a host of genuinely exciting examples of creative activities across the DT spectrum from early years onwards. "It involves decision-making and problem-solving of a kind which is different from problem-solving in maths and science," he says.

The two-fold worry for Mr Mitchell and the many DT enthusiasts though is, first, that the Government white paper The Importance of Teaching makes no mention at all of DT, and, second, that the Department for Education has recently announced a 25 per cent cut in DT teacher-training numbers for September.

Curriculum integration in the cause of problem-solving is a continuing theme in STEM, and some of the best places to see it in action are the 70 or so secondary schools that are specialist engineering colleges. Janet Renouf, for example, head of Skipton Girls' High School in North Yorkshire, says: "What switched the girls on in this school was when we brought in a woman WaterAid engineer who showed them how engineering can help the girls who miss out on education because they are carrying water for their families."

And a little further down the A1, at Ridgewood School in South Yorkshire, this integrated approach is achieved by engaging students in challenges that don't stay in the STEM area, but go right across the curriculum. Ridgewood's head Chris Hoyle says: "They are going to build models of places of worship, not just write about them in RE, and they'll find maths will support the science."

Across all of these educators is a clear determination to put children's needs first, and an enthusiastic sense of being involved in a groundbreaking enterprise. Mr Hoyle sums it up: "If you fire the students up on this, they go through walls. You have to run to stay with them. That's the payback."

Useful links


Next Gen skills review

Millais School video, We Took Triple Science, and We Liked It


March 2011 Ofsted report


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