Loss of ‘unsung heroes’ threatens Stem success

20th July 2018 at 00:00
Hands-on experiments will die out in schools if technician cuts continue, experts say

Practical, hands-on experiences are considered vital for engaging pupils in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, which the government believes will play a crucial role in the success of the Scottish economy.

But there are deep fears over the future of the workforce that makes such practical science work in classrooms possible: school technicians. Early indications from a survey of Scotland’s 32 local authorities show that school technician numbers have fallen by more than a third since 2005, from 1,431 to around just 900.

The survey was carried out by the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre (SSERC), which has the motto “Inspiring Stem educators”. Its raison d’être is to give teachers the skills and confidence to carry out practical science in the classroom.

It is school technicians who give the health and safety advice and carry out the risk assessments that make practical work possible, according to SSERC chief executive Alastair MacGregor. For example, technicians ensure that equipment is maintained, and chemicals and other materials are available and properly stored, he says. They also do the groundwork to enable teachers to deliver practical classes and, when it’s all over, they are the ones who clean up the mess.

MacGregor – who took on his role at the SSERC just 10 months ago – predicts that, without the support of technicians, experiential learning will fall by the wayside.

“Practical work plays a really important role in relation to enhancing the learning experience and bringing on skills like taking accurate observations and carefully recording results,” he says. “School technicians provide the back-up and preparation that allow experiential learning to take place.

“They are the unsung heroes who facilitate good, practical Stem opportunities. I fear for their future as a profession.”

Show of support

MacGregor’s concerns are such that he wants to make this year “the year of the technician”.

He’s not alone in celebrating the profession. In March, hundreds of schools across the UK took part in #TECHOGNITION week to champion the work of science technicians.

But there is no doubt that local authorities are under severe financial strain. In April, the public spending watchdog Audit Scotland revealed that the Scottish government had cut its funding for councils by 9.6 per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2018-19, leading to “major challenges” in maintaining services.

School technicians work behind the scenes, hidden from public view, which makes them particularly vulnerable when councils have to make savings, says MacGregor.

Technicians are often spread extremely thinly now, he warns, with whole-school remits that mean they are responsible for science, technology, ICT and audio.

Meanwhile, the role has become less appealing, explains MacGregor, because of the reduced number of promoted posts that now exist. Technician contracts have also changed, with the result that they are often not around over the summer to prepare for the busy autumn term, he adds.

MacGregor is not the only one sounding the alarm. Sam McFarlane, who will soon turn 65, started working as a technician in Renfrewshire schools aged 16. Now he is manager of Glasgow’s school technician support service and chair of the Scottish Technicians Advisory Group. He describes councils that cut technician posts while claiming to be promoting Stem in schools as “fraudulent”.

Meanwhile, Duncan Harvie, principal teacher of science at Woodmill High in Fife, also believes technicians are “essential” if experiments are to continue to take place in Scottish classrooms. Harvie runs a large department of 14 science teachers spread across biology, chemistry and physics.

Practical work is key to teaching science because the pupils learn how to “observe and discover the world around them”, he says. “Practical science allows them to test ideas, analyse data and form conclusions based on it. These are key skills for many modern occupations.”

Like MacGregor, Harvie points out the importance of school technician support when it comes to laying the groundwork for delivering these hands-on experiences. Primary teachers often highlight the lack of technical support in their schools as a barrier to practical science, he says.

Harvie, whose school has three technicians with a whole-school remit, adds: “With a large department, our technicians are relied upon to ensure equipment is kept in working order and practical kits are kept topped up with chemicals. If this was left to teachers, there would not be the time to do it properly and the practical work would gradually be lost.”

The squeeze on school budgets – also caused by the cuts to council budgets – adds to the value of a talented technician who is able to keep ageing equipment working, Harvie says. He continues: “In the current financial climate, a technician who is able to repair and maintain equipment that is prohibitively expensive to replace is invaluable.”

The Scottish government’s Stem strategy, published last year, recognises that experiments and investigations “should be an integral part of Stem learning across all ages and stages” and that professional learning should be available for school technicians. However, it does not address the falling number of technicians.

A spokesman for local authorities’ body Cosla says budgetary decisions are “rightly and properly” a matter for individual councils. He adds: “Obviously such decisions are taken against a backdrop of tight financial settlements for councils.”

 

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