Ask the question, “Is there enough real-world science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) experience in teaching?” and the answer from teachers and industry alike is a resounding “no”. Yet working out how much of a problem this is – and how it can be fixed – is far from straightforward.
That there is a problem in getting young people into Stem careers is clear. In the UK alone, it’s estimated that 1.8 million new engineers and technicians are needed by 2025. Yet a report from the US-based Pew Research Center predicts that education programmes will be incapable of adjusting within the next decade to meet the shifting needs of future job markets. Meanwhile, there are ongoing warnings about a national shortage of Stem teachers in the UK.
Efforts are being made to increase the talent pipeline from schools: 2018 brings the Year of Engineering, a government-led national campaign to increase awareness – especially among children and teachers – of what engineers do. Added to that is the £75 million Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund, started in 2016 to give teachers skills and knowledge-based training.
But do teachers really lack real-world Stem knowledge and, if so, would an increase in experience of the Stem sector actually have much of an impact?
Teachers not to blame
Rhys Morgan, director of education at the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), says there is definitely a deficit of experience but there should be no blame directed at teachers for that. “There isn’t sufficient engineering skills or knowledge in the teaching profession,” he says.
“But the vast majority of teachers go through the education system, into higher education then training and then they go straight into teaching. Why should we expect them to have any knowledge of engineering in the wider world?”
He believes the onus is on the Stem industry to reach out to teachers, not vice versa: “What we need to do as an engineering community is help teachers understand more about engineering, specifically those delivering subjects that will lead to engineering – maths, physics, design and technology, computing and chemistry. But we also need to help the broader teaching profession understand the breadth of career opportunities and things that engineers do.”
Alison Watson, founder and chief executive of Stem training provider Class Of Your Own, agrees. “Teachers don’t have time [to get the real-world engineering experience] and, unless they’ve come from industry, there’s very little chance of them having the interaction needed to change that,” she says.
The Stem industry also has to be realistic about how deep teacher knowledge can go about such a huge sector.
Gemma Taylor, engineering specialist at STEM Learning, says the breadth of engineering professions is a real problem. “If you ask an engineer to describe their job, you’ll get 50 different examples,” she says.
“The fantastic thing about engineering is that it is so vast. It fits into all the different Stem subjects. But unless you are a teacher who has had experience in engineering, you might not be able to join the dots up.”
And finally, even if you could get the message out, you might not have the right people to deliver it, says Bhavina Bharkhada, education and skills policy adviser at manufacturers’ association EEF.
“The Department for Education’s school workforce statistics show that 37 per cent of teachers who teach physics had not studied physics post-A level, and 22 per cent of maths teachers had no relevant post-A-level qualification in maths,” she says.
“Having not studied a subject post-A level and not worked in the industry will make it doubly difficult to communicate effectively what a career in manufacturing or engineering is really like. It also makes it harder to really bring the curriculum to life.”
But Laura Wright, curriculum leader of physics at the Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridgeshire, says the expectation itself is wrong. “It shouldn’t all hinge on teachers having more real-world experience,” she says. “If you turned around tomorrow and said,‘To be a teacher you must have experience in some other industry or field,’ that is so unrealistic, especially as we are trying to encourage people into teaching.”
But despite the complications, some argue that teachers do have a responsibility to move away from outdated Stem stereotypes. “[Many] teachers don’t really understand what engineering is,” says Steve McSorley, director at civil and structural engineering consultancy Thomasons.
“We still suffer from the ‘engineers fix washing machines and broken-down cars’ mentality, whereas the missing bit is that we design buildings, cars, planes, bridges, process plants, oil rigs, electrical systems, computers – it goes on and on.”
Given that there is a gap in knowledge and experience, what can be done that is manageable and relevant? Many in the Stem industry point to the more than 300 initiatives across the country giving teachers an insight into the subjects.
Taylor says the thirst is there among teachers to engage if the right intervention is offered and time is given to embrace it. “I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t want to collaborate with an employer,” she says.
“But I have met teachers who wish they had more time to collaborate with employers, or wish it was easier or came with some resources. They want to be able to bring it back into the classroom for the kids.
“You can talk about your subject because you’ve learned it. But it’s very hard to talk about something you’ve never done. Luckily, there are fantastic resources out there.”
Watson agrees, explaining that a lot of thought has to go into how Stem sessions are developed for teachers – it cannot be done to them. “It’s all very well demanding that teachers have access to continuing professional development (CPD),” she says.
“But that CPD has to feel relevant, be delivered in a suitable format and teachers need to be given the time, not only to attend sessions or workshops but also to absorb it.”
Placements in industry
The STEM Insights programme is one great way of giving teachers more engineering knowledge through two-week placements in industry. And, according to STEM Learning, which runs the programme, 100 per cent of teachers who’ve taken part say this has increased their understanding of what Stem jobs are available and how to get into them.
Another way to bridge this knowledge gap around engineering is for schools to collaborate with engineering firms.
“You will get some people who go from engineering into teaching, and that’s really helpful,” says John Laverty, head of education and inspiration at the Institute of Civil Engineers.
“But the vast majority will not follow that route, so I don’t want to say teachers aren’t doing the right thing – they work incredibly hard and are very committed. What we’re looking for are partnerships where engineers come alongside the teachers and share their world and what they do.”
Bharkhada says that matching employers with interested schools is not always easy, though. “We want to see greater engagement between manufacturers and schools, which, at the moment, is too patchy.
“We have some great examples where the relationship is mutually beneficial but, all too often, we have manufacturers who simply cannot get through to their local schools.
“The government should be making it easier for employers to engage with schools through things like compulsory work experience and having Stem-specific career leaders,” she says.
“We should also be conscious that teachers cannot be expected to know everything about all industries. We firmly believe organisations like ours can support schools and teachers to not only help them in being confident in delivering careers advice and or training to Stem pupils but also step in and provide it when they cannot.”
When collaboration with business happens, it works well, according to Taylor.
“We see pockets of fantastic practice, where engineers are involved in planning and, in some cases, delivery of lessons,” she says. “In no way should engineers replace teachers, but they can collaboratively work to help provide an engineering context that sometimes you can’t produce through an activity or worksheet.
“You’ve got engineers across the country who will come into lessons and describe the jobs they do and talk about their day at work or offer careers support.
“I’ve also seen schools that are getting engineers to come in on a termly basis and meet members of staff. There are a couple of schools in the UK that have set up industry advisory boards and have engineers on that board. Once a term they get all the Stem subject teachers in a room with the board and they say, ‘Right, this term we’re teaching forces or fractions: have you got any engineering context?’ ”
If you cannot forge these links, Morgan says the RAE’s guidance about developing an engineering “habit of mind” can be introduced from primary school level.
“In engineering, we don’t know what jobs are going to emerge in years to come, so teachers can’t be expected to know this either,” he says. “And that’s where we are trying to promote engineering habits of mind – characteristics or attributes that engineers use to solve problems.
“It’s the first step of developing more general skills that engineers use rather than just curriculum-focused knowledge.”
Another area being tackled is careers advice. “For years, we’ve been saying that, to increase visibility of careers in Stem across the board, there needs to be a trained careers leader in every school supported by senior leadership,” says Caimin Collins, director of access at Teach First, which runs the Careers and Employability Leadership Programme that trains teachers to lead on careers in schools.
“That person should be given the resources and support they need to train and implement a careers strategy,” he says.
“Where is this awareness of pathways that lead to a career in something as key as engineering for our future workforce? Post-Brexit, those careers become even more key. We have to increase the visibility and status of careers provision in schools.
“We are training middle leaders in schools to not just be there to disseminate information but to put in place a careers strategy across the board, so different careers are embedded in the curriculum.”
Will CPD and careers advice give Stem the profile the industry desires? It would still be a challenge, says Morgan, because of the way the education system is set up.
“Right now, [it] is not set up to incentivise schools to encourage kids towards engineering,” he argues. “The accountability measures don’t focus on creative thinking or subjects. In maths and physics, everything is set up against nurturing these skills.”
But what all concerned are sure of is that teachers are a crucial aspect of the Stem awareness drive. “We all know there’s nothing like a great teacher to get young people excited about Stem,” says Watson.
Louisa Pritchard is a freelance writer