To succeed with STEM, teachers must control the curriculum

Written by: Sir Mike Griffiths | Published:
Photo: MA Education
As a Trainee Chemistry Teacher and former Technician I couldn't agree more with the assertion that ...

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If we are to attract enough outstanding people into STEM teaching and also inspire students to embrace these subjects, we must take control of the curriculum and support our teachers’ development, says Sir Mike Griffiths

Industry and politicians support the view that the economic future of this country depends on there being a good supply of outstanding scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians – the STEM subjects.

But is enough being done to ensure that our education system has enough high-quality teachers of STEM subjects who will inspire the next generation of STEM students?

How can you and your school find STEM graduates? And train them to be teachers? And develop them to become outstanding? And encourage students to take STEM subjects? And themselves be inspired to become teachers?

At an event earlier this year to celebrate the first 10 years of the National Science Learning Centre, co-funded by the DfE and Wellcome Trust (, schools minister Nick Gibb and the former chairman of the Education Select Committee Graham Stewart both highlighted the issue.

They spoke of the need to ensure that teachers are supported to become the inspirational and outstanding practitioners of the future, and the importance of high-quality subject-specific training which demonstrates real impact in the classroom. And there was agreement that we must increase the “supply chain”. Fine words. To be applauded.

But has education policy helped or hindered the supply and training of teachers, the provision of an exciting curriculum, and the uptake of STEM subjects in schools? And as a profession, just what are we doing to rectify the situation?

Whatever the position politically, we have the opportunity to seize the agenda. We need to train and develop our teachers well, and enable them to become outstanding. And we need to be brave and deliver an exciting curriculum in a stimulating way. And we need to inspire more of our best young minds to follow STEM subjects in school – and beyond. And we need to share the joy of teaching as a profession.

Key to this, of course, is supporting these new STEM teachers when they arrive in our classrooms. Let us ensure that all teachers are given the opportunity to develop into outstanding practitioners. Yes generic training in managing behaviour, or the latest learning theory, but teachers also need subject-specific training too. Some subjects develop at an alarming rate. My own subject, biology, is virtually unrecognisable from the one I first taught.

It is vital that our subject expertise is kept up-to-date. The National Science Learning Network and the STEM Centre at York aim to improve training across the country via their local hubs. They engage with the learned bodies and university departments. They have rigorous quality-assurance to make sure that the training has impact on students, not just on teachers.

At a time when school budgets are under pressure, it is vital that professional development is seen as an entitlement for all teachers, not just a “bolt-on extra”.

Another key challenge is the curriculum. Increasingly accountability measures (Ofsted, EBacc) are being used to drive the curriculum and its delivery. This must stop. We must get away from perverse incentives that see schools offering a curriculum to suit a league table rather than our children.

Politicians must step back from the curriculum. It is not their place to determine what should be taught and how, any more than it is their place to tell surgeons what operation is needed and how to perform it.

Politicians need to set a framework for excellence, and find ways to fund such public services. But they must leave the detail to the professionalism of the professionals within schools. And that is one reason for supporting the establishment of a College of Teaching. But that is another story for another time...

But it is not only elected politicians who seek to influence the “way” we do things. There are educationalists who muddy the waters too. An example: science is a way of looking at the world and seeking an understanding of just how things work. It generates hypotheses and then – and this is the uniqueness and beauty of science – tests those hypotheses until the idea is adopted as an accepted view (albeit one that might change in the future given new ideas and new evidence).

The very essence of science is the practical work employed to test hypotheses. But the exams regulator, Ofqual, has determined that the marks for practical assessment will form no part of the examination grade for the subject (effectively because teachers cannot be trusted to assess practical skills fairly).

As night follows day, this will lead to reduction in practical activity. Headteachers will see practical as expensive – and unnecessary. Why invest in hardware, consumables and technicians when investigative skills “don’t count”? Teachers will be encouraged to “teach from the text”.

But “investigations” inspire many youngsters; it is what first excites them. It makes them want to study more, at A level and beyond. It is practical work that stimulates them to become the scientists – and science teachers – of the future.

Teachers have become compliant. We need to do what is right, not what we are told. The curriculum is too important to be left to those with alternative agendas. If we are to have a good supply of STEM teachers in the future, education professionals must be the ones to determine the nature of the curriculum. And if assessing investigative skills is difficult, we need to find ways to make it reliable and robust. Surely not beyond us?

  • Sir Michael Griffiths is the former head of Northampton School for Boys and past president of the Association of School and College Leaders, He is also chair of the National Science Learning Network Strategy Group.

As a Trainee Chemistry Teacher and former Technician I couldn't agree more with the assertion that it is practical work that inspires the students. We are fortunate that in Science we have the luxury of a variety of investigations, demonstrations and phenomena that turn practitioners in other subjects green with envy. To take these opportunities for granted would be unwise at best and wholly neglectful of societal potential at worst.

As a former Technician, with the knowledge of the wealth of practicals available to our subject that the position entails, I was challenged by an experienced Science Teacher to exceed her previous department record of 93% coverage of practicals in lessons. The target was not set for its own sake but as one of professional pride and practice, that the expansion of world view realised in the students would engender a classroom culture of fascinated curiosity and wonder.

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