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From Numbers to Net Zero: Navigating the STEM Skills Gap

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We take a look at the divergent paths in STEM education quietly being adopted by Labour and the Conservatives.

The very serious challenge of ensuring the workforce has the STEM skills needed to advance the net zero agenda is largely absent from the current political debate. As the next election approaches and dividing lines are drawn, STEM skills are getting lost amongst the more controversial noise. Yet it is an issue of increasing importance to the sectors of the economy tasked with the delivery of decarbonisation; and it is an area where, quietly and in the background, two different approaches to STEM education are unfolding amongst the two main parties – especially in the area of mathematics.

In a well-publicised move, the current government has committed to extending compulsory maths education until 18, bolting on an additional two years of mathematical study as part of a new Baccalaureate-style qualification. However, research shows that by 16, many students – even if relatively successful at the subject – perceive themselves as maths failures, lack confidence in their mathematical ability and report that they do not understand parts of the mathematical curriculum that they have been taught. This leaves a big problem for industries dependent on the next generation of STEM enthusiasts.

Think for a moment about your own attitude to maths. Maths is viewed by very many of us as hard; a pursuit for a different, clever cohort of people. It leaves one significant question for the government’s approach:  have pupils leaving KS4 developed the skills, the confidence and the passion for mathematics within our current education system to really make the most of an additional two years of further education?

By way of contrast and at the other end of the education system, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson announced at their October conference that the Party would take a ‘phonics-for-Maths’ approach, focussing instead on early maths for the youngest children. But what exactly does that mean and how will it impact a future skills agenda? 

Synthetic, systematic phonics is a reading methodology that teaches young children to break down words into their smallest units of sound – or phonemes – and to learn the relationship between these sounds and the letter symbols that represent them. It is evidence-based approach that has proven to be more effective than other approaches to early reading.

Phonics-for-Maths charts a similar path. It provides frequent, rich, practical and visual opportunities for young learners to explore numbers for themselves, breaking them down into different constituent parts and recombining them again. This helps learners to construct their own deep understanding of what a particular number really ‘is’ – from its complex composition and its connection to its quantity value, to its ability to be represented in different ways. This is often described as ‘number sense’ – a confident understanding of numbers and their relationships to each other without having to always resort to taught procedures to solve problems. At its most basic, it is the development of an intuitive understanding of the structure of the number system. 

Like phonics and reading, this approach is intended to underpin confidence and fluency with numbers at an early age, before negative perceptions about mathematics set in. It is a contrasting approach to Rishi Sunak’s plan to extend maths learning at the other end of the educational journey. Labour hopes it will equip a new generation with early and firm foundations to succeed in mathematics later on. But in an economy increasingly dependent on science, technology and innovation, businesses will want to know if it will be enough to fix the UK’s chronic, cultural fear of maths. 

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