The Woeful State of Computer Science in Scottish Schools

Professor Bill Buchanan OBE

According to Professor Bill Buchanan OBE the neglect of Computer Science in Scottish schools is a serious ongoing problem that is turning a generation of kids off technology. 


And so, as Barclay’s Bank invest in a new digital centre in Glasgow with the creation of thousands of jobs, the neglect of Computer Science at school in both Scotland and England cannot be avoided any longer.

The lack of proper investment in teaching staff and proper labs – along with a boring and unfocused syllabus – makes one wonder where we will find enough leaders in technology in the future. Few universities who recruit in Computer Science, for example, actually rate it as a necessary entrance qualification.

In fact, the number of students studying N5 Computer Science in 2017 actually fell by 6%, and where Modern Studies increased by 7%:

And it’s not much better at Higher level too, where Computer Science falls to No 14, and Music catches-up and overtakes it (and with only 21 more pupils taking it from 2016 to 2017):

Students Picking Ease Over Future Career Skills

The white heat of technology is certainly not on the agenda at schools, and pupils (and teachers) continue to drift away. While it’s great to see English and Maths doing well, one must worry about the future of a tech-driven economy when Physics falls by 5%, and that Biology has a more than a 50% lead over Physics.

The future of jobs will be in both health care and technology, so we need to encourage our kids to study in all areas of science and technology.

More than twice as many pupils, for example, took PE as a subject at Higher than Computer Science (and where we possibly see kids avoiding the more difficult subjects, and where Biology falls from 3rd place at No 5 to 10th place at Higher).

While it’s great to see kids being active, an economy which produces more graduates at school in physical education than in science and technology, might be sending the wrong message to the jobs market, and where kids are picking subjects for their easiness, and not for a future career.

And so much for our society addressing the gender balance in tech-related areas, it’s already cast in stone at school with 81% male participants taking N5 Computer Studies, and where Drama has a 32% male attendance:

And the gender balance get even worse at Higher level with 85% of those taking Higher Computer Science are male, while even Design and Manufacture manages a respectful 70%/30% split:

In terms of the split of male:female, Computer Science is in 2nd place for the highest ratio of the split, and only beaten by Engineering Science (which has a ratio of 92%/8%). Physics, too, has a much higher percentage of male pupils taking the Higher subject:

Computer Science Needs Greater Focus

Our Computer Science at school has being neglected in the past, and still is. In Scotland the syllabus is boring and, in places, has little relevance to the modern jobs economy.

There’s no Cloud (which is probably one of the largest recruitment areas), no proper networking (which again is a large recruiter from many angles), no IoT, no standards for coding, no proper cyber security, no AI, no machine learning, no data science, no blockchain/crypto, and it has ended up being a hotch-potch of subjects that have been stitched together.

Personally, I would rather kids learnt the basics of cryptography, and how it can protect privacy, than knowing the difference between a GIF file and a PNG file. Kids learn by doing things, so get them to do a bit of crypto with Python.

But that’s its problem, it has no focus in what it is trying to do, and never really had one. It has always struggled to shake off its IT roots, and every year it sets itself back in not actually matching to developing long-term skills that industry would relate with.

If it was just programming on a Raspberry PI using Python, it would be a massive step forward, but it’s ended up trying to fuse bits and pieces of software and systems, and doesn’t manage to do either of them properly.

The implementation of coding standards has been a particular problem, and where schools were able to go their own way and use whatever language they wanted, and where the actual coding in the exam was then defined a pseudo language which was not used anywhere else in the world – Haggis. So rather than stick with a common language which might stimulate interest, such as Python, schools are left to define their own route.

More Relevant Equipment is Needed in Classrooms

There’s little in the way of engaging labs, where students integrate R-PI and Python, and which makes technology fun. These days, a bunch of computers connected to the school network is NOT a proper modern computer lab.

A virtualised cloud infrastructure with networks, services and Linux, or a lab of R-PIs connected to sensors and outputs, is. Kids should learn in the Cloud on Linux systems with IP networks, or build and make things. The constraints of a school network was never really a place for kids to learn with Computer science.

In the UK, there has seldom been, in recent memory, such a time of economic risk, and our kids deserve a stable future, and to have the skills that will allow them to face the challenges that this generation are putting in their way. We thus need to switch them on to the possibilities that technology can bring to their work, and stop switching them off with boring Computer science classes.

To create a nation of proper coders would be much better than a nation that knew the difference between a GIF and a PNG file. In the 1970s, the growth of the electronics industry was covered by Physics, but the growth of coding is not covered by any of the traditional subjects, and it is left to Computer Science to get kids into coding. But it fails in Scotland, as it has no common standard. An economy cannot thus be built on assuming that those kids who are interested, will go along to external coding classes.

For one thing, is that this is not an inclusive model of education, and where only kids with parental guidance will have the advantages of getting into coding. I have used the Scottish education system for this article, but you can replace Scotland for England and Wales, and end up with the same conclusions … it’s an unfocused mess with a complete lack of investment in our most precious of all our assets!


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