Recruit FYI: Breaking Point for Technology Education in Scotland

Recruit FYI: Empty Computer Lab

In the first Recruit FYI column, Gareth Biggerstaff, the CEO of Be-IT, looks the core skills required by the UK’s pioneering technology sector and asks, are schools equipped to give us the workforce we need?

Gareth Biggerstaff Be-IT CEOIn February 2015, I wrote a blog based on a report from The House of Lords Digital Skills Committee, called Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future.  This report started with the following premise:

“The world is being transformed by a series of profound technological changes dominated by digital—a ‘second machine age’… Digital technology is changing all our lives, work, society and politics. It brings with it huge opportunities for the UK, but also significant risks.”

In October 2016, Be-IT attended the DigitalXtra fund event in Glasgow, which highlighted the dire numbers teaching computing science in Scotland. We wrote then that radical measures are required to address the problem.

Last week, I read in The Times newspaper that nothing has changed and, in some respects, things are even worse. Moreover, it’s not just in the technological sphere that we struggle to train and recruit teachers. Maths, which is, of course, important for many who go on to work in IT, is also way below its target number for teachers in training.

Scottish Teacher Targets 2017/18

Across all disciplines there are 1,226 in all secondary teacher training, only 70% of the target number for 2017-18, and, as the table shows, only 36 of these intend to teach technology.  With over half of our local authorities having some schools with no computing science teacher it’s clear we are failing to attract enough people into computer science teaching.

This matters, for the simple reason that in the UK we are really good at this IT stuff. That’s why there are so many tech start-ups and the 2017 Tech Nation report can claim that the UK is the digital leader in Europe. Despite the concerns about Brexit, the recent Forbes Midas List Europe shows that 70% of Europe and Israel’s top 25 tech venture capitalists are based in London and only two are actually in the rest of Europe. It’s vital for our children’s economic wellbeing that we continue to forge ahead.  We can only screw this up and while Brexit may yet have a deleterious effect we are not helping ourselves by our failure to attract people to become technology teachers. And in the worst-case scenario, if Brexit turns out to be a calamity then the need to grow our own seed corn is going to be even more important.

Start at Primary School

Part of the problem, I think, is that we are understandably fixated on secondary and tertiary education.  Yet the seed corn is planted in primary schools and it’s important to look there first.

Sharon Iddir, an Early Years Officer and student teacher in Fife, is currently studying for an MA in Primary Education and researching a dissertation on digital literacy from nursery to P 3.  She points out that last year the Scottish Government announced a Digital Learning and Teaching Strategy for compulsory teaching and learning about IT, and the Curriculum benchmarks have (in March 2017) updated targets for children at each level. It’s the way forward and these are the skills the children need, but, and it’s a very big but, Sharon also notes that there is neither the infrastructure nor the resources to deliver the curriculum. She explained:

“A Primary teacher is expected to be a bit like a GP, with knowledge of lots of different subjects. Outcomes in all areas, not just ICT, are important. The pressure is on basics – literacy and numeracy. The majority of us are not techies.   Not all training is as good as it might be. Some schools don’t have reliable Wi-Fi. Put simply, the problem is there is a lack of resources and money.

“In May 2017, a Scottish Government committee met with a focus group to discuss various educational issues on an informal basis.  The record of the meeting illustrates some of the problems. One computing teacher told the politicians ‘class sizes had been increased to 30 as her subject did not have a set teacher:pupil ratio. On that basis, the school has been able to reduce from two computing teachers down to one. There is no computing being taught to S1-S3, despite it being required.’”

The politicians can promise what they like, but the problem is that IT teaching is not a subject that raises passionate public debate in the way that, say, the NHS or Brexit do.

Good Intentions

Furthermore, there is a significant divergence between what politicians promise and what they deliver. However, it’s not that they don’t mean well. In his recent budget speech, the Chancellor said “A new tech business is founded in Britain every hour and I want that to be every half hour.”  I am sure that he is sincere.  I am sure that north and south of the border, politicians are desperately trying to get more people into teaching generally and IT teaching specifically.  But just like the football manager brought in to an ailing club with confident statements of support from the chairman and expectations of a turnaround, good intentions are frequently not enough.

It’s easy to criticise.  We – and everyone associated with the IT industry in Scotland – need to do more ourselves.

This is the IT industry we’re talking about, so why can’t we make use of technology to teach/learn remotely, employing overseas teachers with the necessary English language skills to beam their expertise into secondary classrooms the length and breadth of the country. That’s what happens in the “real” commercial world and, while I acknowledge that some teaching knowledge is necessary, we ought, at least to be exploring this.

Industry Engagement

Why can’t our bigger IT companies redirect some of their CSR budgets into campaigns that take their experts into schools on a regular basis to evangelise and inspire? Such visits would be especially useful at schools in deprived areas where kids might otherwise not see an IT person from one term to the next.  Female software engineers could be released for one day a month to go into primary and secondary schools and encourage girls (and boys) to follow in their footsteps. Solutions are only limited by our imagination and willingness to get involved.

There will be those of a bureaucratic disposition who, for a myriad of pedantic reasons, say these sorts of things can’t be done. I say they must be attempted, otherwise the lead the UK has in so many tech areas will be lost and we’ll wither on the vine. It’s incumbent on all of us in the computing industry to put our thinking caps on and DO things that will help.

To that end, Be-IT has a small group of our senior consultants currently charged to come up with some ideas for what we might do to make a difference.  Watch, as they say, this space.



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