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Digital Skills: Aligning Education with Industry Requirement

Pete Swift


SQA Digital Skills

There is a growing consensus that a significant gap exists between the digital skills requirements of industry and the provision of suitably-equipped workers. This digital skills shortage is a common source of complaint for businesses, and is cited as one of the foremost barriers to growth. 

Industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, driven by technological progression and market disruption, and we need to make sure the skills pipeline evolves accordingly. As a country, there is a clear requirement to ensure that people are being equipped with the right skill-set to power industry – so where is this falling short when it comes to digital?  

DIGIT spoke with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to discuss the alignment of qualifications with industry requirements, and asked what was being done to create pathways into careers within the digital economy.  

AM: Alastair MacGregor, Head of Science, Technology Engineering & Maths, SQA 

HW: Hilary Weir, Digital Participation Manager, SQA 

Who is responsible for creating the curriculum and how is it shaped? 

AM: “Our colleagues at Education Scotland are responsible for setting the school curriculum, covering early years at nursery and primary school, through to what’s known as the broad general education in S1 to S3 at secondary school.  

“SQA has responsibility for the qualification system candidates experience in S4 through to S6, and onwards into college, via training providers, or through the workplace. The SQA qualifications candidates have access to are aligned to the requirements set by Curriculum for Excellence. We respond to the needs of various stakeholders, including employers, industry bodies, colleges, and schools by developing qualifications to meet their needs.”

How well suited is the qualifications system to meet the needs of industry – do you think computing science and digital skills are given enough priority?  

AM: “For me, I think we are constantly responding to the needs that are identified. We have been working with The Scottish Government, and other agencies including Skills Development Scotland to look at progression pathways for learners, from school into vocational qualifications, into Further, and Higher Education, and also into employment. 

“Within the school based sector, Computing Science is a qualification that stands in its own right. It’s available across five levels; National 3, National 4, National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher and gives candidates a broad base of knowledge and skills that they can then further develop and refine. But these National Qualifications are complemented by other computing courses and awards that we offer and are available within our schools. 

“Remember, at this stage we are not developing a candidate who is a specialist in a niche area of the digital or tech sector; we’re giving a young person as many opportunities as possible to experience what’s available to them, develop their knowledge and broaden their skills in an area that interests them.  Our qualifications help to make young people aware of the opportunities available to them should they choose to pursue computing further.”

In terms of that collaborative outreachis there a forum working on a continuous basis or does SQA reach out to these stakeholders individually? 

SQA - industry liasonAM: “We have a strategy group which is managed by one of my qualification managers whose responsibility is the digital technology sector. The group meets annually and is chaired by Polly Purvis OBE, Chief Executive of ScotlandIS, and includes representatives from Oracle, Microsoft, and from universities, and colleges. As a steering group, they provide strategic guidance; gauging where the sector is at that moment, what the emerging trends and issues are, and identifying areas where we think there needs to be further work, development, review or revision of our qualifications.  

“Beneath that, we have the qualification report team that looks across the wider sector. They apply a narrower focus onto sub-sectors of the industry. Generally, they are put in place after a qualification has been finalised, to ensure any environmental changes, or technological updates are incorporated if required. Because the digital technology sector is very dynamic, it changes rapidly, so its role is making sure that qualifications are still going to be fit for purpose and that the original aim or rational for these qualifications is still valid.” 

You mentioned a number of the big tech companies, I realise a few of these have their own individual qualifications and standards. How does SQA engage with these industry vendors, and incorporate this into its qualifications. 

HW: “We work with a number of vendor organisations to highlight and reinforce to them the industry standards that are a key component of our qualifications. Oracle have been delivering an ongoing programme to teachers, providing training in databases and Java. That runs twice a year, over ten weeks, and gives teachers an insight into industry best practice that they can bring back into the classroom, and it’s particularly useful for those teachers delivering Higher Computing Science. Cisco also offer a similar initiative, providing resources for teaching System Networking in schools.  

Apple has just provided us with guidance and support as to how it’s coding language, Swift could be used within our National Qualifications. And we have gone through all of the learning outcomes for the National 5 and Higher Computing Science qualifications. We have looked at the areas where these vendor resources can be matched to our qualifications, and identified how teachers could use them as part of their classroom teaching. Where vendors have products that are highly aligned with National Qualifications or vocational courses, we work with them to establish synergies and see where resources can be used. 

“It might seem that SQA develops its qualifications in isolation, but this is not the case.  We work closely with industry representatives, subject specialists, employers, teachers and lecturers throughout the development process. For instance, Scott Hunter, the principal teacher of computing at Kyle Academy in Ayr, lead the team that developed our National Progression Award in Cyber Security.  That team included detectives from Police Scotland, who advised on the Digital Forensics, and Cyber Fundamentals units, and Bloxx, a company that specialises in e-mail filtering solutions.  Their insights were invaluable, and without their contribution, the qualification wouldn’t have the substance that makes it so attractive to students.”

realise that you said SQA’s Computing Science qualifications are not intended to cover every niche area, so how is the wider system geared to respond to demand from industry in key specialist areas – like cyber security, software development and data analytics?  

SQA - adult student working in a classroomAM:  “That’s where the National Progression Awards come in. In relation to Cyber Security, we developed a suite of NPAs in Cyber Security and that came through discussion and negotiation with Scottish Government, Police Scotland and with the other stakeholders.  

“We’re also developing Higher National units in digital analytics and Big Data. Again, we’ve done this following engagement and dialogue with industry representatives, responding to them saying that these are areas where there are opportunities or skills shortages that qualifications could help address. 

“Another good example would be the work we’ve done in developing Professional Development Awards, particularly with CodeClan. Together, we sought to respond to the demands set by the government to address the significant skills shortages within the digital sector, which resulted in the PDA in Software Development. 

“The PDA equips CodeClan students with a wide range of knowledge and skills relevant to analysis and design, implementation and testing, as well as practical skills in software development and maintenance. That’s just a snapshot of the relationships we’re curating. It’s not SQA people sitting in a little dark room coming up with ideas for qualifications, it’s about engagement with stakeholders and ensuring there is a business merit to developing these qualifications.”  

If there is this comprehensive and collaborative process tailored to meet industry requirement across all of these core areas, why is there perceived to be an insufficient focus on digital skills? 

HW: “From my perspective, people aren’t really always aware of the raft of vocational qualifications that there are in the digital technology sector; they tend to focus on Computing Science as being the only qualifications available for schools, and that’s not the case.  

“The vocational qualifications are there and available to SQA centres, such as our National Progression Awards, and National Certificates. The boundaries between an ‘academic’ course, and a ‘vocational’ one are becoming blurred, particularly within this sector. We want to expose young people to a vast array of opportunities within the sector, and we do this by offering a combination of qualifications. People are always surprised when I show them what is available across the digital portfolios and some of the qualifications that they could be delivering. So in terms of meeting those industry’s needs, that’s what they’re specifically designed to do and the uptake for them could, of course always be much larger.” 

When you say uptake could be larger, how low is it currently? 

HW: “It varies across each qualification, for example the NPA in Cyber Security has been very popular, despite only being available over the past year, partly because of the increasing awareness of the topic as a result of high-profile hacks and malware attacks. Our Computer Games Design qualifications are very popular also. But there are a whole load of others that could be delivering the types of skills that employers are saying they’re not getting. 

“These are not just focussed around practical skills like being able to develop software, but also the analysis, the problem solving, and the critical evaluation. As all our qualifications are aligned to the principles of Curriculum for Excellence, they develop candidates’ essential soft skills too. These are the sorts of things that may help address employers’ concerns and help candidates become work-ready.”

So while there is a lack of awareness around the breadth of options available, you do feel that the core Computing Science qualification does have good uptake? 

HW: “In terms of the national qualifications that are offered to schools, Computing Science does have a reasonably good uptake, but there are a significant number of factors that impact negatively on learner performance in these qualifications. There is the lack of Computing Science teachers, both across Scotland and the wider UK. And for some of those who are teaching, Computer Science isn’t always their first degree, it may just be that they’ve undertaken a module as part of their degree programme which happened to be Computer Science.”

The teacher shortage is an issue that seems to pose a persistent problem, and one which appears to risk undermining all the other efforts. Iwe are trying to encourage people towards a career in tech, but don’t have the teachers in place to be able to provide access to the qualifications in schools then surely we’re missing a core part of the solution. How big a problem is this from your perspective, and what is being done to address the root of the issue? 

SQA - Teacher at the front of a classroomAM: “In terms of the lack of numbers, the Scottish Government are working with GTC Scotland to think about innovative ways in which we can attract people into becoming Computer Science teachers.  

“For instance, The University of West of Scotland are taking one of their Masters programmes in Computer Science, and in the final year there is an option to do an education module. In this final part of the Masters, the student is placed into a school and given a module on teaching as a practice. At the end of that they would become a qualified Computing Science teacher without having to go through the full year of teacher training. So there are strategies in place to think of more flexible ways to help people become Computing Science teachers.  

“The other real aspect is that digital technology is fast changing and dynamic. If you are a computing teacher and you don’t have the time available to be able to keep up to date with what’s happening then you are not going to be able to deliver the best quality of education to the young people sitting in front of you.”

There is no doubting that the pace of technological change makes areas like computing one of the harder areas to stay on top of, and there has got to be some recognition around that. But how can we address this in practice: how do we ensure education is responsive to the evolution of technology and the changing needs of industry? 

HW: “Better collaboration between all the parties involved will help address this issue.  We want to facilitate and encourage more connections between employers, schools, colleges, and training providers. We’d love to see tech employers go into their local schools and colleges, and show young people what they do – give them an insight into the opportunities available to them. Demonstrate that this is something that they can do. We know these sort of relationships work in other sectors, so why wouldn’t it work here? 

“There are some great instances of this.  In 2016, Dundee and Angus College established its Code Academy, which has been bridging the digital skills gap across the local community, establishing links between local schools, universities, and businesses, offering a variety of SQA units to candidates, and tailoring the experience to meet the needs of local learners. 

“When candidates see someone doing these sort of jobs, it gives them the motivation to seek out the courses and qualifications that will get them there. Schools can provide those opportunities. Regular contact across all the parties involved will help keep everyone aware of changes within the industry.”

AM: “New approaches, such as our partnership with CodeClan are going some way to addressing the skills shortage in the sector, giving candidates practical skills that they can immediately demonstrate to an employer. Many HND Computing Science and Software Development graduates can move straight into the workforce too, because their courses are much more practical and skills based, rather than the academic focus that you can get in some degree level programmes. 

“We know that there is a desire from employers to recruit graduates, but many may not leave with all the hands on skills that industry needs. Candidates who have completed the HN route do have these skills, and have been developing them over the two years of their studies. 

“As more young people develop these practical skills through qualifications while still at school, this will give them the required foundation to build on through further study and employment in the digital sector.”

For subjects in the technology space that do evolve so rapidly, how does the SQA pre-empt what requirements and skills will be needed for the coming years? Is there a team that looks at trends and future predictions then tries to anticipate where industry is going so that courses can be geared accordingly? 

SQA - Close-up of a young student writing at a deskAM: “Colleagues in SQA have just embarked upon a project looking at the future of assessment, investigating how we develop qualifications in the future, and assess skills for careers and industries that may not yet exist.  That is looking quite far ahead, but more immediately we include a rigorous business case application as part of our qualification development process. If there is an opportunity for a new qualification, then it is costed and scoped out to ensure there is a real target market and that it’s going to be viable for SQA to develop. 

“We work very closely with the Tech Partnership, SDS and with ScotlandIS, and they are the people that provide us with the labour market intelligence. So we utilise this when we are working to determine the certain types of product.”

To conclude, is there anything else you would suggest, looking at the wider landscape, that might help address the skills shortage? 

AM: “SQA works with government agencies, training providers and sector skills councils, and employers of all sizes to ensure that when candidates exit their learning they do so with the skills, knowledge, and positive attitude to hit the ground running and make a positive contribution to the industry. 

“Our qualifications, at all levels, are a tangible, practical approach to addressing the skills shortage within Scotland’s digital sector; whether they are giving young people their first taste of the computing industry and the various sectors within it, honing their skills further and broadening their understanding of the subject, or helping individuals re-train, and develop their skills and contribute to the success of the wider Scottish Economy.”

Pete Swift

DIGIT Managing Editor and Head of Research

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