The UK economy will live and die on the depth of digital skills within its workforce.
Recognising this, the UK government created the new Computing GCSE in 2014 to instill digital skills in the next generation.
This new syllabus aims to introduce teenagers to concepts such as coding and programming, and the content was welcomed by industry experts at first glance.
Yet, there is still much work to be done in order to convert a well-drafted course into a generation of technically literate teens and coders.
Not tackling gender inequality
While the new GCSE syllabus should reproduce the quality we have in our current tech sector, we should be careful not to reproduce problems that we are working hard to address. At the top of this list is a lack of diversity, and with just 16% of those taking the qualification being female, we are in danger of entrenching rather than improving a lack of gender diversity.
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Gender inequality risks alienating half of the UK workforce, missing out on an untapped pool of talent. US figures suggest that women hold about 40% of mathematics degrees, but only 18% of engineering and computer science degrees. What this demonstrates is not necessarily a natural propensity towards less technical subjects, but more like an emphasis relating to social influence.
Engineering and computer science degrees are seen as more vocational and geared towards their respective industries than maths, which is more open in terms of where it can lead. In other words, there are other aspects of working in the tech industry that is putting women off of these courses, rather than a lack of talent or potential. This is a private sector problem and requires a private sector solution.
Despite their limited resources, organisations like Teen Tech and Code First: Girls are doing an excellent job on this front, but we need to see more from the companies who will be benefiting from this talent in the future. The UK’s angels, VC firms and multinational tech companies should play a hands on role in showing young people from all backgrounds the opportunities and possibilities of a career in tech. The increased quality, quantity and diversity that could be unlocked has the potential to elevate London as an international tech hub.
Securing quality teachers
The teaching requirements of the GCSE Computing exceed that of an ICT teaching post, and teaching it effectively requires at least a degree-level knowledge of computer science. Ironically, the same talent gap we are trying to tackle makes it extremely difficult to recruit high quality teachers to inspire the next generation. The issue already seems evident: in 2017, just 41% of students achieved a B or higher in the course, which is below average in comparison with other subjects.
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One of the problems is competition from tech firms; as motives for going into tech are often financial, schools cannot match tech firms’ graduate salaries. The solution, like the problem, lies with the private sector. Programmes such as Teach First, where recent graduates teach in struggling schools for two years, and Now Teach, where established professionals retrain as teachers, could present a win-win solution to the problem. Professionals benefit from the leadership and managerial skills learned from teaching, and students benefit from accessing top level talent and seeing first-hand what it takes to be an accomplished professional.
Addressing the problem
The computing qualification, which requires computing skills to be taught to pupils as young as five, is a step in the right direction. However, more can and needs to be done to attract more women, secure teaching talent, and allocate sufficient resources.
The British Computing Society (BCS) has implemented a scheme to update the skills of ICT teachers, but only has enough funding to reach 20% of schools. Increased government funding in this area would be a long-term investment: a well-equipped educated digital workforce is our greatest source of economic strength.
More importantly, the private sector can play a more central role in providing resources and funding to increase the UK’s pool of technical talent. This means contributing directly to initiatives that inspire young people to gain technical skills. The Ada College, the first National College for Digital Skills, in Tottenham is an excellent example targeting 16 to 18 year olds with a curriculum that really helps to develop digital skills. Most of the funding is from the private sector. Many more Ada Colleges are needed across the UK.
The introduction of GCSE Computing was a brave and necessary step by the government, but it needs to be reviewed and overhauled if it is to deliver its goals and avoid worsening the challenges that already face the industry. Most importantly, we need to see education as a continuous process with a range of stakeholders across government and the private sector.