Digital skills gap disaster calls for radical teaching reform

IT is one of the areas of education that is fast moving and requires constant updating if practitioners are to keep up with advances in tools and platforms as well as guidelines and policy.

But it’s simply not getting the support it needs to provide workers now and in the future with the support they really need.

Unfortunately, the Learning & Work Institute has that the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015. It’s a sad start for young people who could be entering the workforce with incredibly valuable skills that could set them up for a brilliant career. Meanwhile, consulting giant Accenture says demand for AI, cloud and robotics skills is soaring.

Education does not stop once people have left school, ongoing education and adoption of new skills should be something that can be an option for adults throughout their career and many IT workers take pride in adding new qualifications and certificates as they work. The Learning & Work Institute's research also reveals that 70% of young people expect employers to invest in teaching them digital skills on the job, but only half of the employers surveyed in the study are able to provide that training. But this takes money and time - both expenses that companies and organisations need to work hard to include in their offering to staff.

It is critical, not just for the IT sector, but for the overall economy that the government prioritises this urgent skills and training gap. In order to regain financial buoyancy in the new ‘post pandemic - post Brexit normal’ the UK needs to lead the digital revolution. Under Ed Vaisey, the then Minister for Culture and Digital Media, we gained momentum for our future view, our investment in aptly coined ‘Silicon Roundabout’ and the ‘Tech Nation’ initiative. Since then we have failed to follow through on a robust education system that not only understands the skills we need to develop but how to go about teaching them.

The challenge is not about finding enough IT teachers - digital is too fast moving for that model. The government needs to provide a far more agile strategy that reflects always-on digital development - in sprints of innovation learning, underpinned by a transformation roadmap that is always looking to the future need. It must draw academia and commercial practice together, so that schools and colleges can better deliver future-focused learning that is based on ‘the now and the next’. Digital is not text-book. It is live and always on the move. You cannot teach or learn this new model of ‘Life in Beta’ from the traditional classroom - you need a model of early integration with the experts delivering the next wave.

School education has historically had a focus on core skills of maths, english and science, today code and programming, IT skills and more are but it would be encouraging to see more emphasis on programming as well as digital literacy, especially as we now live in a semi-virtual world. Taking this as a core element of education would help a generation of people understand how data is used, what code can do for them and how they can change a world that interacts online. In today’s world, this provides emancipation and agency. Without these skills, school graduates are starting out with a deficit that they may have to catch up on later in life.

Basic IT skills are vital also because they lead to incredibly creative digital worlds. It’s not just that people can create apps or websites, it’s the entry point to artificial intelligence, video game logic, robotics and more. These areas of interest need to be a highlight in IT education early on so that children understand the influence they can wield as they enter their working lives.

The provision of IT education is not just a matter of throwing money at schools and organisations. More could be done to address socio-economic and gender gaps that mean many people are unable to gain skills, even if they want to. The pandemic threw a hard light on access to tools in education earlier this year. While an effort was made to provide laptops for disadvantaged kids, that school children who are eligible for free school meals, were more likely to report a lack of technology - like a computer to do their homework. Lack of access to technology at an early age makes it harder for kids to explore IT in lessons or for their own hobbies.

Ten years ago it was a flag waving event to bring coding into education, but that enthusiasm among politicians and institutions needs a reboot in terms of funding, scope and support. There’s great advice already available from organisations like the Royal Society but this needs to shake down to the people who could benefit most.

The government could look at providing a budget to IT firms so that employees can take courses and gain new qualifications that benefit businesses and their career progressions. Something similar to R&D tax credits could be offered so that people can be trained internally, bringing in people who are both IT graduates and those who are not qualified in this sector but are keen to learn. Freeing up time for this is a challenge though and it would be subsidies like this that could help to buy time for adequate training.

There are plenty of brilliant organisations that can also help to work with companies from the inspirational Ada Lovelace Day to assorted code academies and groups like TechMums that can provide short courses and online education to increase confidence and skills. Government funding for organisations like this could help them reach many more businesses and spend time within them to boost skills. On the other side of this, code academy learners could also be spending time with businesses so that they can get some real world experience for their skills as they learn academically. Not only would this help to support learners but it also means that companies can see the talent emerging from these courses with view to future employment. Who would not like to see talent emerging and get to pick the best of those people?

The government urgently needs to create a Digital Learning and Skills Cross-party Committee to consider the fundamental challenge we face. They must break down barriers between schools, HE institutes, start-ups, growth businesses, digital providers and FTSE firms, to wrestle with the country’s future digital needs. It is critical that they work out how we are going to adapt our education system and help fund in-company training schemes to better equip our future workforce - this is no time for procrastination.

Written by Darren Webb – Chief Technology Officer