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Covid-19 presents an opportunity to address the digital skills gap

The pandemic has put digital education in the spotlight. That’s an opportunity to address the dire shortage of digital skills.

Julia Adamson is the Director of Education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. She writes for Tech Monitor as part of BCS president Rebecca George’s guest editorship

Digital skills are fundamental for both a thriving UK economy and for society at large. The digital sector is now worth more than £400m a day to the UK economy. And yet, there remains a growing and persistent digital skills gap.

The CBI estimates that two-thirds of digital skills vacancies are unfilled, with only a third of companies saying they are confident that UK businesses will be able to access the digital skills they need over the next two to five years.

More needs to be done to engage young people in digital careers. (Picture by Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images)

Currently, too few young people leave school with the essential digital skills they need for further study or to enter the workforce. Every young person should leave education with the digital skills they need to thrive, and we should aim to triple the number of young people leaving school with a  GCSE in computer science, ensuring they are representative of society, in terms of gender balance, ethnicity, disability inclusion, socio-economic disadvantage, and neurodiversity.

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Tripling the numbers studying GCSE Computer Science may sound daunting, but it would put the qualification on the same footing as established subjects such as geography or history. To do this we need to inspire pupils and support existing teachers. For those without a background in computer science, teaching this subject can be a huge challenge.

Digital skills are a vital part of the new computing curriculum. However, the computing curriculum is still very new when compared to, say, mathematics. Teaching digital skills formally as part of every learner’s entitlement to a broad curriculum is still a work in progress, as is tailoring that education to meet the needs of every child.

Establishing a future pipeline of motivated and skilled young talent for all sectors of the economy requires long-term solutions. There are quick wins, but we need consistent and comprehensive approaches with training, support, and interventions for all educational stages.

So investment in professional learning for teachers is critical, and business and industry – including at national, regional, local level and the public sector – can play a massive supporting role, by driving awareness of the training and career opportunities they offer, as well as influencing the skills agenda.

How businesses can help address the digital skills gap

BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, alongside Raspberry Pi Foundation and STEM Learning, is part of the consortium that makes up the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE), which was set up two years ago with UK government funding. The NCCE’s mission is to support the professional development of computing teachers from primary through to A level.

When it launched, the NCCE asked the technology industry for support in the following areas:

Advocacy - speaking up for the importance and value of world-class computing education for every child.

Share - helping to raise awareness of the NCCE’s work among school leaders and teachers.

Volunteer - helping out with enhancement and enrichment activities such as Code Clubs, STEM Ambassadors or Barefoot Computing.

Enrichment - providing venues, technology, careers information, work experience and more, to help enrich the computing curriculum, to contextualise learning and to show students the opportunities available to them.

Funding – to reach the sheer number of young people needed to bring about change through their teachers. Unless teachers are able to undertake training, the number of proficient computing teachers will remain small. To facilitate the release of teachers from school to attend courses, the NCCE offers bursaries, which come from the generous support of companies.

So far, the NCCE has raised £600,000 towards the costs of providing continuous professional development (CPD) and supported more than 2,800 teachers. Arm, BT, IBM, Microsoft, Nationwide Building Society and Rolls-Royce are among the blue-chip companies that have provided that support. It is aiming to raise another £1.5m to support a further 6,300 teachers. Without donations, the strong progress already seen will stall.

Julia Adamson is the Director of Education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. (Photo courtesy of Julie Adamson)

There’s been some great collaboration between the NCCE, industry and other organisations. For instance, PWC and Morgan Stanley have provided speakers for Computer Science A level events; Intel, UK Fast and Digital Hive have provided venues for meetings of computing teachers who are sharing their best practice in the classroom and PWC, IBM and Oracle have supported Girls in Computing initiatives.  Google contributed to the cost of the development of online courses, available from the NCCE.

The NCCE’s significant achievements over the past two years include the engagement of 29,500 teachers in more than 8,500 primary schools and nearly 3,000 secondary schools. Of those, over 7,000 teachers are working towards certified professional development in computing. While 2,000 teachers and 18,000 students are also using Isaac Computer Science – the NCCE-supported free, online A level platform for students and teachers.

Engaging young people in digital careers

Despite computing being one of the fastest-growing subjects at GCSE and A level, more needs to be done to engage young people. There are still issues around the equality of access – whether it’s about getting more girls and minority groups to take up a qualification in computing or about economic deprivation.

That is something that businesses can help with, via targeted interventions – be that offering mentoring or computing kit. To develop digital knowledge and skills, young people need to have access to digital technology. Without access, it’s a bit like teaching the theory of handwriting, without giving learners a pencil to try it out for themselves.

When asked; ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’, it becomes clear that there is still a lot of confusion around what a career in IT is – and what digital skills are needed. At some level, digital skills will be required by all, including by areas traditionally not associated with computing, such as retail or healthcare. As we see more automation, those with greater digital skills will be the most likely to adapt and remain employable.

Digital skills are not just qualifications – they are the knowledge of how to apply the theory and solve the problems. What’s difficult with digital is that it’s new, it’s technical and it’s evolving, rapidly.

We’ve got to bring digital to life, busting the myths that it’s all about lines of code in a darkened room. It’s about teams of people collaborating on real-world challenges. It’s about every company, every sector, every job.

Businesses have a lot to offer when it comes to bringing the subject to life, and it’s time for more of them to step up their involvement with schools and pupils. The role of tech in society is something BCS has been committed to since 1957 with our members and wider community of business leaders, educators, practitioners, and policymakers all committed to our mission of Making IT Good for Society.

The Covid-19 crisis has created a unique opportunity. It has brought the issue of digital education front and centre in every classroom and every household in the world. The conversation has shifted – from explaining why this digital stuff is important, to ensuring this vitally important digital technology is available to every learner.

Julia Adamson is the Director of Education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.