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August 13, 2015updated 22 Sep 2016 11:54am

‘Tougher tech teaching needed’: 10 tech experts respond to A-level results

CBR gets reaction from experts from Salesforce, Hitachi Data Systems, SAS, Capgemini and the Open University on the tech passes and fails of the UK's A-levels.

By Alexander Sword

The release of this year’s A-level results sparked much interest the tech sector, with maths entries rising 20 percent since 2010 and entries in science and maths (STEM) subjects have increased by more than 38,000 since 2010, up 17.3 per cent.

1. Firms need to work with the education system to improve training

Arosha Bandara, Senior Lecturer at the Open University:

"With today’s results showing the number of students in STEM rising, including a 12% rise in those opting to study Computer Sciences, the education system must in turn step up its game to provide students with the fundamentals of knowledge and analytical skills for tackling today’s threats, as well as being able to adapt and respond to the security challenges of the future.

"For companies within the tech industry, progress would be to prioritise the relevant training for employees and even provide internships for potential employees and graduates.

"By providing a channel through which to mentor students, companies can create their own pipeline for the future and help entice students to the profession.

"This, in conjunction with the impending government relaxation of the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) policy next month presents a chance for people in full time work to not only build on their own skills by making it easier and more affordable to obtain the relevant IT qualifications, and enabling them to move into this area.

"It also creates more skilled people for businesses to draw from which is likely to signal a significant step in alleviating the IT skills shortage.

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2. Connecting business and technology is vital for growth

Richard Gadd, Managing Director UK&I, Hitachi Data Systems comments:

"It’s exciting to see the prospect of new STEM talent from this year’s school leavers.

"For young people planning or beginning their careers, it’s important to remember that careers in STEM are no longer about being the ‘techies’ stuck in the basement. With new technologies redefining the jobs market, the people with tech acumen will be those placed at the forefront of business innovation and integral to defining strategy.

"It’s the skill of connecting business and technology that’s so vital for driving growth and is fast earning places at the board table. UK businesses have been concerned that we face a skills deficit in supplying the next generation of workers with the right knowledge and skills to thrive in a data driven world.

"To ensure the UK technology scene is an inspiring hub of great talent that can ignite economic success, businesses also have an important role to play.

"By working with the government and offering more entry-level jobs with on-site training, where individuals are equipped with the right skills to pursue a career in IT, businesses can help bridge the IT skills gap and ensure they can recruit the right people for the future."


3. Time to fill those skills gaps

Mark Wilkinson, Managing Director of SAS UK & Ireland:

"It is pleasing to see a rise in exam entries for core STEM subjects like computing and maths. These subjects provide a fantastic pathway to the careers that will stimulate and grow our economy.

"The need for a rich mix of science, technology and mathematically minded talent is crucial to our competitiveness in the global information economy. The UK is the sixth biggest digital economy in Europe, but to sustain that position we must have a solid talent pool.

"Our research with The Tech Partnership suggests there will be approximately 56,000 job opportunities a year in 2020 for big data professionals, but that means we need to fill them! That’s why we need to continue to encourage take-up of STEM subjects. Otherwise, from a business analytics point of view, we are left with highly technical aircraft but not enough pilots to fly them."

"The opportunity to inform and nurture brilliant minds starts in the classroom by introducing today’s challenges and technology earlier in the learning process. This will better prepare tomorrow’s workforce for using data to make better, evidence-based decisions, so that UK businesses remain competitive."


4. More needs to be done in higher education

Nivedita Krishnamurthy, Senior Vice President, Head of Markets at Capgemini:

"There has been a record number of young people being accepted on university courses this year, which is a fantastic achievement and testament to the high calibre of academia being produced in the UK.

"The decision to continue into higher education is something that should be supported, however, we shouldn’t forget that university is not necessarily the best route for all young people, particularly those wishing to enter into an IT career.

"The traditional higher education path is eagerly encouraged by the majority of our schools in the UK, but after three to four years of study and thousands of pounds in fees, many students still lack core technical skills.

"An effective and valuable alternative is an apprenticeship programme which allows students to develop hands-on experience while working towards a full BSc degree, and earning a salary.

"Nurturing young talent through programmes such as our own Degree Apprenticeship is key to the health of the digital economy. What’s more, the earlier we develop academic and practical IT skills, the greater position the UK will be in to compete on the global stage."


5. A rise in maths students is the start of a broader STEM surge

Andrew Lawson, UK Managing Director of Salesforce, said:

"It’s really encouraging to see that the number of students taking maths A-level has risen, and I’m pleased that it remains the most popular A-level subject.

"I believe that with the curriculum changes that the government introduced last September, to focus on computer science (and in particular programming/coding), we’ll start to see even higher numbers of students taking all of the STEM-related A-levels in future.

"Although there’s been a drop in the number of science papers awarded the top A* and A grades, I don’t think we should worry.

"I think instead we should look at this as an opportunity to continue our work encouraging students to explore STEM-related degree options and careers — and to help this generation of students build the UK technology industry of tomorrow."


6. Tech is not just about academics

Matthew Leach, Marketing, Circus Street, commented:

"For me, the A-level results are important just as much due to the evident interest amongst candidates about the tech sector, as the results themselves

"For those that might be disappointed with their results, I would offer a word of reassurance. I believe that an enthusiasm for the job, a willingness to think on one’s feet and work hard at keeping up with change is at least as important for many tech sector employers as grades.

"I’d certainly struggle to recommend that candidates interested in rapidly changing subjects such as digital marketing, or software development, register for a traditional degree course – the teaching content could easily be three years out of date by the time they graduate.

"My advice for candidates is to research the job that they want, look for opportunities to build skills and gain relevant experience, and then contact possible employers directly to make your case.

"Be persistent, and consider the many ways to gain proficiencies and knowledge without running up mountains of debt, such as paid internships, online learning options, or IT-focused voluntary work."


7. Governments need to tailor the syllabus to tackle emerging technologies

Nigel Eastwood, CEO of New Call, said:

"Over the last five years, the number of A-level science and maths entries has increased by more than 38,000. That’s great news. But we’re still lagging behind many countries.

"The government and schools need to take a much longer-term view when it comes to tech education. When writing the syllabus they need to think 5, 10 or even 20 years into the future. They need to work hand-in-hand with business to focus on emerging technologies, and find out what skills our young people will need.

"Schools also need put some real, concerted emphasis on practical skills. Often A-level courses only concentrate on the high-level stuff – the theory – without giving students the all-important hands-on experience.

Young people need to learn how to program and put together hardware. They also need to pick up more fundamental skills like being able to understand a business strategy, turning up to work on time, developing ideas from scratch and being able to work in a team.

"Finally, I think there’s still a really important role for vocational on-the-job training in the tech sector. I would encourage more schools and colleges to create links with local tech businesses who can offer their students some hands-on experience. Nothing can beat it."


8. The fundamentals are not enough

James Blake, CEO of smart social data tech company Hello Soda said:

"Although coding is now part of the curriculum, they are not teaching the latest technologies. For example, we code in Scala, not Java. Meaning we have to recruit Europe-wide for our data analytics and development engineers.

"There is an incorrect perception, in my view, that to teach basic coding is enabling Britain to compete in the tech space. We shouldn’t be teaching basic coding, we should be teaching the newest technologies.

"Education is the great equaliser and the future of our country, yet we accept a lack of focus on the core components that will make us, as a technology economy, function properly.

"We offer subjects such as Mathematics, Creative Science and Functional Programming. So why hasn’t our education system caught up with new programming methodologies such as Natural Language Processing, Machine Learning, Sentiment Analysis?

"These are the future technologies that will allow us to move from a low-skilled service economy to a high-tech, high-value technology economy.

"This is Britain’s only way of competing in the 21st century, as we can’t compete in manufacturing with low-wage economies. We should embrace it and use it to prepare the next generation so they can get jobs in our changing economy but also so they can drive our economic success too."


9. STEM students will benefit the whole of society

Ian Parslow, SVP at MTI Technology, comments:

"The UK government previously emphasised the importance of STEM subjects as a ‘top priority’ for schools. In fact, this major push was led by none other than David Cameron himself. The goal was to enable future generations to be equipped to compete with the global talent that is now available.

"The reality is that STEM subject uptake has seen a considerable drop in recent times. A greater focus on these subjects in schools and universities will be most welcome for enterprises as a whole in the UK.

"IT companies will not be sole benefactors. The general adoption of IT in all areas of business and the reliance that is placed on it for the everyday running of a company means that all companies stand to win from a constant flow of skilled STEM graduates.

"The government should be making entry to STEM careers a more attractive proposition for young people currently choosing their subjects to study. Perhaps there should be more in the form of incentives from the government similar to the grants and bursaries available for teachers and nurses."


10. Digital natives will drive UK progress

Mark Horneff, the Managing Director and co-founder of Kuato Studios, says:

"Rather than upskilling current workers, the focus must lie in inspiring young digital natives; undoubtedly, this engagement starts at school.

"Thankfully, computing replaced ICT last year in the UK national curriculum, preparing new generations of students for future careers in a digital economy. Moreover, by including computing in the curriculum across schools nationwide, students from all social backgrounds can benefit from these career possibilities.

"Today’s results reveal for the first time the impact of this curriculum overhaul: entries for computing A-Level are up a whopping 30% compared with last year, with 36.4% achieving A*-B grades.

"Crucially, coding in classrooms isn’t about turning everyone into top programmers; instead, the aim is to equip pupils with tools to craft digital solutions to future problems.

"Nonetheless, there’s still more work to be done at schools to future-proof the economy. More women are taking computing than last year, yet men still vastly outnumber them. To optimise the candidate pool for pivotal jobs in the tech sector, we need to maximise the range of available candidates, which means encouraging more women.

"Additionally, the more vivid the learning stimulus, the more likely students will engage in the experience – cue the importance of educational gaming, which facilitates engagement in less formal learning environments, both inside and outside of the classroom."

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