Nae Computing Science teacher? A call for radical measures!

03 October 2016

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DigitalXtraFund Last week, one of the Be-IT marketing team attended the DigitalXtrafund event, in Glasgow.  As our more regular readers will know, I have written regularly about the problems of the secondary education sector, specifically the lack of teachers of computer science, and DigitalXtrafund has been brought into being to try to help address this.  All I can say is more power to their elbow, but some of the statistics on education provision revealed at yesterday’s event were somewhat depressing.

After a brief introduction by Polly Purvis, CEO, ScotlandIS, there were presentations from Maggie Morrison, VP, Public Sector CGI, and Ian Ritchie CBE, who provided an overview of the plans for the Digital Xtra Fund and stressed how important extracurricular activities are for generating interest in computing science subjects in young people. After a break, there were three presentations which showed different ways in which various Scottish bodies, from councils to libraries to FE colleges, are working hard to drive up engagement with children and teenagers and, equally importantly, their parents and other influencers.

However, everyone agreed that while a lot of work has – and is – being done, in many respects Scotland has gone backwards in this area.  Staggeringly, over half of our councils have NO Computing Science teachers. Gillian Daly, from Highland Council, told the audience that there are only eight – soon to be only seven – Computing Science teachers in her region.

Now it’s easy to concentrate on the negatives.  Too easy perhaps for many, but that doesn’t mean that we mustn’t face up to what this means for the future of our economy.  Yes, there are a lot – and I mean a lot – of positives, specifically the burgeoning growth of Scotland’s digital industries, but we all know there are not enough people to fill all the jobs we have and this is going to get worse if we can’t get the seed corn coming through our schools.   I accept there are reasons for the lack of computer science teachers, ranging from the (obvious) fact that they can get far more money in the private sector to the (perhaps surprising) fact that computing science is still not regarded as of the same importance as English and Maths in secondary education. Head-teachers don’t like to have their schools criticised for failure to hit their numbers in the core subjects, so won’t always pay such heed to the others (which include computer science, believe it or not), that don’t count so highly in the assessments of their schools.

Also, as many speakers stressed, many, perhaps most, parents don’t actually understand what computer science/digital careers ‘look like’. And that’s before we get on to the vexed question of the huge under-representation of girls in these areas.  Yet the real danger is in our schools. These are facts, as Maggie Morrison detailed in her presentation:

  • 17 local authorities with secondary schools without Computing Science teachers, up from 12 in 2014.
  • 17% of schools have no computing specialist
  • The number of Computing teachers in Scotland is down from 802 in 2005 to 598 in 2015
  • New teachers entering the profession is down 67% on 2006
  • A decline in the percentage of girls taking computing over the past 16 years, with the number dropping from 27% in 1999 to 19% in 2015.

It is hard not to be a bit depressed by these figures.  Much of the subsequent discussion at last Thursday’s event was around how we can turn things around.  However, I believe that we must be much more radical in our solutions.  Modern schools exist in much the same ‘factory’ establishments that we have known for decades – centuries even.  Is it not time to break the mould and create schools which allow those who have an aptitude for this kind of digital work to be taught in totally different ways and at different times –and indeed for those whose skills lie more in the arts and social sciences to do likewise?  Who says schools have to have standard ‘school days’, and why can’t we change the emphasis on periods where the kids are taught one subject then a totally different one within the space of a few hours?  Yes, there are some essentials (English and Maths to be fair), but everything else ought to be up for change. Such an approach might also help attract people into teaching, offering them a new, different way to inculcate their enthusiasm and knowledge for techie subjects – for boys and girls – in a way that the current system doesn’t allow. There must be a better way.

OK, having gone public with some blue-sky thinking, let’s finish on a positive note.  I applaud the DigitalXtraFund initiative.  It’s easy (albeit necessary) to draw attention to the problems of secondary education (and, despite this, computer science in our tertiary sector is going from strength to strength), however what matters is that we act now.  There is another tranche of £150K available and applications for this need to be made by 4th November this year.  Polly Purvis and her team will be coming round the industry looking to encourage private sector involvement, at least to match the £250K put in by the government. It behooves all of us who make a living from the computer/digital industry to do what we can, no matter how little, to help address these issues and secure our, and the country’s future.

Gareth Biggerstaff, MD, Be-IT Resourcing

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