Britain opens wallet to close IT skills gap

The UK government is giving £1m to smart graduates to entice them to become comp sci teachers and is setting up high-tech apprenticeships at its spy agencies in hopes of overcoming the IT skills shortage.
Written by Sam Shead, Contributor

Young Brits are being given a push to become the next Sir Tim Berners-Lee, as the government launched a flurry of schemes aimed at boosting IT skills.

"If we want our country to produce the next Sir Tim Berners-Lee, we need the very best computer science teachers in our classrooms" — Michael Gove

Over the last 10 years, the UK has seen a drop in students pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at A-level and computer science at university. However, politicians see improving take-up as vital in encouraging high-tech entrepreneurs, and in keeping the country competitive in years to come.

In response, education secretary Michael Gove has pledged to shake up IT lessons in school and spend £1m on encouraging graduates to become the next generation of computer science teachers. 

On Friday, he said the government will offer around 50 scholarships worth £20,000 each to top graduates looking to pursue a career as a computer science teacher. 

"If we want our country to produce the next Sir Tim Berners-Lee, we need the very best computer science teachers in our classrooms," Gove said in a statement. "They need to have the right skills and deep subject knowledge to help their pupils."

The grants are open to people with an upper second- or first-class degree who are willing to train to become computer science teachers. The money covers a preparation programme and the Computer Science Initial Teacher Training course, drawn up with the help of the BCS, as well as companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, BT and IBM.

The changes to computing lessons come after a series of complaints from politicians and industry that existing classes don't equip students with the right skills. Instead of instilling computer science concepts, courses teach young people how to use a word processor or database, the BCS has complained.

"The current skills gap threatens to undermine the future of technology and innovation in the UK," Raspberry Pi creator Eben Upton said ahead of an IET talk on young people and the tech sector. "We are at risk of creating a world where technology is closed off to most young people."

According to Upton, secondary school students aren't being given the IT skills that the UK needs in order to drive economic growth and protect itself from cyber threats that could present a national security risk.

Secret Service drive

Meanwhile, foreign secretary William Hague revealed on Thursday that the government is setting up two-year higher apprenticeships to boost tech skills in the secret services. The 70 new apprenticeships in IT, software, internet and telecommunications come with a salary of £17,066 and will be given to recruits for GCHQ, MI5 and MI6.

William Hague at Bletchley Park
William Hague announced apprenticeships for the secret services at Bletchley Park. Image: FCO

Speaking at the World War II code-breaking centre Bletchley Park, Hague said the 'Apprentices with Intelligence' will identify and develop talent in school and university students.Applicants should have three good A-levels, with at least two in STEM subjects.

They will "actively contribute to the mission of the Intelligence Services to tackle cyber-threats, terrorism, counter espionage and organised crime", GCHQ said in a statement.

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