IT skills gap faces lack of qualified teachers

A drop in skilled IT job candidates is down not only to a lack of interest among students, but also to a lack of suitably qualified teachers, according to a Westminster eForum panel
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

A downturn in the number of applications to study computing-related courses is being compounded by a lack of qualified teachers, according to IT education experts.

On Tuesday, a Westminster eForum panel said a range of factors are contributing to a shortfall between IT industry demand for qualified staff and the number of people taking computing or information and communication technology qualifications.

"Computing has an image problem. People think of the typical 'geek' and think it sounds boring. In 10 years... business will depend on IT that hasn't been invented yet, we need to teach the underpinning principles that will still be relevant a decade from now," Simon Humphreys, co-ordinator of the Computing at School section at BCS, the Chartered Institute of IT, said.

The education system is currently delivering the wrong skill set. What we're creating is a generation of IT consumers, but not IT creators.
– Andy Palmer, BT Group

Over the last 10 years, however, there has been a drop in applications to relevant courses, indicated by a 33-percent fall in A-level IT students for 2003 to 2007, and a 57 percent fall in A-level computing students between 2001 and 2009.

According to the panel, this lack of interest is being compounded by a lack of teaching staff with IT knowledge. "In 2010, only three teachers were awarded Qualified Teacher Status [QTS for ICT], out of 28,000" who became teachers that year, Humphreys said.

One reason IT course enrolment is falling is that there is no cohesive accreditation scheme for IT skills, according to Kevin Streater, executive director of IT and telecoms at the Open University. In addition, it is not clear how qualifications translate into a career in IT, and the line of progression from becoming skilled to applying those skills is not linear, he told ZDNet UK.

"The education system is currently delivering the wrong skill set. What we're creating is a generation of IT consumers, but not IT creators," Andy Palmer, head of skills at BT Group, said. "The skills are often outdated soon after people leave university."

On Tuesday, E-Skills UK said in a statement that there has been a decline the the count of "ready candidates" for IT jobs and predicted that it will become less easy to recruit for systems auditors, systems developers and development team leaders, among other positions.

Palmer argued that to improve the skills gap, students should be taught how to learn as well as being trained in specific areas. "Students will need to accept that the knowledge is often transient and will frequently change over the course of their career."

The IT industry needs to help provide clearer curriculum guidelines for schools and further education colleges, the panel said. As an example of the gap between the two sides, the panel noted that the term 'ICT' is used in education circles but not in the IT industry.

"A fundamental review of the curriculum in schools is important. We haven't done that yet," Karen Price, chief executive of E-Skills UK, said at the e-Forum.

An alternative approach to meeting the demand for qualified entrants would be for employers to take on apprentices, Price said. She suggested that apprenticeships in the sector are under-used in the UK, even though they provide useful opportunities for employers.

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