UK plc is failing to encourage budding techies

Poor teaching also contributes to UK's IT skills shortage...
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

Poor teaching also contributes to UK's IT skills shortage...

Businesses have been criticised for restricting the technologies and tools young workers can use in the office - clipping the wings of the next generation of techies and entrepreneurs.

Speaking at a Westminster eForum on 'Skills for the UK digital economy' in London yesterday, industry experts called for businesses to do their bit for UK plc by letting young workers - so-called Digital Natives - use the gadgets and web tools they are comfortable with or risk turning another generation off IT.

"You have these fantastic graduates who come into the workplace and they're all enthusiastic and then they're told not to go on Twitter, don't use social media, we're not interested in you using your iPad, we're not interested in you coming up with new ideas, we really do discourage those things because we don't understand how they work or what opportunities there are. And there is therefore a lack of innovation brought through," said Carrie Hartnell, associate director of industry strategy for UK IT association Intellect.

Classroom: ICT teaching is failing to inspire young people

ICT teaching is "boring kids to death", according to educationalists and IT experts
Photo: Ben+Sam

A drastic shortage of qualified IT teachers is also contributing to the UK's IT skills shortage, according to industry experts speaking at the event. Of the close to 28,000 individuals who qualified as teachers last year, just three had a computing-related degree, according to Simon Humphreys, co-ordinator for computing at school at the BCS Academy of Computing.

"ICT is not fit for purpose," said Humphreys, who has taught A-Level computing for more than a decade. "Many of the students who come up to me are bored rigid with ICT... A lot of teachers are bored rigid themselves - they want to do things that are more interesting with ICT but often it's not within their comfort zone," he said.

"We really need to be teaching the underpinning principles of computing in our curriculum. It needs to be made a much more primary focus," he added.

The forum heard calls for a radical overhaul of ICT teaching in schools - with industry experts lining up to blame unimaginative ICT lessons on how to use Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint for "boring kids to death". Schools should be teaching computer programming and the creative potential of technology tools, rather than focusing on how to use basic office software, said Dr Sue Black, senior research associate with the software systems engineering group at University College London.

"About 13 years ago, when my oldest daughter started her GCSE ICT, she was very excited about this because she had a mum who was doing a PhD in software engineering... She was surprised to find that it was all about learning how to use Microsoft Word," said Black.

"She dropped out after six weeks and lost her enthusiasm, and wondered why her mum was so interested in computer science - so I had to do lots of explaining that actually that isn't what computer science is."

Black said her six-year-old daughter is now faced with the same boring ICT curriculum. "I asked the school what they do in ICT and they said they look at Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel," said Black. "I was horrified... This has got to change."

Steve Beswick, director of education at Microsoft, who was also participating in the forum, agreed that the way ICT is taught in schools can be boring. "There's a long way to go in terms of how to make it more exciting," he said.

IT's two-fold image problem - a residual perception of geekiness on the one hand, coupled with unchallenging lessons on office software - has contributed to a drastic decline in young people's interest in studying computing, according to industry experts.

Youth interest in IT is "falling off a cliff", said Karen Price, CEO of the UK's IT sector skills council, e-skills UK. Price said there was a 14 per cent decline in computing A-Level applicants last year, and there has been a 60 per cent drop since 2003, while UK-domiciled applications to computing-related higher education courses have dropped by close to half, 44 per cent, since 2001.

"We're walking off the edge of a precipice here. We're just not going to have the supply of talent we need," said Price.

The number of young people doing IT jobs in the UK is...

...also declining, according to Price - the proportion of under-30s is down from 33 per cent of tech workers in 2001 to just 19 per cent in 2010, while the proportion of older IT workers - the over-50s - is growing, she said.

Intellect's Hartnell added: "If we're not attracting young people into our industry, and we know there are a number of people doing computer science in the UK, then we are going to lose a lot of what we want to build our economy on. We are going to lose the innovation, we're going to lose the investment."

The number of women and girls entering the technology industry also remains "terrifyingly low", said Hartnell. "We lose billions of pounds every year by not using women who have the right qualifications in the UK for various reasons. In a time when we are financially restricted this is just not acceptable," said added.

Several speakers noted the growing gulf between young people's interest in and use of consumer technology - such as smartphones and web services such as Facebook - and the decline in the number of Brits opting to study computer science or choosing a career in IT.

Lego: IT should be about teaching kids how to be creative with technology

ICT should be about teaching kids how to be creative with technology
Photo: ogimogi

"I am astonished at how narrow [young people's] understanding [is] of what IT jobs are," said e-skills UK's Price. "We need to get out the message of the huge variety of jobs out there."

Imperial's Black warned the UK has "two or three years" to radically overhaul its IT curriculum or be eclipsed by countries such as China and South Korea, where technology teaching is a priority. "If we haven't done something in about two or three years we're completely out of the game," she warned.

The question of whether it is the current ICT curriculum that is at fault, or down to poor interpretation of it by teachers who aren't properly qualified in IT, was also debated by speakers. Miles Berry, senior lecturer in ICT education at Roehampton University, spoke up for the curriculum and blamed unimaginative ICT lessons on a lack of qualified teachers.

"It's not actually about the curriculum, it's the way it's being implemented in schools," said Berry. "The teachers are very good at working with technology, using technology to support their teaching but not necessarily having that subject expertise to take children's ICT capability on, for them to get that knowledge, that understanding of how IT works."

Rachel Jones, head of education at education technology and training company Steljes, said another problem has been confusion in the education system between technology being used as a teaching aid across the whole curriculum, and IT itself as a subject leading in to computer science.

Jones said there can be a tick-box attitude to ICT - where students are taught very basic ICT skills and made to focus on office software to fulfil a requirement, rather than really being "pushed and demanded" with more challenging subject matter.

Despite this situation, Roehampton's Berry said there are "islands of hope" - flagging up examples of primary schools getting kids to use the Scratch programming language to animate sprites and make basic games.

"I'm working with my students who are training to become primary teachers, school teachers, getting them to code up some games in Scratch that they could use to teach parts of the curriculum in primary school," said Berry.

"Keep IT, please, on the primary curriculum because an understanding of technology really does matter," he added. "Let's move children from consumers of culture to creators of culture. Let's move our teachers from consumers of content to creators of content. Get children programming, get the teachers programming, too."

Speakers at the event also warned about bursary cuts looming next year for computer science graduates wanting to go into teaching and funding cuts to PCGEs.

The ongoing failure to include computing in the list of Stem subjects - subjects government considers essential to the future success of the UK economy - was also criticised. The 'T' in Stem refers to design technology, rather than IT or computing.

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