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For A Strong Future, Digital Skills Education Should Continue Well Beyond School

13/09/2016 10:17

Exam results can be an interesting indicator of the future productivity of UK plc. The development of a strong knowledge base in certain subjects highlights sectors that could benefit from new expertise and passion when these young people enter the workforce.

I was recently following GCSE results day to see how last year's cohort had performed and found the findings to be quite telling - notably, the figures around Computing studies.

Entry numbers for this subject increased by a staggering 76.4%, indicating an encouraging level of interest and enthusiasm among our student population.

Yet data from the recent Barclays Digital Development Index - a study of levels of digital skills and confidence across 10 countries - shows that the UK lags near the bottom of the list for the number of computing students in tertiary education, ranking above only Brazil and Sweden.

So why is there a disconnect?

An arsenal of resources
We know that the issue lies not with attracting young people to the field. Having grown up as digital natives, they are attuned to the need to understand what sits behind the interfaces they know so well. Development success stories and coding opportunities are aplenty, and the work that has been done to date by numerous parties to raise the profile of the sector has been hugely successful.

Our research found that the UK ranks joint second for the quality of its digital skills curriculum in compulsory education - behind only South Korea. What's more, it leads the way globally for the availability of digital technologies in schools.

Schools often have a range of equipment, including desktops, laptops and tablets available to use for the development of computing skills. Many also have access to other technologies, such as the BBC's micro:bit gadget and accompanying resources.

Still our Index reveals that 7% of secondary and almost one in 10 (9%) of primary schools say they are under-resourced when it comes to desktop computers - hopefully this figure will continue to drop within the next few years. But, these difficulties are compounded by a shortage of qualified IT teaching professionals, proving we need a well-rounded approach that combines education, resources and facilities to stem this problem.

Universities are also well equipped for computing education and - beyond facilities - are also increasingly engaging with employers to facilitate more opportunities for development, by applying newly acquired skills in the business environment.

If the resources are there in tertiary education as well as in schools, what is surely needed now is an increasing focus on initiatives that can continue to make studying relevant computing courses appealing beyond compulsory education. To make the UK digitally competitive on a global scale, education cannot stop at school - the student and working population needs to be made aware of what our colleges, universities and other academic institutions can offer.

The workforce of the future requires continued investment
This commitment must also continue beyond formal education. The UK came seventh out of 10 for vocational and workplace skills in our research, highlighting a need for much more to be done in the workplace to help boost digital skills.

Only 38% of UK workers interviewed for our study say that their employer offers opportunities to develop these skills; this figure is considerably higher in China and the US (48% apiece) and India (67%).

Digital confidence is a continuum - it does not stop after a single training course or certificate. Given the pace of change in technology, it is critical that these learning opportunities continue well beyond teenage years, and that they remain genuinely appealing. There are some great efforts being made at a secondary education level. It is vital that we build on this strong foundation by encouraging tomorrow's business leaders to continue to develop their digital skills into higher education and their working lives, by ensuring that the infrastructure and enthusiasm is in place.

Digital skills will define how successful and prosperous we are as a nation for decades to come and so, collectively, we must act now.

1 http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:ik_dAUI955MJ:www.besa.org.uk/sites/default/files/ict2015_voli_0.pdf+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ch

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