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Investing In STEM In Schools Is Key To Closing The Digital Skills Gap

18/05/2017 13:33

Today, the UK's tech industry is facing a worrying digital skills gap, costing the economy £63 billion a year in lost GDP. Last year's report from the Science and Technology Committee revealed that 12.6 million adults lack basic digital skills, while only 35 per cent of computer teachers in schools have a relevant degree.

However, there is also much promise, with productivity gap concerns finally sparking further investment in education and skills to combat the UK's longer-term economic pressures. The key for closing our digital skills gap will be ensuring a significant portion of that investment goes towards STEM initiatives in schools. But where to invest?

Technical training

There remains widespread concern about how well academic and technical education gels together to prepare Britain's workforce of the future. And rightly so. Despite the UK's academic route being held in the highest esteem worldwide, technical and vocational education falls towards the bottom of the global league.

However, there is hope - at least at a further education level - thanks in part to the proposed T-Levels. Expected to take an engineering, manufacturing and construction focus, T-Levels should go a great way towards addressing the STEM gap.

Over the next few years, technical training time for teenage students will increase by 50 per cent, and they will enjoy access to student loans - just like at university. It is of utmost importance that Britain nurtures its STEM professionals of the future, and equally important to drive this learning at as early a stage as possible.

Connected classrooms

Connected classrooms are a growing trend set to catch on fast, alongside that for increasing numbers of students progressing to university education.

Digital-first models like the one used by The Open University are only going to increase in appeal as students expect to be able to work from home and other casual locations. Teaching 'on the go', via online portals such as Skype and FaceTime - something spearheaded by several forward-thinking schools in Asia - is a style we can already see coming into the UK, as prices for traditional university attendance increase. It is only a matter of time before the Internet of Things spreading throughout Britain's offices and homes, enters its schools.

Teachers' tech toolkit

In terms of teachers' 'tech toolkit', we will be wowed by increasingly innovative iterations of traditional classroom equipment. We will see smart materials - intelligent surfaces and fabrics, turning walls and table tops into canvases for learning - among other cutting edge technologies, far superseding the smart board of today.

The key will be schools embracing technologies across all subjects, not just STEM curricula. 3D printing, for example, is equally important for building design skills during art classes as it is technological understanding. Several schools already use virtual reality (VR) within humanities departments. Dubai arguably leads the way on this, but Britain is certainly paying attention.

Though initial outlay costs and teacher training currently prove prohibitive, cutting-edge education technology - including VR linked with iPads and iPhones - is only around five years from being commonplace in schools, while the most affordable 3D printers have already slashed prices to sub-£300.

Tech in perspective

Another ideal is for all things tech to come 'semi-circle', celebrating best practice old and new, both off and online.

It is important to embrace tech and teach students all relevant skills required, but we must ensure that at primary level, the fundamental basics of reading and writing are not in danger of being overlooked. Many teachers are passionate that early years spelling and phonics, in particular, remain a face-to-face teaching practice. Children are enthused by books, and we should never discourage them from picking up physical copies in favour of screens. An important area for investment for schools going forward is well resourced and comfortable libraries.

Teachers' resources have changed massively over past two to three years, and today spending time on Twitter sees people learning ten things in ten minutes. Moving on from textbooks of the past, the internet is going from strength to strength as a number one resource for inspiration and innovation in this sector. Teachers today learn from social media as opposed to attending endless offsite courses, and there is even more of a community feel, with many teachers and tech brands, ourselves included, sharing edtech ideas and tips online.

Future-ready

There remains great concern over whether young people will have the skills they need for life, and the same opportunities their parents and grandparents did. As more and more businesses across myriad sectors rely on the support of technology and innovation to keep pace, we need to ensure we have a pipeline of highly-skilled tradespeople, supplying both industrial and academic institutions of the future.

It is vital that students are given access to real-world tools of the trade. Ensuring hands-on, tech-centric experience early on has a dual benefit of helping students prepare for independent life, and fuel success for a new generation of employers with a start-up culture edge in the UK's future (post-Brexit) economy. With £270 million recently allocated by the Chancellor to "keep Britain at the forefront of disruptive tech", it could not be clearer exactly how we should prepare our students.

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