Digital Skills and the struggle to boost technology

The National College for Digital Skills, and more changes to computing education, aim to boost the UK's competence in tech

Skills gap

Inside the Enterprise: Over the last few years, the government has prioritised computing skills, in schools and beyond. And with good reason. The UK, which pioneered so much of the computing industry, had fallen behind.

Our education system, from primary schools to university, was failing to provide the skills base for the IT industry, especially at a time when that industry is growing, and when businesses beyond IT have a growing need for technology, across everything from mobile apps to big data.

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Boosting IT skills is one area, though, where government policy sometimes quietly, sometimes with Ministerial fanfare is making a difference. Initiatives such as the Hour of Code, championed by Prime Minister David Cameron this week, are more about the publicity than improving the skills base.

The National Curriculum for computing, which came in this September, should have a longer-term impact, with kids from just the age of five having a chance to try coding. Sensibly, the old ICT curriculum much mocked for its focus on basic office admin tasks has been recast to include at least some programming.

The GCSE in Computer Science, reintroduced in 2012, will be updated in 2016 to put more focus on programming, but will remain, in the words of 10 Downing Street, "academically demanding".

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The government will also be acting to help recruit teachers to scientific disciplines; a bursary scheme, costed at 67 million, will pay for maths and physics students' university courses, in return for a commitment to teach on graduation.

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The most interesting initiative for businesses, though, might well be the National College for Digital Skills. The college will offer a range of courses, including apprenticeships, and will work with industry, including firms such as Oracle, IBM, Deloitte, and a number of financial services firms. The plan is to start the new college in London next year, and expand it, via a "hub and spoke" model to additional sites across the UK.

But improving education, alone, is not sufficient to narrow the UK's skills gap, some experts warn. The new provision needs to be backed up with careers advice, as well as potential bursaries for science and engineering students and not just those wanting to teach according to Peter Finegold, head of education and skills at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

"Government needs to seriously consider the possibility of providing subsidies for students pursuing degrees in business-critical subjects," he said, and "put in place rigorous standards for apprentices to ensure they are in industries where there is a real potential for jobs".

Improving computing education is a start. But the UK needs a wider science and technology education agenda, if it is to regain its competitive position internationally.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.

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