IT education in schools is still not working - and that's a huge problem for the digital economy

There is a real danger that technology education in schools will wither and die, with all the risks that brings to the UK’s digital skills, research and innovation capabilities.

There was great fanfare in 2014 when the new computing curriculum was introduced and made mandatory for children from ages five to 16, replacing the old ICT course that was derided as simply teaching kids to use Microsoft Office.

After the first year of the new computing GCSE, the signs were positive – student numbers grew 11%. But only two years later, that growth has plateaued, with GCSE entries rising just 9% from 2016 to 2017 – that’s only 69,350 children taking the exam, barely 11% of the student population in the school year. ICT exam numbers have consistently dropped, down to 61,500 this year, and that curriculum is expected to be scrapped.

Research suggests there will be 800,000 unfilled IT and digital jobs in the UK by 2020 – and they are not going to be filled by GCSE computing students.

Now a report by the Royal Society – the science body which recommended the new curriculum five years ago – shows that 54% of schools in England do not even offer the GCSE computer science exam. That means 175,000 pupils – 30% of all English GCSE students – attend a school that does not offer computer science GCSE. Every year.

That’s without mentioning that only 20% of GCSE computer science candidates were female, falling to 10% at A-level – perpetuating the shameful lack of women working in IT in the UK.

The problem isn’t only with students. The Royal Society found the English education system only recruits 68% of its target for computing teacher training courses – a lower success rate than courses to teach classics.

Separate research suggests that two-thirds of teachers do not think they have the right skills or tools to teach coding to children in the first place.

Employers know there is a problem too – 92% of CIOs think current IT recruitment needs are not being met by schools, colleges, universities and technical schools.

The UK government has rightly identified IT education as crucial to future economic success. The recent launch of the new T-levels is the latest hope. But so far in schools, IT education is not working.

The Royal Society is calling for £60m investment in computing education over the next five years – a tenfold increase to bring computing to comparable levels of support as maths and physics. With austerity ongoing, and Brexit on the horizon, you can’t see it happening.

For all the good words from government about digital skills, if we can’t get it right in schools, we won’t get it right in the workplace. It’s not yet a crisis but you can see a shadow approaching the horizon.

Employers, academia and government need to stop a potential crisis becoming a disaster that would harm the UK economy at every level.

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