The new ICT GCSE and A-level are crucial for the IT sector's future

With IT employment increasing at five times the rate of the UK average, a further 500,000 new skilled IT professionals will be needed in the next five years. It’s therefore imperative that more young people become interested in the sector, as the demand for these skills does not look set to die down any time soon.

I’ve often said that the time to find and nurture IT talent is as young as possible, around GCSE or A-Level age, where students are beginning to find their academic direction, and even think about a future career. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google apparently shares my views.

During the McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, he said:

“The UK is home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops. Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.”

“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as a standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computer heritage.”

He’s not wrong. In fact, this year, the number of A-level IT students declined for an eighth year running, while GSCE students taking IT has fallen from 61,000 last year to 47,000 this year. The UK is simply not producing the same talent in the technology sectors as other economic powers.

So it came as a great relief to discover that some of the UK’s most innovative and cutting-edge technology businesses are being called in to help design new GCSE and A-level courses, aimed at giving students a better grounding in computer science. Rather than being re-taught basic skills that most pupils already possess, they will learn to write software and apply computational principles.

The move is long overdue, and the problem is perhaps generational. While some adults might benefit from a grounding in computer literacy, the majority of teenagers have grown up using computers as part and parcel of their everyday lives. This move, if executed well, will create a generation of young IT professionals with the skills to hit the ground running in more complex IT roles.

In addition, a Royal Society report last year revealed that school children found IT lessons boring, which indicates that perhaps they are just not being challenged. For the past five, perhaps even ten years, students have been light-years ahead of their teachers.

It’s possible that many pupils that have been interested in coding or programming have not had their interests encouraged and have therefore decided not to pursue IT as a subject, fearing it may continue to fall short of their expectations.

The role of businesses in this initiative is also one that’s generated some debate. Some commentators are concerned that organisations may use education to promote their own agendas.

However, while this is a legitimate criticism, the government’s involvement, as well as independent examination boards, will no doubt safeguard against this. So many IT recruiters have been calling for businesses to become more involved in education for such a long time that it’s clear that now is the time to support this move.

Many industry professionals have, over the past decade, reiterated that IT needs to be involved in top-level executive decisions and must inform business strategy. It seems illogical that the potential for using IT as a platform for organisational growth, rather than just a facilitator for current initiatives, is ignored because there is a shortage of relevant talent.

The new GCSEs and A-levels will hopefully breed a new generation of IT leaders with both technical skills and business acumen to take British business to a whole new level.

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Some interesting comments, although no mention about making IT relevant to young people’s interest and more cross curricular I have seen this work very well. The withdrawal of funding for ICT equipment and development by the Government is doing nothing to support IT. In my experience, not all young people have the software skills they need to use in the workplace, what they often have is the ability to use social networking tools, which are not accessible in schools.

The way forward is of course bringing in computer programming into the classroom, but also allowing Teachers of ICT time to develop and CPD to be at the forefront of the new technologies. Programmers earn far more money than teachers; we need to have funding to bring programmers in to schools.

Unfortunately I can't see that happening in the near future.