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Government fails to impress in its response to call for single digital agenda

The government's response to calls for better digital education is disappointing, according to the chair of the Digital Skills Committee

The chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills, Sarah Morgan, says she is “underwhelmed” by the government’s response to the committee’s concerns about rolling out digital education in schools.

The committee published Make or break: The UK's digital future in February 2015, calling for the next government to urgently resolve the skills gap. It estimated 35% of UK jobs will be at risk of being automated over the next 20 years.

The Digital Skills Committee was appointed in June 2014 to consider information and communications technology, competitiveness and skills in the UK. The committee was chaired by Morgan until it ceased to exist in July 2015.

For the UK to solve this issue and become a digital leader, the report recommended making digital literacy a core subject at school, alongside English and mathematics. 

The committee also highlighted the need for more apprenticeships and a shift in the country’s attitude towards cyber security to ensure the UK has enough people trained with the necessary skills.

Although the committee welcomed the computing curriculum, which commenced in September 2014, it raised concerns over the confidence of teachers educating students on digital skills.

The government has issued its response to the findings of the report, but Morgan claimed the reply is a mixed bag. 

“I hope we will hear more when the report is debated in the House of Lords and in the Spending Review in the autumn,” she said in a statement issued to Computer Weekly.

“I welcome the commitment to a Statement to Parliament in the summer of 2016 to update on progress. I am also pleased that the Digital Economy Unit now has proper focus. 

“I am, however, underwhelmed by the response of the government to the committee's significant concerns about current provision and planning for improvement in the roll-out of digital education – including coding – in schools, further education colleges, via tailored apprenticeships and in universities,” she said.

The government’s response

The response was unveiled by minister of state for culture and the digital economy Ed Vaizey, who said: “Training and education must keep pace with the ever-changing technological landscape, with the right skills and infrastructure to underpin digital transformation.

“These are challenges faced by all developed nations, but this government will focus on capitalising on the UK’s strengths to seize the opportunities technology provides,” he said.

The report made several recommendations, with the first suggesting the government should develop a digital agenda to position the UK as a leading digital economy. The government replied that it is “committed to ensuring the UK remains a leading digital economy”.

“Putting the UK at the forefront of digital transformation is a key priority, and it’s a core belief that the UK has the knowledge and expertise to thrive and compete internationally,” the government said. 

According to the Digital Skills Committee, there is a lack of co-ordination between the current digital activity of four government ministers, a taskforce, a committee and a unit, and has called for a single digital agenda under one cabinet minister.

The government has responded to the recommendations with an eight-page report and the formation of a taskforce. 

The group is chaired by Vaizey, along with former skills minister Matthew Hancock. It is “is well-placed to co-ordinate activity across government to develop a comprehensive digital agenda”, but declined to accept the recommendation of handing over responsibility to one cabinet minister. 

“Ensuring the UK’s position as a leading digital economy is, by its nature, a cross-government effort that requires cross-government ministerial sponsorship,” said Vaizey. 

The report also urged the relevant cabinet minister to regularly review the progress of the government’s digital agenda and to report back to parliament annually. The government agreed with the request, saying it placed importance on regular reviews to evaluate the UK's progress in achieving its digital objectives. 

“A report will be provided to parliament via a Written Ministerial Statement in summer 2016, which will give an update on progress in meeting the government’s digital commitments,” the government said. 

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