The UK has a rich heritage of technological innovation – from the scientific and technological achievements of Isaac Newton to Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, and more recently still - super-material, Graphene, which was developed at Manchester University. Such impressive innovation was and continues to be supported by the UK’s education system.
However, my concern is that the UK’s educational institutions are not producing enough of the workers which are central to the success of the UK’s tech sector today – and this matters because of the value of the sector to our economy now and in the future. Furthermore, as the pace of technological change is so fast, I worry that these institutions risk falling further and further off the pace.
My work with technology start-ups in Tech City has shown me how important it is for the UK to have more workers with strong computer science, user experience and engineering skills in particular. There are already shortages of these skills, as these roles have been under-valued in the past and other, more established, sectors have been first in line to attract such talent. However, there are organisations such as Freeformers, a social enterprise, which are helping to up-skill the tech workers of the future with coding skills.
The government is also clearly aware of and engaged in capitalising on the opportunities which a thriving tech sector offers UK plc. In addition to supporting and investing in technology enabled businesses, a new and improved school curriculum in computer science and programming is now in the early stages of being developed and introduced in our schools - designed with the help of universities and industry.
The ambition to help children to develop the skills needed to work at the forefront of technological change rather than learning how to use word processing and spreadsheet software packages has got to be a good thing.
The world which children will inherit is far more technologically sophisticated than what is generally being taught and these students, and the UK, risk being left behind by other nations.
More broadly, I believe that there are opportunities for schools to use technology to enhance the way children are taught about computing and other skills – it’s not just a better curriculum that is needed, but better ways of learning. The digital delivery of knowledge and online learning can help greatly to ensure that the most up-to-date skills and information are being learnt in a smarter and often accelerated way.
For example, MOOCs (massive open online courses) are today’s interpretation of traditional distance learning courses. In addition to standard course materials such as video lectures and course literature, MOOCs provide online discussion boards, blogs, wikis and use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to build a community to optimise the learning experience – but I would argue that this should complement traditional classroom learning, not replace it.
I also believe that it is important that school students understand what opportunities exist for them in the tech sector and can be inspired to follow this path – particularly females, given the current male bias. ‘Lady Geek’, a campaigning agency making technology more accessible to women, is said to have calculated that the number of UK technology jobs held by women has dropped from 22 percent in 2001 to 17 percent by 2011 and the number of women applying a for computing A-level in the UK dropped from 12 percent in 2004 to 8 percent by 2011.
Exciting, diverse and well-paid careers in the tech sector are on offer for those with the right skills. Teachers also need to understand these opportunities and more importantly, have the right skills and knowledge themselves to create enthusiasm to learn the skills required in the future.
Mark Hartley is a High Growth Technology Manager at KPMG in the UK