The UK’s digital skills gap

Are schools teaching the wrong things, as far as information technology is concerned?

According to a recent report by e-Skills UK,

  • Employment in the information technology (IT) sector will increase at five times the national average over the next decade;
  • Demand for IT & Telecoms professionals has increased over the last year;
  • 1.5 million people are currently employed in the IT & Telecoms workforce; this is equivalent to 5% of people in employment in the UK;
  • 40% of technology professionals are employed in the IT & Telecoms industry itself, with the rest being spread across the other sector of the economy;
  • Employment in the IT & Telecoms industry over the next ten years is forecast to grow at 2.19% per annum, which is nearly five times faster than the UK average, with over half a million new IT & Telecoms professionals needed over the next five years.

Of course, the big question is whether we’ll be able to meet that demand with home-grown graduates. I’m not too optimistic about that because we’re not doing that great a job of attracting school leavers into relevant Higher Education courses, especially girls. How about retraining and recruiting people in the 50+ age group? What a pity the adult education budget in the UK was cut some time ago.

You can download the full report from the e-Skills UK website. Free sign-up required.

Drew Buddie and I were joined by several others recently, including Dr John Cuthell and Leon Cych, in an online discussion about the ICT Skills Gap. Listen to it and follow the chat discussion.

Yesterday (9th February 2011), I attended the Westminster Forum Conference on the subject of Skills for the UK Digital Economy: Delivering the IT Professionals of the Future. It was very interesting and stimulating, but also disappointing, in two respects.

First, there were the usual “My children are bored in their ICT lessons, therefore there is a national problem as far as the teaching of ICT is concerned” comments. I don’t know how one can answer that sort of thing. There is no doubt that a lot of ICT lessons are boring, but I at least base that statement on having done a lot of reading, talking and, above all, lesson observation, not on a sample of one. Plus, the feedback from my book, Go On, Bore ‘Em: How to make ICT lessons excruciatingly dull, has been such that I am convinced there is a need for the advice contained within its pages.

Second, while I am not attempting to justify the sort of ICT curriculum which looks like this:

  • Term 1: Word
  • Term 2: PowerPoint
  • Term 3: Excel

and so on, is it my imagination, or is it the case that 15 years ago employers were complaining that kids were coming out of school not knowing how to use Word and Excel, and many schools responded by trying to make sure that their pupils were taught useful skills.  Now we discover that those skills aren’t useful after all. (Except that they are: look out for an article about the use of technology in the media on the ICT in Education website). Have employers, as a whole, responded in any useful, practical way? There is the Microsoft Digital Literacy Curriculum and the Cisco Networking Academy of course, but what else?

When I was teaching I am afraid that I took the view that my job was not to provide fodder for industry, but to help young people realise their own true potential, and turn them into lifelong learners and useful, and literate (in all senses) citizens. There are plenty of studies that have shown that the better educated a person is, the more likely they are to receive, and benefit from, on-the-job training. So what I tried to do was teach my students how to approach problems, and how to interpret the data (in whatever form, be it statistical or verbal) they were presented with. And if they happened to learn how to use Word, Excel and so on along the way, so much the better. (My students did. They also learnt how to create applications in Visual Basic and Visual Basic for Applications!)

There’s another issue here too. If, at some point in the future, UK plc decides that there is a surfeit of people with games-creation and other digital skills, no doubt people will be complaining that all schools do is let kids play and create games, instead of doing something useful. As Miles Berry said in answer to a question I raised at the conference yesterday, a teacher’s primary responsibility is not to the Principal, not to employers, or inspectors or anyone else: it is to the pupils. It seems to me that the best way to serve the pupils is to ignore or resist any curriculum or other set of instructions which does not elicit the answer “Yes” to the following questions:

  • Is it interesting?
  • Is it creative?
  • Is it fun?
  • Will it help the pupil better understand the world around him/her?
  • Will it enable the pupil to take life-enhancing (as opposed to potentially self-destructive) decisions?
  • Will it enable the pupil to understand more about the limits and possibilities of technology?
  • Will it enable the pupil to create and produce something if which they can be proud?
  • Does it enable the pupil to fly as high as they want to, without having an artificial ceiling imposed on them?

The interesting point for me, however, is that you can achieve all of the above within the constraints of the current ICT Programme of Study. Why not make the most of it while it lasts?