Bind the gap: overcoming the UK’s tech skills shortage

Without vision and innovative thinking in education, the situation just won't change, says Professor Rose Luckin

The knowledge and skills gap is one of the key long-term challenges facing the UK today. According to recent estimates by STEM Learning, the shortage in skilled labour is costing £1.5bn a year. This challenge shouldn’t just be seen in terms of costs to business – there is also a cost to the young people entering the job market, who lack the knowledge they need to develop the skills required for work. This has to be tackled at its roots, and innovation in schools is the first place to start.

Schools in full transition

A recent survey of over 1000 teachers and schools by Bett – the world’s biggest platform for edtech – has revealed how innovation is improving learning across the UK. Nearly nine out of ten teachers agreed that education technology improves quality of learning, and 84% agreed that it helped save them time.

We all know that schools continue to face a funding squeeze, with many primaries and secondaries being forced to ask parents to help fill the shortfall in resources. Shireland Technology Primary, led by principal Kirsty Tonks, has made the £80,000 investment to turn its school hall into a full-scale virtual reality (VR) arena, helping to complement other enriching experiences – such as school trips – whilst reducing costs for parents. A third of schools in Bett’s survey were considering adopting VR, but the reality is that it’s yet to make significant headway in classrooms.

Faced with the costs of technology, much of the innovation in schools comes in the form of newer teaching methods. Of those surveyed, 61% have adopted blended learning, an approach combining online and traditional learning methods. Old Buckenham High School, Norfolk, has been delivering part of the science curriculum through online videos, with the teacher very much the learning facilitator.

Embedding the skills needed for the future economy

How is innovation helping to equip learners with the skills they need in the world of work? There are signs that school curricula are responding to the skills gap by implementing some of the changes needed.

Employers often say they need problem solvers, and Bett’s research indicated 48% have already embedded problem-based learning in the curriculum. A quarter of those surveyed are implementing ‘design thinking’, a variant of problem-based learning that focuses on empathy and awareness of people’s needs. A great example in the real world comes from the Challenge Academy Trust, where pupils designed and produced a working prosthetic hand for a five year old.

“Without the infrastructure to bring the classroom up to speed with the pace of digital transformation, learners will inevitably be left behind.”

Coding as literacy is increasingly being adopted, with 45% of those surveyed fostering the computational skills needed for the future workforce. And in secondaries, just over a quarter of schools are moving away from STEM and towards “STEAM” – which combines the arts with science, technology, engineering and maths. This is an approach that helps students develop soft skills such as creativity, dialogue, collaboration and critical thinking, to complement the scientific and mathematical knowledge required for the digital economy.

Challenges remain for greater transformation

Despite encouraging signs, schools are facing some considerable challenges around the transformation of technology in schools. 42% of those surveyed suggested that their institution was reluctant to invest in more edtech. However, despite this uncertain financial climate, a quarter of schools have succeeded in implementing robotics as part of the curriculum – an essential skill that will be needed for future engineers and technicians.

More fundamentally, two thirds said education technology was not sufficiently easy for ordinary teachers to use, and 42% suggested that the IT infrastructure inhibits greater adoption. Without the infrastructure to bring the classroom up to speed with the pace of digital transformation, learners will inevitably be left behind.

Funding pressures are set to remain a major hurdle for schools for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, innovation in schools is not all about monetary resources – much of it will rely on adapting to a school’s syllabus to reflect the technical and creative thinking skills that young people will need for their working life. Solving the knowledge and skills gap entails seamless collaboration between technological innovation and education; we’re moving in the right direction, but without vision and innovative thinking, the gap just won’t budge.