It’s undeniable that the UK is in the grips of a digital skills crisis, which is having serious implications for business success and therefore the health of the economy at large. It is also widely recognised that the only sustainable solution to the problem is overhauling the country’s existing education system to ensure digital skills are more thoroughly integrated into children’s learning experiences. However, at present, there is a failure to acknowledge and target the issue at the source – with the teachers. If we want to prepare students to lead the way in securing the UK’s position as a technological hub we need to focus our attention on investing in teaching the teachers, so they can both educate and inspire the next generation.
According to The Federation of Small Businesses, almost a quarter of UK business owners believe they are being held back by a lack of digital skills, and this problem will only be exacerbated in the future as the demand for technological capabilities grows.
A survey by recruitment company Indeed found that over 10% of the jobs created in UK last year were in the technology industry. Meanwhile, research by McKinsey has indicated that 20-50 million new jobs will be created in the technology sector by 2030. We need to act now to ensure we will be able to fill these roles before the innovations that we currently consider cutting-edge, such as automation and AI, become both commonplace and necessary for businesses to compete on the global stage.
Demand versus provision
It’s not just businesses that have recognised the need to boost our digital capabilities, but the general populace. YouGov research has found that 54% of people believe teaching code will help the UK economy grow, but according to 70% of 18-24 year-olds, they never receive education of this type at school. The reason? Their teachers were incapable of educating them on it even if it had been incorporated into the curriculum.
Digital skills are one area in which we can realistically expect students to be more knowledgeable than their teachers, as technology has shaped their childhoods, but this does not make it acceptable. At present, only 35% of ICT teachers currently have a relevant degree.
Levels of underqualification amongst staff is a major barrier to transforming government-led digital initiatives from theory to reality.
Levels of underqualification amongst staff is a major barrier to transforming government-led digital initiatives from theory to reality. A prime example of this was the new computing curriculum introduced in 2014. Over time the course has the power to make a significant dent in the digital skills gap. However, the skills the course requires in order to deliver it are a major step up for teachers, and 75% reported that they were not confident in delivering the new curriculum, according to the British Computer Society.
Lack of inspiration
We have been aware that the digital skills gap is a problem for years, but shockingly, it is getting worse rather than better. Fewer students are taking up technology-based A levels, and those that do are underperforming compared to their counterparts in other subjects. For example, last year ICT had the lowest pass rate of any subject, seeing this number decline compared to 2016, and saw the biggest decrease in female students taking it with a loss of 6.4%. This was closely followed by design and technology which saw a 4.1% decrease.
As we have already seen, poor education amongst teachers plays a role. However, it’s not as simple as educators just not knowing the information that they need to be passing on; a lack of inspiration is also a significant issue.
Unsurprisingly, students turn to their parents and teachers when making decisions about which subjects to pursue. Yet, according to Accenture, 51% of parents feel that they’re uninformed about the benefits of STEM subjects, meaning they nudge their children towards traditional careers and away from the opportunities they don’t realise exist in the technology industry. Teachers are well placed to compensate for this and become the inspirational figures children need, if only they are willing to take up the baton.
The most powerful tool teachers have for inspiring students is enthusiasm, enabled through knowledge. If they understand their subject thoroughly and how the skills they are teaching can be applied in real life, they will be empowered to convince students of the worth of digital knowledge and help them to see that technology is the future.
To achieve this, it’s crucial that schools offer teachers the necessary provisions to take up regular training and become life-long learners – there needs to be a shift in mindset to understanding that technology is constantly evolving so education on it must do the same.
It’s crucial that schools offer teachers the necessary provisions to take up regular training and become life-long learners.
When demonstrating the real-life applications of digital skills there is nowhere better to start than showcasing successful role models that students can aspire towards. Teachers must be conscious of diversifying their examples beyond the male role models, such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, who tend to dominate our consciousness, to include female figures who are equally as important in the technology sector, such as Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Including role models closer to home is also worthwhile. Where possible, teachers and schools should endeavour to develop relationships with local tech companies whose employees could come in and inspire the students in person.
Implement a new approach
Subjects are typically taught in siloes: this needs to change. Teachers must be convinced of the benefits of integrating digital technology into subjects outside of the computing and ICT curriculum. For instance, 3D printing teaches students modelling and design skills which can be transferred to careers developing robots, medical innovations, video games, fashion, and movies, to name a few. Use of this technology can be integrated into any subject for a more interactive and engaging learning experience, such as creating a 3D model of a cell in biology.
The decline in students taking up technological subjects and performing well demonstrates that the current approach to resolving the digital skills gap is not working. We need to overhaul our efforts and focus our attention towards teaching the teachers – an approach that has been neglected until now – if we want to ensure that we can meet businesses needs for technologically skilled employees. Investing in training to upskill teachers and educate them on methods and new approaches to disseminating digital knowledge and inspiring students will be crucial to the technological and economic future of the UK.