AS WE ALL KNOW, our world is increasingly a digital one. Whether it is web publishing, online commerce and banking, driverless cars, or computer games, there is an insatiable demand for people with computing skills to help design and build our modern economy.
Eric Schmidt, chairman of the parent company of Google declared in 2011 on a visit to Scotland that he had been “Flabbergasted to learn that computer science was not taught as standard” in our schools.
And it is easy to see why when you realise the skill shortages that we are facing – around 84,000 people currently work in Scotland in the development of digital technologies and we need at least 11,000 more each year.
However as Scotland’s universities collectively graduate just over 3,000 computing students a year – many of whom hail from overseas – it is clear there is a massive skills gap emerging. And disappointingly over the decade from 2004 to 2014 the number of students studying computer science at UK universities actually dropped by 28.7 per cent.
Clearly for the sake of our economy something must be done to tackle this critical skills shortage, and it has to start in the schools.
However despite Schmidt’s well-publicised 2011 warnings, computer science teaching in Scottish schools has continued to collapse. The number of computer science teachers in Scotland has fallen from 866 in 2007 to 663 in 2014 – a drop of 14per cent. In fact one school in eight has no teacher for computer science and cannot present students for certificate level courses.
Six of Glasgow’s high schools (20 per cent) and almost half of the schools (47 per cent) in Dumfries and Galloway are now without a computing teacher. Headteachers have often given up in the face of low student demand and the difficulty of hiring qualified teaching staff. One said “when the teacher left ...despite several attempts at advertising the post there were no applicants”.
So what is to be done? I recently met a woman who had returned to teaching after a 17-year career with Oracle, one of the world’s largest software companies. Her first degree – in Geography – did not allow her to teach computing in Scotland and, to her credit, she undertook an Open University degree to obtain the required qualification.
But few would be willing to go to these lengths, especially if, as was the case here, she was very well-qualified from her industrial experience, unlike, for example, me whose yellowing computer science degree from 1974 allows me to teach computing, even though I haven’t written a program for 35 years and would be pretty hopeless at teaching it.
A new initiative in London called Now Teach aims to allow professionally qualified and experienced individuals who want such a career change to teach while receiving on the job training leading to a fully qualified NQT certificate.
And last St Andrew’s Day, Scottish education secretary John Swinney announced a new Scottish ‘fast track’ training scheme to incentivise science and technology professionals to retrain as teachers.
It falls far short of the flexibility of the London scheme, and it doesn’t begin to address the importance of current relevant experience compared to having the ‘wrong’ historic university qualification. Scotland’s teacher’s unions continue to strongly resist such reforms.
I estimate that there are a great many computing professionals who would consider such a switch of career – if there was a sensible recognition of current professional experience every school could soon get superbly qualified and up-to-date computing teachers.
What are we waiting for? ■