The digital skills gap: teacher knows best

How can teachers be supported in preparing young people for a truly digital future? 

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The UK is facing a widening digital skills gap which could put the country’s future prosperity at risk. The shortfall of people with the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills required by the growing digital economy currently stands at 40,000 and UK employers are struggling to fill 43 per cent of STEM vacancies. The Federation of Small Businesses recently reported that almost a quarter (22 per cent) of business owners in the UK believe a lack of digital skills in their workforce is holding them back from meeting their full potential.

This gap is rooted in education – only 7,600 students in England took computing at A-level in 2017, less than 10 per cent of whom were female. Adult education and retraining will help to address this imbalance, but the only long-term, sustainable solution to this country’s digital skills problem will be found in schools.

It is at school where a person’s most fundamental ideas and understanding of the world are formed and only by incorporating key STEM skills across education – with businesses and educators working in partnership – will we give children the best chance of finding their way in a world that runs on technological innovation. The classroom must lead the way and schools need to incorporate as much cutting-edge technology and as many digital tools in their teaching as possible to make the move into STEM subjects and careers a natural choice for students.

TCS shares this view, and for the past five years, the company has been partnering with schools and teachers to foster a STEM-equipped workforce of tomorrow. In 2013 TCS established IT Futures, a programme that offers classroom curriculums, teaching and mentoring young people in IT challenges, coding and application design competitions. Since its inception, it has reached over 200,000 young people in more than 600 UK schools.

A long-standing partnership with the social enterprise MyKindaFuture has produced a MISSION YOU work experience programme which worked with over 100 schools around the country. Most recently, TCS has partnered with MyKindaFuture to expand this programme with the ‘Digital Explorers’ work experience programme, hosting 400 students between the ages of 14-18 for a week-long event in both London and Birmingham - with more events planned in Scotland and Peterborough in 2018. Participants took part in TCS-led classes as well as Q&A sessions with big names in the industry, educating them on the different STEM professions available, and giving them the tools to pursue these exciting careers.  

There is always more to be done and in an effort to understand how technology is currently being used in classrooms, and how the teaching of STEM skills could be improved, TCS surveyed teachers to gain insight from their first-hand experiences.

Charlotte Brabants, an English teacher at the Slough and Eton Church of England Business and Enterprise College, said that technology was “inescapable” in today’s education. “It really is most valuable when the students can interact with it ... through manipulating, creating, choosing, participating in the presentation.” However, she said that she would like to be using it a lot more than she is now, citing inequality of access as a key barrier. “There are some restrictions at my school and not all of the students have equal access to technology; this includes access to mobile phones.” 

Isabel Hutton, a Teach First ambassador, also cited variation in equipment and practice: “it would be good to have better standardisation across schools as some have better facilities than others or different policies about the use of technology in lessons.”

There appeared to be a consensus among teachers that technology could be playing a much bigger role in schools by increasing learning time, and creating considerable benefits, particularly around comprehension and home learning. Guy Forbat, head of music at William Ellis School observed that “Education seems one of the slowest sectors to adopt technology and as a result technology does not currently play a huge role in the learning cycle.”

If schools lack an aptitude for adopting technology, then STEM training capabilities are also experiencing a lag. “The need for STEM technical knowledge seems to have moved a lot faster than the education systems ability to produce experts in STEM subjects,” explained Hutton. “One problem that this has caused is that there are not enough specialist teachers out there who are fully capable of teaching the new and complex specifications, right at a time when students really need knowledge in these areas in order to access jobs in the future.”

However, the respondents also stressed that technology should not become the focus, and should be a tool for administering information. “Over-relying on technology-based activities can be dangerous if systems go down and there is no back-up plan. Sometimes technology can distract or over complicate learning,” argued Brabants adding that STEM skills can only be fully utilised later in life when complimented by other, vital soft skills, the teaching of which should not be de-prioritised. “We need engineers, chemists, mathematicians, statisticians, biologists, coders, physicists, but we need thoughtful people to take up these roles.  These skills divorced from thought and understanding, possessed by people who lack the ability to communicate and interpret, will not have any productive yield.” 

In developing technological solutions to reduce the UK STEM skills gap, Forbat made the point that education professionals should lead the way in the creative process, as they know best what is required to aid teaching. “Desired educational outcomes need to be clearly identified and then the technology can be designed to support the teacher and students to achieve the goal set.”

Ultimately, listening to teachers is exactly what TCS aims to do, and it is committed to delivering more engaging and exciting solutions to the STEM skills issue through its ongoing skills programme. Industry has a duty to work with education and government to help develop vital skills and, ultimately, its own productive workforce of the future.

Yogesh Chauhan is director of corporate sustainability at TCS. 

Digital Explorers is a ground-breaking initiative, in partnership with MyKindaFuture, that will offer a week-long opportunity for 800+ Year 10 - 13 students in London and Birmingham to experience work in digital industries and increase their chances of succeeding in the sector.

For more information about a career with TCS, please click here.

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