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Will coding in education minimise the UK’s digital skills gap?

Posted by: Tom Morris

20 years ago Steve Jobs announced “Everyone should learn how to programme a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” It is now believed that coding skills will become as prevalent and important as numeracy and literacy skills.

Coding at its simplest is telling machines how to perform tasks. This is done by breaking down the task you want the computer to do into a series of logical and chronological steps.

Coding became part of the national curriculum in the UK as early as primary school in 2014. In the 1990s and early 2000s the UK’s education system largely ignored the explosive growth of technology, instead choosing to focus on word processing packages which did little but provide basic knowledge for technology which quickly dated. Now, coding lessons help children to get to the “nuts and bolts” of a computer so to speak, and to understand how they actually function. Coding focuses on the problem-solving skills needed for “computational” thinking; this is how software engineers solve problems using mathematics, logic and algorithms. Computer languages such as Scratch have been developed for young children to allow them to code using blocks that snap together, a bit like Lego, and create basic programmes. These changes are just the start for the UK as we begin to see the need for putting coding at the heart of IT education, because our lives our dominated by technology and the next generation is only going to be even more dominated by it.

This all bodes well for future generations; however, because of the lack of coding education for previous generations, the UK is experiencing an ongoing shortage of skilled workers in the digital and technological sectors.

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills Development alongside the Department for Culture, Media and Sport conducted a report on “Digital Skills in the UK Economy in 2016”. The Key findings from the report highlighted a shortage in suitable digital skills for digital jobs in the UK labour market. It goes without saying that this is a major threat to business growth, innovation and investment in the UK. Without the relevant digital skills in the UK labour market, the UK will be at a competitive disadvantage.

According to the report 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs are currently suffering from digital skills gaps.

 However, companies in this field tend to look for experienced people rather than giving novices or fresh graduates an opportunity because the cost of mistakes are great. 11% of computer science graduates are unemployed after graduation, so companies could be missing out on excellent assets in the digital sector because they are not willing to take the risk. Right now we are living in an age of rapid technological change and the UK is struggling to keep up with this demand, we must create a re-skilled workforce to ensure that our investment and growth opportunities are not constrained. 

Digital and technological sectors have been a major area of employment growth over the last 6 years and both sectors show no signs of slowing down, with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills estimating that another 300,000 digital jobs will be created by 2020.

The UK is now providing coding in education as well as industry led and funded schemes being available for adults such as Hour of Code, which aims to increase coding skills. The problem is that coding requires logical thinking, commitment and the ability to cope with making mistakes and uncertainty; therefore it does not come naturally to a lot of people. The UK also lacks the skills at a teaching level in schools; we need to ensure that teachers are digitally skilled because their pupils will only be as competent as their teacher. The sheer speed of the industry also has an impact of the skills gap, how can we keep up with ideas and products that are changing on a daily basis? Employers, the education system and local government all need to work together to address digital skills gaps, from motivating and inspiring young people to work in this industry (especially females who are massively under-represented) to implementing programs to ensure that teachers in schools and staff in companies are skilled to cope with the changing technology. Because without this focus, the UK labour market is going to be devoid of the digital skills of the future.


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