The UK needs a new approach to digital education

By Jim Bowes

July 10, 2013 | 5 min read

A recent article in the Economist highlighted a situation that I think is as serious in the UK as it is in France. The article tells of a bunch of Parisian entrepreneurs who, fed up of the skills mismatch in the country, have decided to set up a free school for software developers.

The UK needs more initiatives like D-Day, pictured above

They announced that 1,000 places would be available in the initial intake.

They received over 50,000 applications.

According to a survey cited in the article 72 per cent of French software firms are having trouble recruiting.

The upshot? There is a severe digital skills shortage in France that is not caused by young people’s disinterest in digital careers but by the failure of the education system to prepare young people for such careers.

Now let’s turn to the UK. Is the situation any different?

Not in my opinion. Since my partners and I founded our digital agency in 2011 we’ve really struggled to recruit British tech talent.

I was interviewed about this topic last year and mentioned that we didn’t receive a single British applicant for the developer positions we’d advertised to date.

It’s awesome that we’ve got a team from around the world and we’re a better company for it - but it’s still a shame that there seems to be such a lack of UK digital talent.

Such is the shortage of skilled, homegrown candidates that salaries have dramatically inflated, becoming prohibitive for SMEs in the sector who are then forced to look overseas for talent.

So where does this skills gap originate? Is it due to the digital apathy of a generation raised with smartphones, games consoles, social networking sites and tablet computers? Or is it, as demonstrated in France by Xavier Niel’s software school, a failure of the education system and the digital industry to make young people aware of this world of opportunity?

A report by Cambridge Assessment into GCSE uptake shows that just 5.3 per cent of English students took the ICT GCSE in 2011. A percentage that has been falling for seven years straight.

It’s a lower percentage than students taking Design and Technology Textiles (5.6 per cent) and Design and Technology Resistant Materials (9.6 per cent) in a country which no longer has a manufacturing base. To say that reform is long overdue is a massive understatement.

Digging deeper into the figures we see that uptake in state schools, which cater to exactly the kind of students who would once have found a job in manufacturing, is just 4.3 per cent compared to 14.8 per cent in grammar schools and 9.9 per cent in independent schools.

Admittedly the number of students enrolling in alternative vocational ICT courses like BTECs and OCRs has been rising but the numbers remain much smaller than the reduction in GCSE ICT uptake in recent years. The simple fact is that these courses aren’t available in enough schools.

The story here is no different to that in France.

A whole generation is coming through the school system at a time when it is unfit to provide growth industries - the same industries expected to revitalise our ailing economy - with the skilled workers they require.

We must stop a whole generation being badly let down.

At Manifesto Digital we’re really keen to get stuck into the BIMA D-Day activities but our excitement will be tempered by a certain sadness. Sadness that comes from the knowledge that the real benefit we can provide on the day is not to get young people excited about digital technology - they already are - but to prove to them that the many obstacles that stand in the way of a career in digital are surmountable.

They can equip themselves for a career in digital industries if they’re prepared to strike out by themselves and explore alternatives to what their school currently offers.

Alternatives that organisations like BIMA, Nesta and the schools participating in D-Day are valiantly trying to create.

We know that schools across the country want to equip their students for these jobs but at the moment the content and appeal of the IT curriculum means the only real route is self-tuition.

Hopefully their creativity, ingenuity and determination can make up for what society has, to date, failed to provide.

Jim Bowes is CEO and co-founder of Manifesto, a digital startup based in London. Manifesto will be teaming with Aylward Academy in Edmonton as part of BIMA D-Day on 10 October, when agencies will match up with schools all over the UK to encourage youngsters to consider careers in the digital industry. You can find out more, and register to take part, on the BIMA D-Day microsite.


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