It would be unfair to say that the teaching of computer studies in Scottish schools is in crisis, but there is certainly plenty of reason for concern.

The number of secondary school teachers having this as their main subject has fallen over the last decade by a significant 20 per cent.

With young people set to be ever-more reliant on IT skills as they advance through their careers, this drop in numbers means we could be stoking up serious talent supply problems in the future. However, Scotland’s education sector is also seeing a pushback against this.

Efforts are being made in some schools to engage children in extracurricular computing sessions such as coding clubs.

Girls and young women have historically been reluctant to become involved in STEM subjects, but in some of these voluntary school sessions, they now make up more than half of the class.

That’s an advance, but it’s not enough for Toni Scullion, a 34-year-old teacher at St Kentigern’s in Bathgate, West Lothian. She has established dressCode, a multi-award-winning charity aimed at raising awareness of computer science and of engaging girls in the subject through activity-based learning.

Ms Scullion’s passion for further closing the gender gap in the subject has been inspired by a remarkable track record in teaching. Computing has always been her passion, and she has grown increasingly concerned about the male-female imbalance in classrooms.

”I love the subject, and no-one has ever told me not to do so because I’m a girl,” she says. “I’ve been teaching for 10 years and have become totally caught up in it.
“Soon after I started in the job, I organised a coding club. At the start, it attracted boys and girls, but then the girls stopped coming – they didn’t like the fact that the boys were so loud.

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“I ended up begging them to come back and they agreed as long as the class was girls only and I brought chocolate! 

“In parallel, I also ran a mixed gender club and after a few months, the girls started coming to that – they felt a bit more confident by then.”
Intrigued by this, Ms Scullion started to do her own research and realised that a gender imbalance in computer science had become structural.

“It had been a massive problem globally for years. I went back as far as 1963 in the Scottish records and found that there were more girls studying computing science then than there are now. I thought that was outrageous and felt that I had to do something to help.”

Not being someone to be daunted by a challenge – she has won a string of awards in recent years including cybersecurity teacher of the year in 2017 and gender diversity champion of the year last year – she came up with the idea of dressCode.
The organisation has charitable status and aims to build a network of clubs in schools, encouraging girls aged from 11 to 13 to learn how to code and to recognise the opportunities that exist in technology.

Motivating them in this way will hopefully help to bridge the gap between education and industry, creating opportunities and expanding the talent pipeline. As a result, Scotland’s national economy should benefit.

So how does dressCode work? “We have an online portal where teachers can sign up and learn how to run a club based on the success we’ve had at my school.

“Teachers are incredibly busy people, and the idea is that they won’t have to do anything other than be there and encourage the young people.

“It’s all free of charge. They get access to all the materials they can use, such as short videos, online. They can then create individual online accounts for the pupils. The girls get a dressCode email address and can then take a cybersecurity challenge, or learn to create their own games, or build a web suite.

“Once they’re comfortable at that level, they can then create their own challenges, using the skills they have learned and they can then put them up in a gallery and share ideas.”
The organisation has only been properly active for the last year but has already got nearly 50 schools in 20 local authority areas across Scotland signed up to take part.

“Schools in places like Japan and Kazakhstan are also signing up, which is hugely exciting. Currently dressCode is just aimed at girls, as the main aim is to close the gender gap, but recent figures show that boys are also dropping computing in Scotland. Because of that, we do sometimes run online competitions for both boys and girls.”

Ms Scullion believes that the open project approach, encouraging children to learn in a fun way and to pick their own challenges, is fundamental to dressCode’s success.

“If you told me what to do, I’d absolutely hate it. But if you give someone the creativity and the freedom to create a game or something similar, with the teacher just being a facilitator, then that’s the way forward.

“It allows you to open the world up. The kids can choose the topic and that’s where they get really excited. 

“What they do isn’t being dictated to them – instead, they are doing something that really inspires them.”

She concedes that as the youngsters pass through secondary school, their interaction in computing will necessarily become curriculum based.
In later years they will need to work towards exams, where the teaching and learning are less flexible and there is less scope for individual creativity.
“For instance, they can’t do group projects, which we encourage – they have to be individual ones at that level, because that’s what they are getting marked on.
“If we could radically change the qualifications said, that would be a help. After all, if you go into industry, you are never working by yourself, so why are we teaching things in this way?”