SCOTLAND has a burgeoning tech industry but the numbers of pupils studying computing science has plummeted in the last two decades.

Girls, particularly, are failing to take up the subject and the lack of diversity as well as the potential dearth of homegrown talent has become a serious concern.

“It’s frustrating because although we have an incredible industry here right now the talent has got to come up from the schools or it is not going to come from Scotland,” said Toni Scullion who has founded the dressCode charity to encourage more girls to take up the subject.

“We need to inspire them from school age, and we need to join industry and education more closely together.”  

That is what she is attempting to achieve with dressCode, which has grown from a small computing club she started ten years ago into an award-winning free online portal which is now used by 49 schools in Scotland, eight in England and even schools in Spain and Kazakhstan. 

Its impressive reach and popularity has garnered Scullion, a computing science teacher in West Lothian, a slew of awards which has helped dressCode become even more well known.

For Scullion the best reward is seeing the talent that is being fostered.

“It’s amazing and the engagement from the kids is fantastic,” she said. “Even if it is just ten more girls picking the subject, it is ten we didn’t have before although I would like it to be 10,000.”

The dressCode clubs are girls only but the charity has begun to allow boys to enter the regular competitions as well as girls because the general uptake of computer science is now so poor in Scotland.

At the turn of this century around 20,000 pupils were studying the subject at secondary but this has dropped to barely 10,000, with the proportion of girls remaining more or less static at around 20 per cent.

“That is startling and really scary,” said Scullion. “It’s something we need to address because it is not changing fast enough which is really worrying. Something massive has shifted to knock 10,000 people off the total yet they are vital for the future and really are needed."

She believes a number of factors have contributed to the drop, including a lack of computing science teachers at secondary schools in Scotland. Never particularly high, there has been a 23 per cent drop in the number in recent years.

The subject is not available in every school and even when it is taught it is not always by a specialist and not enough time is allocated to it, according to Scullion. She points out there are likely to be even fewer teachers in the future if the drop in pupils studying the subject is not addressed quickly.

One of the other problems is that although she is constantly trawling the internet for videos that would inspire the pupils, they are all American, despite the number of tech companies now operating in Scotland.

“They watch them and say, ‘that’s great but I am never going to America and I am never going to work at Google’,” said Scullion. “We are missing the promotion of opportunities that exist here which is quite annoying because we have that industry, but I don’t think we make a big enough deal of it to the kids.

“One of the things I am trying to do is raise awareness of the many opportunities there are, and I would love to see videos of Scots living here who work at these companies so the kids can see there is a pathway to a good job. The lack of pupils studying the subject is not an easy problem to solve but if we don’t do anything it is not going to change. If we just talk about it for ages that is not going to impact the kids in S1 now and that is another whole cohort gone. We need to move faster. I don’t think it is impossible, but it is hard and we all need to work together.”

Scullion believes every school needs to offer computing science as a subject so the pupils can at least try it.

“Kids don’t even get it and that is not fair,” she said. 

Her dream would be a computing science teacher in every secondary and an itinerant computing specialist to teach computing at primary level. Clubs are also needed in every school so children can experiment, work in groups and have fun outwith the restrictions of the curriculum.

While dressCode was set up specifically to encourage girls, Scullion argues it remains the case that if more pupils take up the subject the number of girls will automatically increase even if it remains lower than the number of boys.

“We don’t have enough diversity but we also do not have enough kids coming through and if we don’t do something at school level we are not going to have a talent pool so you won’t have Scottish kids coming up through the system, creating their own companies, investing back in Scotland and creating revenue,” she said. 

“If we don’t have that we are going to have to pull talent from other countries and that is a shame because computing science is a great subject and computing is integral to every single industry, so we need to solve this problem. Other subjects are important but right now computing is failing.

“We have the talent in Scotland, we have the energy and the industry and the global brands, but we just need to pull it together,” said Scullion.

This article appears as part of The Herald's The Future Of Education campaign, in association with dressCode.

If you would like to become a partner in our Future of Education Series, contact Stephen McDevitt, Head of Digital and Branded Content