With the number of Scottish pupils studying computing science in freefall, charity  dressCode is partnering with industry, academia and government to revamp the curriculum and inspire young people to aim for careers in the tech sector. By Nan Spowart

 

IT SEEMS incredible in an age of Artificial Intelligence, supercomputers and smart technology but in Scotland the subject of computer science is in a perilous state in schools.

Despite having a flourishing digital technology sector and excellent courses at college and university, not enough pupils are taking up the subject - meaning there could be a serious shortfall in homegrown talent to sustain the industry.

Not only are there not enough pupils but there are so few teachers the subject isn’t even taught in every school.

Infact, the number of Scottish pupils studying computer science since the turn of this century has plummeted from 20,000 to barely 10,000.

Teacher numbers, never high in the first place, have dropped still further by almost a quarter in recent years.

Concern is such that a new initiative  is being launched to bring together industry, academia, government and other stakeholders to recognise the importance of computing science education and promote the development of resources and networks to support teachers.

One of the main forces behind the project is Toni Scullion, a computer science teacher in West Lothian and founder of dressCode, 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. 

HeraldScotland:

She has been trying to raise awareness of the seriousness of the situation for years and her hard work is finally paying off, following a report commissioned by the Scottish Government last summer exploring how Scotland’s technology sector could contribute to the country’s economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report recognised the problem at school level and recommended the subject be treated with the same focus as mathematics. The visionary review gained much publicity and, on the back of it, Scullion again put out a call to industry to help. This time her plea was widely heard, with some of the industry’s top players asking how they could contribute.

A group was formed and it was agreed to launched the Digital Technology Education Charter to encourage the take up of computing science by pupils and to create links between schools, industry and academia. The aim is to  find ways to inspire the next generation into computing science and raise awareness of the diverse career opportunities available to young people in the Scottish tech sector.

The team behind the charter, led by Scullion, is a diverse range of influential figures from industry and education including Robbie Robinson, Global Head of Tech for Social Good at JP Morgan and Melinda Matthews, CEO of CodeClan.

Organisations which have already signed up to support the venture include the University of Glasgow, Digital Xtra Fund, the Digital Health & Care Innovation Centre, Robotical and Robert Gordon University’s School of Computing.

Scullion said industry interest so far was very encouraging and it was hoped to also sign up every university and college offering computing.
She said that while some excellent work was being done to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in school, it was recognised that computer science needed a special focus because the situation was so serious.

“It is not about computer science being more important than other subjects, but computing is really struggling,” she pointed out. “If we want to have a sustainable Scottish tech ecosystem with Scottish people living in Scotland, we need to invest at school level to get pupils excited about it and get them engaged because the problem filters through from school to further education.”
Scullion said the issue was now so serious it was a case of “now or never”.

“If we do not take meaningful action, I worry we are not going to have computer science as a subject and can you imagine that in 2021?” she said.  “It would be awful. It’s scary.”

The aim is to involve industry in the subject at school to help pupils see the possibilities and opportunities of a career in computing science in Scotland. There have been a lot of initiatives but so far nothing has really moved the dial so we need to try something different like this Charter,” said Scullion.

Those who sign up to become involved will help organise annual events and hackathons, working with teachers to help bring the subject at schools to life and inspire the next generation of tech talent in Scotland.
By bringing industry into schools, Scullion believes pupils will then be able to see a career pathway in computing science in Scotland.

“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,” she said.

“One of the things I am trying to do is raise awareness of the many opportunities there are so the kids can see there is a pathway to a good job.”

Scullion admits that it is not an easy problem to solve but points out that if nothing is done the situation is unlikely to improve. “If we just talk about it for ages, that is not going to impact the kids in first year now and that is another whole cohort gone,” she said. “We need to move faster. I don’t think it is impossible, but it is hard and we all need to work together.”

dresscode.org.uk

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Change in schools policy could help screen new talent 

THE DIGITAL technology sector in Scotland  is responding well to the plea for help to promote computer science in schools – but a change in education policy is also urgently needed, according to dressCode founder Toni Scullion.

Teacher numbers are now so low that the subject is not even taught in every secondary school in Scotland, a situation she finds appalling.

“It is not just four or five schools, it is a significant number and it means that we have hundreds if not thousands of kids who don’t even get to experience computing which is, in my view, just wrong,” said Scullion, who is a computing science teacher in her day job. 

HeraldScotland:

“In this day and age pupils should not be going through school without even getting the chance to decide whether they like computer science. 

“If we could give that experience to all kids you would like to think that would open up the talent pool leading to more computer science teachers.”

Scullion wants to see computer science offered in every school, ideally from primary level.

“The easiest solution is to make that education policy,” she said. 

“If we give pupils the opportunity to pick up computer science through to S3 at least they would have had exposure to the skills and a taste of what it is like.”

However while it is easy to bring fun into the classroom by teaching children coding, web design and how to make apps, Scullion said there was a problem at the qualifications level which was “much too busy and full of content”. 

This results in pupils switching off at National 4 and failing to carry on with the subject at Higher and sixth year level, meaning they do not go on to university to study the subject.

“We don’t need to make them software developers at the age of 16,” said Scullion. “They need to enjoy it because if they don’t they are going to switch off and that is really what is happening right now.”