The number of young people studying computing science is in freefall – with charity dressCode expressing alarm over the lack of recuits for 13,000 jobs in the Scottish digital sector. By Nan Spowart.

URGENT action is needed to create a larger talent pool to supply Scotland’s flourishing digital industry, according to an award-winning computing science charity.

DressCode’s call comes after recent figures showed there is a shortfall of around 8,000 recruits each year from universities or apprenticeships for 13,000 digital jobs.

“This is a dramatic shortfall and we know that inspiring pupils at a young age is crucial to solving this problem,” said Toni Scullion, who founded dressCode in order to encourage more females to take up computing science. “Computing science is so integral to the digital economy and all pupils should have the opportunity to study it in every school in Scotland.”

She pointed out that the number of pupils studying computing science plummeted from over 28,000 at the turn of this century to just 9873 pupils last year. Of these, only 1895 were girls compared with just over 9,800 females studying the subject in 2001.

Teacher numbers have also dropped, with the result that there are fewer than 600 now covering the whole of Scotland.  While overall secondary teacher numbers have grown by 3.5%, computing has had no growth and is by far the smallest STEM subject. In terms of teacher numbers it comes 18th compared to the number of teachers in other subjects.

This means that not all secondary schools offer computing science as a subject and, even where it is taught, some schools only offer 19 periods of the subject over the entire school year. This is less than 2% of a pupil’s week - about 30 minutes.

“That is not enough time for a subject that is core to so many areas of industry and is in itself an exciting area of growth and opportunity within Scotland,” said Scullion.  “There are still far too many schools that do not offer computing science as part of the curriculum. This results in thousands of pupils across Scotland every year not having the opportunity to even experience the subject and decide if it is something they like.”

She said computing science needed more attention than ever before in Scotland. In England funding of £84m was announced in the November 2017 budget to upskill around 8000 computer science teachers.

Scullion warned: “We cannot afford to wait another decade. We have seen the trends over the past two decades with the subject going into a dramatic decline. If it is left to decline further we will reach the point of no return. The subject will linger at the fringes of education and not hold its rightful place as an essential set of skills for people entering a modern workforce.”

“If we don’t do something now at school level our Scottish talent pool is simply going to dry up and we won’t have enough kids or talent coming through the system, creating their own companies, investing back in Scotland and ultimately creating revenue.

“We must take action now and try more new approaches and supercharge the initiatives that are already proven to be working before it is too late and the subject ultimately fades into the educational background noise.”

Despite the figures, Scullion said she believed the problem was solvable and the subject could be revived.

“We have seen from the figures previously that it was incredibly popular and I believe we can get back to that and even work to surpass those figures and see the subject thrive in all schools,” she said. “We have got an incredible opportunity right now to address these issues in computing science in Scotland.”

Learners can be part of the solution as the Turing Testers’ Treasure Hunt has shown. Here senior students who participated in a dressCode club at the start of their own secondary education successfully ran an online cyber treasure hunt which drew inspired engagement from current youngsters in secondaries the length and breadth of the country.

A Digital Technology Education Charter has now been launched 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.

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.”

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