Scotland’s shortage of classroom coding experts means tech clubs funded by Digital Xtra Fund may be the only way for some pupils to learn the skill.

We may finally be at the point where the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is behind us. We will not, though, be returning to things as they were before: the world has changed, bringing huge opportunities for new thinking.

This is particularly true of Scottish education. This was badly affected by lockdown with schools closed, teaching moved online and extracurricular activities largely halted.

With young people hopefully back in classrooms for good, the moment is ripe for bold new approaches to be introduced. One area where these are needed is in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning.

In particular, there is a serious problem facing computer science in Scottish schools - the number of secondary school teachers having this as their main subject has dropped by more than 22 per cent since 2008 giving young people less opportunities to take up computing.

Digital Xtra Fund, a Scottish charity created in 2016, is working to address this problem.

Backed by business partners including Baillie Gifford, AWS and CGI, it provides grants for extracurricular activities that focus on inspiring the next generation to understand and create with technology.

The shortage of computer science teachers means the coding and tech clubs supported by Digital Xtra Fund are often the only form of regular opportunity some young people have to learn about computing.

However, the organisation’s Partnerships and Development Manager, Kraig Brown, says that unfortunately many of these activities were cut during the pandemic, and continued uncertainty around next year has also meant the number of grant applications received by the Fund was down this year.

“Schools are still in pandemic mode and working on delivering their core programmes. Their main focus has been on getting core teaching back up and running.

“As a result, many who would have normally applied for funding for tech clubs have elected not to as they still don’t know what is going to happen next year.”

Kraig does welcome the recent commitments outlined in the Education Recovery: Next Steps programme announced by Scottish Government earlier this month in the wake of the pandemic, though he has some reservations.

The blueprint includes a commitment to ensuring every schoolchild has access to the technology they need to support their education and recruitment of 3500 additional teachers and classroom assistants. Kraig said: “The commitment to ensuring every schoolchild has access to technology really stands out for me, but let’s make sure this isn’t just a box ticking exercise. It’s great to give youngsters a Chromebook or iPad, but they need to know how to use it - and I don’t mean just tapping apps - but actually know how these devices function.

“Children should be able to code simple tasks and control other devices with them - the hardware is only a means to the digital skills they require to make full use of the wider technology spectrum.”

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Kraig also whole-heartedly welcomes the commitment to new teachers and classroom assistants but is unsure what subjects they are going to teach.

He also wonders what level they will be at - primary or secondary - and how much expertise in digital skills they will have picked up during their training. “Every university needs to be teaching new teachers these skills.”

He also wonders if such a large recruitment is even attainable, especially in computer science. In a post-Covid world even more reliant on technology, how will bright undergraduates with an interest in STEM be enticed into teaching rather than industry.

“Will they organise a targeted recruitment drive for new STEM teachers? They tried that and had limited success, especially recruiting new computing teachers. There’s not much difference in salaries between teaching and industry at the start, but progression in industry is so much faster. I don’t see how enough talented people are going to be inspired to teach computing science without a complete rethink. It’s a serious concern.

“One answer may be to incentivise computing science teachers more, but that would cause a rightful uproar as they are not necessarily working harder or achieving more than their non-computing colleagues. It really is a challenge.”

Although it is not a perfect solution, another possibility is to recruit and train industry experts to come into classrooms.

Digital Xtra Fund is very active in this area recently hiring a Community & Grants Officer to facilitate engagements between their industry partners and grant recipients.

Another initiative adopting a similar approach is the Digital Critical Friends programme run by ScotlandIS, the membership and cluster management organisation for Scotland’s digital technologies industries in partnership with the young workforce development organisation DYW Glasgow.

This project ensures every Glasgow City secondary school will have at their disposal a senior tech expert from a leading technology business - the so-called critical friend. “It’s a very, very exciting approach and I know that there are plans to roll this out beyond Glasgow”, Kraig says. “Overall, we need to ensure consistency of coverage, ideally across the whole country - there has to be more collaboration over this.

“We don’t want to create a postcode lottery leading to children in smaller towns or rural communities being unlikely to get access to computing science education.

“All young people having access to technology post-Covid creates almost unlimited opportunities to explore these new kinds of lateral thinking. Ensuring young people have opportunities to learn digital skills must now be as much a right as their right to learn how to read and write or their right to physical exercise.”

www.digitalxtrafund.scot

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