Computing science education is being neglected and dumbed down amid a widespread lack of specialist teachers, according to a leading national expert.

It comes as statistics show pupils and staff have shunned the economically vital subject in droves.

Approximately 11,240 digital technology companies were registered north of the Border in 2020. They accounted for 6.3 per cent of the business base. 

Representatives stress these figures are expected to increase year on year, cementing their sector’s position at the “forefront” of society. But they also say growth will be choked unless serious weaknesses in school computing provision are tackled.

Addressing Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee, Mark Logan, Professor in Practice at Glasgow University’s School of Computing Science, said there had been a “historical failure” to recognise the importance of his subject. He told MSPs: “It’s essentially a third tier subject and, in the early years of secondary school, it vies for syllabus time with home economics and physical education.”

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Prof Logan, author of a major review that examined the technology sector and how it could contribute to Scotland’s post-Covid recovery, stressed computing’s status was having deeply harmful effects. He added: “Because of that neglect it’s not a particularly attractive career prospect [and] hasn’t got a great brand. In fact, teachers have been leaving the profession. 

“We had about 20 per cent more teachers 15 years ago doing computing science than we do now. And there’s also a reduction in the number of children studying the subject. At Higher level alone, for example, we used to have about 8,000 annually, we’ve now got about 5,000 annually. So the subject’s not just static, it’s declining.

“The computing teacher recruitment issue is that we have put up reasons for why you can’t hire computing graduates so you shouldn’t bother trying. And that reason is usually, ‘well, the computing science graduates can earn a lot of money in industry so, you know, there’s no point in going after them’.” 

HeraldScotland: Professor Mark Logan, of Glasgow University, appeared before the Education, Children and Young People Committee on Wednesday.Professor Mark Logan, of Glasgow University, appeared before the Education, Children and Young People Committee on Wednesday.

Prof Logan also warned the situation was being worsened by interconnected “vicious circles”. He said: “The first one is that as teacher numbers fall, pupil numbers fall, classes don’t get run, schools can’t hire teachers, which in turn creates the impression that not so many teachers are needed, which in turn results in less pupils being involved.

“The other issue… is a quality issue. Many of our schools don’t have any computing science being taught. But in many of our schools, and no-one really knows how many, it’s being taught by non-specialists – by, all credit to them, well-intentioned, hard-working business studies teachers, psychology teachers etc.

“Now, what that has the effect of doing is requiring... a dumbing down of the syllabus. Non-specialists can’t teach object-oriented programming, for example. What we should be teaching [our children] is the magic of getting computers to do stuff and that requires a basic competence in our teaching profession in teaching programming. And that competence is patchy, let’s say, so therefore the syllabus has to reflect that.”                         

The professor said a range of actions would be necessary to improve provision and secure future growth for Scotland's digital and tech industries. Among these are an "active" teacher recruitment campaign, intensive upskilling for computing science staff, and boosting access to the subject at primary level.

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A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We recognise the importance of computing science in the curriculum. That is why Finance Secretary Kate Forbes commissioned Mark Logan to undertake a review into how Scotland’s technology sector can contribute to the country’s economic recovery after the pandemic.

“Mr Logan, who made recommendations included looking at how computer science is taught in schools, is now advising the Scottish Government on work in this area.

“In February, we announced we are once again offering 150 STEM bursaries to encourage more people to train as secondary school teachers in subjects including computing science.”