Primary school children should be taught coding skills as part of efforts to power Scotland’s digital evolution, according to a leading expert.

Professor Thusha Rajendran, a developmental psychologist within the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University, also believes it is possible to deliver the change without “displacing” traditional subjects.

“If we can enrich the curriculum with the inclusion of coding skills, then pupils, wider society and the roboticists of the future all benefit,” he said.

His remarks come after the launch of a national strategy that seeks to position Scotland as a leader in the use of “trustworthy, ethical and inclusive” artificial intelligence (AI).

However, there is growing concern that Britain is heading towards a skills crisis.

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Research from the Learning and Work Institute shows the number of young people taking IT courses has plunged 40 per cent since 2015, while fewer than half of UK employers believe new entrants to the workforce have the necessary advanced digital abilities.

Professor Rajendran said: “Over the last year, digital technology has played an ever-increasing role in children’s lives, with the use of devices increasing for many as parents juggled working and home-schooling – and also with teaching moving online.

“Parents and children may think that this immersion in the digital world is equipping young people with skills for the future but, actually, there is a digital difference between the users of technology and the creators.”

He stressed there were “many good reasons” for introducing the principles of coding and software writing to pupils as early as possible.

“Coding includes problem solving, abstraction and thinking at multiple levels of detail,” he added.

The Herald: Professor Thusha Rajendran.Professor Thusha Rajendran.

“These skills could be introduced and emphasised in primary school to embed, for example, the processes necessary for robotics and AI. This is not about displacing traditional subjects, but simply changing the emphasis. Neither is learning to code about jumping straight in and programming software: first you need to plan – perhaps by way of a storyboard – what you want to achieve and how you intend to get there, even before making a keystroke.

“Coding skills, therefore, sit happily alongside and enhance other skills such as story writing. Indeed, creativity is key to the thinking needed for developing technology and, so, the arts should not only be protected but properly invested in.

“Further, many of the higher order skills for coding are actually taught in the current curriculum.

“So, with some joined up thinking alongside a pool of specialist teachers who might move between schools like music and art teachers do, coding can be taught without the need for a curriculum overhaul.”

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Professor Rajendran warned that a “digital divide” was among many social inequalities highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“With a population of 5.5 million, Scotland cannot afford to lose talent because of this inequality – not if we want to maximise its potential,” he added.

“We need as wide a pool of digital creators as possible for our small nation to compete at a global level, as it does within the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence and space.”

He also welcomed the launch of the national AI strategy, saying it marked a “new era in the country’s digital evolution and is one of many reasons to be excited about the future of Scotland’s education system”.

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Gillian Docherty, CEO of The Data Lab and chair of the Scottish AI Alliance, hailed the plan as the result of an “extensive” consultation and engagement programme.

“This inclusive, collaborative approach, with input from our people, our businesses, our public sector and our academics, helped to shape and set out a vision that will work for all of us,” she said in her foreword to the strategy document.

“We know that AI can contribute to our economic, social and environmental outcomes, helping to drive business growth and improve wellbeing. However, we can only do this by working together and providing opportunities for everyone to engage, learn and contribute.

“The publication of the strategy gives us clear direction and I look forward to help Scotland thrive through the use of AI.”