With little progress since last year’s Logan Review highlighted a shortage of computing science teachers in Scottish schools, charity Digital Xtra Fund’s extracurricular activities and input from the sector aims to fill the 
gap, says Nan Spowart


The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented surge in the use of digital technology – particularly in education. However, although it is often assumed young people are ‘digital natives’ because they can use an iPad or play a video game, there is a crucial difference between using technology and understanding and creating it.
Despite being one of the most important sectors in Scotland, an acute shortage of computing science teachers means many pupils are leaving schools without the skills needed to pursue a career in tech.

The result is that extracurricular activities relating to computing science are currently needed to fill the gap, with charities, industry, and other organisations stepping up with new and exciting initiatives designed to interest young people in computing.
One of these is Digital Xtra Fund, which supports activities designed to engage young people in computing science. While the pandemic caused some disruption last year, the charity is about to announce funding for over 20 initiatives.

It also has a new Community & Grants Officer who will not only support the projects but will also simplify engagement with firms like CGI, Baillie Gifford and AWS who also help fund the charity. Industry players are keen to encourage school pupils in Scotland into the sector but one of the problems is fitting this engagement into an already tight curriculum. Kraig Brown, Digital Xtra Fund’s Partnerships and Development Manager, believes this is where extracurricular activities can also play a crucial role.

“We want industry more involved with education and the role of Maha Abhishek, our new officer, will be to increase the capacity of supported initiatives to bring in that industry context which is really important,” he said. 
“I think one of the biggest elements missing from computing science education is that young people often don’t see the point of it, and so don’t choose it in Secondary. By bringing industry in early on, young people will see the range of careers you can have and become invested.”

Brown feels it is the most important industry in Scotland at the moment, not least because of climate change. “With COP26 coming up, I keep reading about climate tech and how it will help save the planet,” he said. “Ten years ago it was reduce, reuse, recycle but now it is how we are going to use an app to reduce our individual carbon footprint and how are we going to use smart meters to monitor our energy consumption. We need to teach children these skills now, as they need to know it.”

There are many organisations trying to address the problems facing computing science uptake, but Brown believes more could be achieved if the work was co-ordinated. He is hopeful the advisory board appointed after last year’s Logan Review will address this but is concerned little has happened since the review’s findings were announced 13 months ago. The review concluded that computing science should be treated as a core school subject in the same way as maths and physics. It also highlighted the pivotal role extracurricular activities can play to engage more young people in tech.

“I was really hoping some actions would have been in place for the start of the school year, especially when £7m funding was confirmed for the first year back in March,” said Brown. “It sounds like things may be happening behind the scenes, but some people in industry and education are starting to fear this may become just another report. If the board went this whole academic year without making any significant moves, I would be concerned the large amount of momentum created last August would be lost, even if they do come out with further actions later. 

“I hope that does not happen because we need something or someone to step up and provide that focus, but funding is needed to do that and drive it.” Brown is sometimes frustrated that extracurricular tech activities are often needed to just make up for the shortfall of computing teachers whereas such activities in other areas are able to take young people beyond what they learn in the classroom.
He would like to see “tech spaces” in every school and community across the country, much like a football club, to provide a similar opportunity for young people but in tech.

A similar programme in Ireland, called Clár TechSpace, is creating a network of such spaces to help train educators and give young people a place to come together to explore the potentials of technology without pressure.
“We did the maths based on £5000 for every space to get it up and running,” said Brown. The cost was £12.5m over four or five years so we are not talking small change, but the Logan Review highlighted the importance of technology to help recover from the pandemic and for me, that’s the level and type of idea it would take to achieve this. 

“At the same time, let’s address future problems like climate change and health care by using these real-world problems to engage and excite young people. This is where the opportunities lie right now and that is why everyone got so excited by the review. I know there was an election and a pandemic, but we need to see more this academic year because otherwise the momentum created will be lost.” 


This article was brought to you in association with Digital Xtra Fund