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The UK’s coder crisis – why aren’t kids studying computing?
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The UK’s coder crisis – why aren’t kids studying computing?

Written by Darren Timmins

I recently returned from a holiday in California and whilst I was away the A-level results landed in the UK. The number of students getting A* and A is up for the first time in six years. But look beyond the headlines and this year’s results reveal a rather troubling truth, especially for the UK’s digital industry. Being in California the results struck a rather poignant cord.

Out of around 400,000 students heading to University, just 7600 studied computing, that’s less than 2%. At a time when every teenager is a social media expert and the UK has a serious need for digital talent, why are so few choosing a career in computing?

The digital disconnect

In 2015 the government responded to the changing face of computing and scrapped the long-standing Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) GCSE course, replacing it with Computer Science.

The new course was designed to create a yearly flow of coders, ready to go straight to work in the burgeoning UK digital sector. Two years on, the reality is far from this. Instead, there’s an alarming disconnect between how the majority of teenagers see the digital industry and how the government see it.

For today’s teens, the mobile is king and social media is their specialist subject. Yet so many fail to see how they themselves can define the new digital community and the current Computer Science course isn’t offering a solution. Even before it was launched, experts warned it would put students off:

“The number of pupils studying for a computing qualification could halve by 2020 – which would be a disaster for the economy.” The British Computer Society

Last year only 71% of secondary schools offered the new computer science GCSE and just 67,800 year 11 students studied the subject. To compound the problem, the content of the new course is so different to ICT that many teachers don’t have the knowledge to teach it, creating a disconnect between topic, teacher and student.

Rewriting the coder stereotype

Looking at where a Computer Science A-level could take you, there really shouldn’t be a lack of interest in the course. Industry wages are high, with entry-level software development roles paying £30k plus, well above the national graduate wage. And the kind of companies you could work for define aspiration in the modern era.

Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, all the silicon valley set in their sunny, shiny glass offices with slides, office dogs, flexible hours and fresh thinking. Computing courses should be oversubscribed. But they’re not. And it’s the geeks’ fault.

The geek shall inherit the earth

Universally portrayed as a geeky male, into games and socially outcast, the coder persona is the exact opposite to that which most teenagers look to embody. This undesirable image is perpetuated by the media and hollywood, leading students to treat coding and programming like the plague, with little done by government to rebrand a potentially lucrative career.

What’s being done to change opinion?
There are schemes to encourage more kids to take up computing, including Hour of Code, the Your Life programme and computing clubs across the country. It’s fair to say that these programmes are working to a certain extent and will deliver in the longer term, but right now more needs to be done by government and industry.

Ensuring more kids are exposed to STEM at school and helping teachers make their lessons exciting and more relevant to students is essential.

Making changes at grass-roots level is important but we also need education authorities to demonstrate career paths and potential earnings to students earlier on in their school life. Most big tech companies have a celebrity at the helm, so why doesn’t the UK government use some tax-payers money to get these role-models in front of children? Whether it’s Tim Cook, Elon Musk or Bill Gates – how can we use these celebrities and their status to encourage children to follow in their footsteps?

If we don’t act now, a generation will be lost

Given the technical skills shortage Britain is currently facing, there’s a responsibility on parents, teachers, ministers and industry to help children see computing as a valid and prosperous career. If we fail to do this, our children, the sector and the economy as a whole will lose out to other countries.

Published by Darren Timmins
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