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Government's digital strategy is on road to nowhere, says Lord Baker

Speaking in the House of Lords on 7 September, Lord Baker said Britain is far behind countries like Estonia when it comes to equipping young people with digital skills. 

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on an excellent speech and for promoting this debate. It is really excellent. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has published a strategy for the data and digital world. It is a good document and well promoted by its Minister, Matthew Hancock, but it is like a signpost pointing the way, and I am not sure we are going down the road where it is being pointed at all clearly.

‘The whole strategy will be undermined by the fact that we have now a deficiency of 750,000 digital technicians in our country. How is that gap possibly going to be filled? It will not be by the education policy imposed by Michael Gove in 2010, when almost on a whim he made all our students follow a very narrow academic curriculum at 16 comprising five subjects: English, maths, science, history or geography and a foreign language. It is the exact curriculum announced in 1904 by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education. Computing is virtually squeezed out. No computing at 16.

‘Does the Minister know that, in the GSCEs that have just finished, 7,000 fewer students took computing exams at 16? That should worry his department. I do ​not know if he has seen these figures: GCSE computing science, which is a tough exam, increased by 4,000 and IT fell by 11,000. It is extraordinary that that is happening in this digital age. It shows that there is no joined-up work in Government. Does he know that in the last year the Government have asked all primary schools to introduce coding? Does he know how many have done so? I would be interested in that figure, but I think it is very few. Last week, I visited a school in Turkey for four to 14 year-olds, with 600 students going on to 900. Two teachers were teaching coding to six and seven year-old Turkish children. That does not happen in our schools at all.

‘In the colleges that I have been promoting we are very digitally aware. For example, the sixth-formers at the UTC in Scarborough are working in a cybersecurity suite sponsored by GCHQ. GCHQ has come out of the closet and does not worry at all about publicity now, because it cannot recruit from normal schools the youngsters that it wants to employ. Another UTC, next to City Airport, is doing advanced computing. If you go there, you will see 20 16 year-old sixth-form students with helmets on their heads creating virtual reality. There is no other school in the country doing that.

‘The Ministers in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have got to take an interest in these issues. There is no joined-up government between what the Government are doing educationally and what they hope for in their policy.

‘If the Minister has any spare time, he might go and visit Estonia. It is the most digitally successful country in Europe, so much so that its former Prime Minister has now been appointed by the European Commission to develop its digital strategy. Coding has been in Estonian schools for years and, as a result, they produce an enormous number of computer scientists and export them. We are in the extraordinary position of trying to catch up with Estonia.

‘The Minister cannot just look on this strategy as a signpost. He has to engage in the voyage.’

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