Rewiring Tech Education for the Twenty-First Century

When you sit around the table – or at the moment the virtual table – with tech CEOs, many of the same issues come up time and again. Skills shortages in our industry, the challenges of hiring the right people, the need to urgently improve inclusion and diversity.

It’s always valuable to get those challenges of your chest and gather different views, but I’m a man of action. I’ve left groups in the past because they had become a talking shop rather than a chance to plan change.

That’s one of the reasons that, as well as being CEO of a technical education provider, I’m a Trustee of the Edge Foundation. Yes, it develops excellent research and brings together networks of exceptional projects, but it also drives policy change and works with projects and providers on the ground. Thinking and doing, a model for our education system, you might say.

So it was a great pleasure to bring together some amazing schools, colleges, training providers, researchers and universities at Edge’s Tech Education Roundtable this week. In two short hours, we had set the education world to rights and I wanted to share five key messages from that discussion.

First, if we are going to inspire a new generation of young people into tech – and I mean both the tech industry itself and the tech jobs that will be central to all industries – we need to build a clear narrative about how the world of work is changing. That needs to be informed by the current crisis of course, but as Edge’s Skills Shortages Bulletins have clearly shown those changes started well before we’d ever heard the words ‘Covid-19’. The fourth industrial revolution will transform the labour market, tech will be at the forefront and young people should have the opportunity to be right at the cutting edge as those opportunities emerge.

Second, we need to give more young people the opportunity to engage with tech and computing education through a broad and balanced curriculum while at school. As research by the University of Roehampton clearly shows, at the moment the reverse is true. The government’s narrow focus on an academic curriculum through the EBacc drove more than a third of computing and ICT teaching time out of schools between 2012 and 2017. That must be reversed to give every young person universal access to technical, digital and creative education as part of their schooling.

Third, from primary school to University, tech education can be brought to life by focusing on real world outcomes and projects. Rather than tech for tech’s sake, we can inspire a new generation of young people, as Reading UTC does, by helping them work in teams on projects to improve a pharmaceutical production line or secure the IT network of an aircraft carrier. Learning through projects like that certainly sounds more inspiring to me than simply remote?-learning theory for a paper-based exam about computing.

Fourth, as with any other subject, to truly bring it to life requires rich employer and community engagement. As with the National Software Academy at Cardiff University, businesses should be involved in helping to set the real life projects, in ensuring the curriculum remains relevant to the fast-moving world of work, in providing inspirational talks and placements. I’m very clear here – my colleagues in the tech business world cannot complain about skills shortages in my presence without also showing what they are doing to support the next generation to learn the ropes.

Fifth and finally, we need to create many more opportunities for teachers and tutors to cross the boundary between education and work. That means making it attractive for experienced professionals to move into teaching, full or part time, bringing with them a rich range of real life examples. But it also means creating exciting opportunities for contincontinuing professional development like Edge’s teacher externships which give staff the chance to spend time in a local business and then develop what they have learned into an engaging project for their students. 

So, no more excuses – it’s time to take action. We need more young people to start with a broad and balanced education including digital opportunities, more teaching to take place through real world projects that bring the curriculum to life and more businesses to step up and offer placements to teachers and pupils alike. Tech is the future of economy so tech must be at the heart of our new education system.

Andrew Stevens is President and CEO of CNet Training, Trustee of the Edge Foundation and Chair of Edge’s Tech Education Roundtable.

Inspirational organisations represented at Edge’s Tech Roundtable included: Techcentre, Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, Positive Transformation Initiative, UTC Reading, IBM, P-TECH, Basingstoke College of Technology, National Software Academy at Cardiff University, Queens University Belfast and The Developer Academy.

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