Maggie Philpin: The UK must nurture home grown digital talent to succeed

StatisticsAs she launches a major report on Britain’s digital skills, Maggie Philpin lays out the challenges for the Government, employers, schools and universities to prepare the UK for a “second industrial revolution”.

Britain is in the midst of another industrial revolution and only by engendering the spirit that allowed us to thrive so well in the first will we succeed in the second. If we are to seize the opportunities that technological advances offer us, we need to improve our digital skills across the UK. The report of the UK Digital Skills Taskforce, Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s World, makes recommendations as to how the UK can better prepare itself for the second industrial revolution.

Although this review was commissioned originally by Ed Miliband, I established the taskforce as a wholly independent body. No funding from any political source has been given to support this work. All involved felt it transcended party politics and the results should be offered to any and all policy makers.

It is urgent that we take steps to prepare for our digital future. We already have serious skills gaps which need addressing. If we do not improve our digital skills, we will not create the good, well-paid jobs our economy needs and we face being out competed internationally. A lack of skilled workers is consistently cited as the biggest problem confronting our tech businesses. It seems extraordinary then that 975,000 young people are not in employment, education or training while a burgeoning tech industry cries out for talent. However, many of young people simply lack the right skills for what our economy needs. Even for those who do have the technical skills, they often lack the networks to make the most of what is a time of great opportunity. We have to equip all our young people with the necessary skills and social capital to seize the opportunities.

Partly, it is a problem of perception: we need young people to see technology and related applied sciences offer them a future in which they can help create the technologies of tomorrow, not just one where they use them. The importance of digital skills is not just limited to the most advanced digital maker level. We also need people with intermediate digital skills regardless of what sector they work in. As an attendee at one of our regional meetings said, increasingly, every business is a digital business and every job is a digital job. However, there is a digital disconnect in the UK, a gap between the perception and the reality of just how important digital skills are. In particular, key influencers on young people, such as parents and teachers, are all too often do not appreciate the possibilities.

Tackling the challenge also means taking steps to improve digital skills over the long term. In September 2014, there will be a new computing curriculum for England that brings in a new computer science core. This is an enormous change, an unprecedented step change to a largely new subject which affects all primary school teachers and around 16,000 secondary school teachers.

The curriculum change is a welcome move in the right direction but teachers need to be better supported if it is to have the desired effect. While the £3.5 million of funding made available so far is welcome, it compares poorly both with the investment made in other education systems trying to improve their computing education and with the sum invested in CPD for other subjects in England. For example, last year Jersey set out their intention to overhaul their computing curriculum with a move towards teaching computer theories and coding, just as has been done in England. However, in Jersey a fund of £2.4 million is being invested in teaching and learning, for which their 38 schools and colleges will be able to bid. Of that, around £600,000 is likely to be spent on the CPD specifically for computing. So, Jersey’s budget provision for their new computing curriculum equates to approximately £15,750 per school. By comparison, England is only providing about £175 per school across England’s approximately 20,000 state funded primary and secondary schools. We need to make a proper investment in retraining our teachers that is in line with the challenge.

During our investigations we uncovered some aspects that affect the effective use of digital skills for the benefit of the UK economy, but which are really part of a much broader debate. In particular, we found that even when organisations were successful in attracting the often under represented members of society to acquire digital skills (through, say, studying computer science at University) the lack of support during study and on into employment meant that many failed to make use of their highly valuable digital skills. This is a loss not just to the individual but the economy as a whole at a time when these skills are in high demand. We cannot afford to have the benefits go to a lucky few.

It is not just our young people whom we must equip with digital skills. For our economy to fully realise the benefits of the digital revolution it is also vital to properly enable two key groups: the millions of people who are still not online, and those working in jobs which will disappear through technology enabled change. Increasingly, being offline excludes people from everyday life and from participating in the labour market. A lack of basic digital skills is concentrated amongst the most marginalised in our society: the old, the disabled and the poorest. In a digital economy, lifelong learning will be more important than ever to keep up with changing technologies, a development that we are poorly prepared for.

This report was produced using input gathered from all types of stakeholders in this issue. We ran events and gathered evidence from as wide a range as possible of age groups, socio-economic backgrounds, types of organizations and political thinking. We wanted to bring people together not only to gather their thinking but also to broker new relationships. We filmed contributions at these meetings and this now represents a considerable body of evidence which is available on our YouTube channel. We wanted people to move on from discussing the status quo to use the same innovative thinking that makes our digital industries so dynamic. We hope we have captured this innovative yet practical approach in our recommendations.

Our report deliberately does not set out to have a grand vision but we have set out to make a difference. Recommendations in the report are aimed at government, schools, universities and industry and all could be acted upon immediately. If we are to succeed in the future, we will need to take action now to nurture the home grown digital talent we need.




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