Whenever the digital economy or digital impact is discussed two things inevitably happen: huge numbers are quoted (of potential jobs lost, jobs to be created, impact on the economy); and the government of the day puffs out its collective chest and spouts lists of task forces, initiatives and pots of money being spent.
As someone who’s seen this happen many times, the predictability of this debate can get a bit frustrating. Because what is often lost in the statistics and sound bites is the fact that the world is being transformed by a digital revolution which is affecting all aspects of our lives: work, home, society, services, politics. This is both exciting and frightening, a time of great opportunity and great risk. And nowhere is this change more apparent than in our education system.
At the most basic level, these changes will need fast, and preferably superfast, cheap broadband. The internet needs to be viewed as a utility, readily accessible to all, or we will neither maximise our economic potential nor address increasing inequality. A range of goods and services are already either cheaper, only available or accessed more quickly online, and many jobs already expect digital and technical capacity. This proportion will increase exponentially.
The digital revolution, then, requires a major overhaul of education and training, from primary school through to, and throughout, adult life. The introduction of coding to the national curriculum is great, but without properly trained teachers the benefit this could have will not be realised. More fundamentally, we have to drive up the number of students from Key Stage 3 onwards who study separate sciences, and, in particular, the number who study maths to a higher level. We are wasting talent and damaging economic prospects for individuals, families and the nation by our collective failure to encourage more students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. What we don’t really know is how to do this. Initiatives and hard hats are not enough.
That’s why I was pleased to accept the invitation from Haringey Council in London to chair a new independent STEM commission, joining local school leaders, STEM specialists and the journalists Robert Peston and Maggie Philbin in exploring in greater depth how young people in Haringey might benefit from STEM opportunities, and considering what can be done to improve STEM education both within the borough and nationally.
Haringey has form in this area. In 2012, the council convened the independent Outstanding for All commission, whose recommendations for driving forward school improvement and the actions that followed were subsequently hailed by both Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw and the Department for Education.
The Haringey STEM Commission launches at a time of great opportunity both in Haringey and across the country. When Google’s new European headquarters opens in King’s Cross, there will be more tech jobs in London than in Silicon Valley. Our challenge is to make sure that the next generation of school leavers are able to take advantage of exciting career opportunities like these.
We already recognise some of the barriers that must be overcome. Girls and black and minority ethnic students, as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are far less likely to study STEM subjects and are significantly unrepresented in STEM careers. We believe this imbalance – which sees too many of our young people unwittingly locked out of some of the most promising careers – is unfair and must be addressed. And that is just the start.
In thinking about solutions to these challenges, we hope to share our learning and to support others elsewhere in the country in their efforts to raise awareness, interest and attainment in STEM education and employment.
As commissioners, we’re keen to engage with a wide variety of groups and individuals with specialist interests and insights into STEM education and employment, both in Haringey and further afield, so that we can share knowledge, ideas, learning and best practice.
For more information, including details of how you can support the work of the commission, please visit http://stemcommission.org.uk/