No bytes at the back end

14th September 2007 at 01:00
A crisis is looming in the Scottish economy, as young people don't know how to build computer systems they just use them

EXPERTS HAVE issued a warning that computing studies in schools must be overhauled before the Scottish economy is plunged into crisis.

Computing studies are "irrelevant", "boring" and turning youngsters off the subject before they hit their teens, universities and businesses have claimed.

As a result, they say, the number of students doing computer science at Scottish universities has halved in five years and the Scottish computing industry is suffering from a dearth of expertise. If Scotland wants a knowledge-based economy, this represents a crisis, they argue.

A Curriculum for Excellence, in its current form, is unlikely to solve the problem, they warn.

"No one seems to realise we are becoming a nation of tool users, not tool builders," said Quintin Cutts, a lecturer in the Department of Computing Studies at Glasgow University. "Pupils are being taught ICT, in other words, how to use technology but not about what goes on underneath, how to build rather than use these systems. This represents a crisis for our economy. We must keep ahead in the development of new technology."

According to Andrew McGettrick of Strathclyde University's Computer and Information Sciences department, teachers are doing their best, but the curriculum is outdated. "By 12 or 13, youngsters all have mobile phones, computers and iPods," he said. "But in computing at school, they are taught about bits and bytes. We know they are excited by new technology, but we are just not building on that. The current curriculum in schools is tired and almost irrelevant.

"Computing is an important discipline and that is not reflected in current plans or thinking. Under ACfE in science, there is the living world, which is biology; the physical world, which is physics; and the material world, which is chemistry. But the concept of a digital world the world most young people live in is not there. As soon as we lose our expertise in computing, we lose the ability to invent that's a disaster for the country."

Chris van der Kuyl, who became a millionaire designing computer games, said he struggled to recruit skilled staff.

"Software-based technology companies need one raw material and that's people," said Mr van der Kuyl, chairman of Tayforth Consulting Limited, based in Dundee. "If you stop the flow of skilled people, we have no ability to develop our businesses. We will stagnate and what worries me is that I really believe software is at the heart of the current economy."

A group including academics such as Professor McGettrick and Dr Cutts, representatives from the Scottish Qualifications Authority and subject teachers has begun discussions on how the curriculum should look. However, some moves have already been made to change the way computing is taught in schools.

For over a year, the Computer Science Inside project, based at the University of Glasgow and led by Dr Cutts, has been running workshops designed to capture pupils' interest by looking at the computer science inside their mobile phones, the internet, and MP3 players (see p10-11).

Meanwhile, at Balwearie High in Kirkcaldy, S1 and S2 pupils are studying a new computing course after the old version was branded "uninspiring" by teachers.

Aspects of the Standard grade course were also staid, admitted John Mason, principal teacher of computing. But keeping up with the rapidly changing tech nical world was difficult, he pointed out. "Computing has been rewritten three times in the past 10 years, trying to keep it fresh."

Action is also being taken to tackle the perception that jobs in the sector have dried up. A leaflet, produced by Scottish universities, has been sent to secondary schools, highlighting the variety of careers a computing degree can lead to.

It reads: "Job growth rates across the computing spectrum in the United Kingdom can be summarised with one word: big."

The leaflet drop was welcomed by Mr van der Kuyl, who believes universities also need to be more inventive when it comes to selling their courses to prospec- tive students.

"It's a tough degree there's a lot of maths and physics but with it you'll be able to conquer the world," he said.


Teachers need to teach pupils to be entrepreneurs in preparation for a more cut-throat world, according to a new university programme.

The Scottish Programme for Entrepreneurship, launched last week, will aim to support entrepre-neurial education in teacher training both initial teacher education and continuing professional development.

Funded by the Scottish Government and the Hunter Foundation, it will cost pound;2.65 million over three years and involve the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Strathclyde. The courses are likely to involve familiarising teachers with international economics.

Anthony Keating of the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University, said: "There are countries with enormous young populations close enough to deprivation and poverty to know what it feels like, and they are quite clear they are not going to go back to that. They are driven in a way our young people are not.

"If you think the world is competitive now, in five or 10 years these will be considered Halcyon days," he said.

"Many people argue that entrepre-neurship is something within an individual. We regard that as non-sense. The ability to influence the life chances and opportunity of a young person happens throughout the educational process."

The introduction of entrepreneurship into teacher training was welcomed by the Educational Institute of Scotland as a natural next step.

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