Schools key to cracking nation’s coding shortage

11th March 2016 at 00:00
Programmers are more in demand then ever before, so why has the number of computing teachers fallen by a quarter in the past decade? Henry Hepburn reports

The world must at times seem like a depressing place to anyone approaching the end of their school days.

The media is awash with predictions of how technology is going to render countless jobs obsolete – and even now you don’t have to look far for tales of high-level graduates scraping a living in coffee shops and supermarkets

Yet there is one sector of work that bucks the trend: never have coders been more in demand. For them, the exponential pace of technological change has led to a golden age of opportunity. The stereotype of the teenage loner typing code in his darkened bedroom makes less and less sense when just about any business has to invest in programmers to remain viable. As one industry expert told TESS a few months back, coders are the rock stars of the future.

Yet Scotland is not even beginning to meet that demand. With 11,000 job opportunities forecast to open up each year in the ICT and digital technology sector (see graphic, page 18), the opportunities are manifold for school-leavers.

But, in some regards, Scotland seems to be asleep at the wheel. How else to explain that the number of secondary computing teachers has fallen by a quarter over the past decade?

However, there are efforts being made to turn out a steady stream of tech-savvy creative young people, and at the forefront is CodeClan. Based in Edinburgh (literally in the shadow of the castle), Scotland’s first digital skills academy – and the UK’s only accredited coding academy for web and mobile software development – opened in October.

Grand ambitions

CodeClan’s modestly proportioned premises (there are just four small classrooms) belie the scale of its ambition. It expects to produce 1,000 graduates in the first three years, and more than 600 annually by 2018.

Its professional development award in software development, devised in conjunction with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, will be made available to training centres worldwide. The first graduates of its intensive, 16-week training programme (comprising 900 hours) emerged in January.

While many of CodeClan’s students are fresh out of university, about a third do not hold degrees – and some talented recruits were previously working in low-skilled jobs, such as stacking shelves at Tesco.

Chief executive Harvey Wheaton says that CodeClan cannot come close to bridging the skills gap on its own, though, and that this is where schools come in – they can make the most profound difference in the long term.

CodeClan wants to banish misinformation about computing, coding and programming that stymies any attempts to recruit more school-leavers into the sector.

If teachers visited CodeClan, they would see rooms full of people “doing exciting, fun, cool stuff”, says Wheaton, which taps into humans’ innate creativity and altruism, and shows a side of coding that could enthral pupils.

“It’s more like sculpting – it’s actually highly creative problem-solving,” explains Wheaton, adding that “writing music and writing code are very similar”.

When TESS looks around the CodeClan base, students are working out how to corral seemingly mind-boggling amounts of data, using it to do anything from running a virtual pet shop to getting ambulances to accident scenes more quickly. The best coders, says Wheaton, have a “genuine empathy for the people that they are working with and writing software for”.

‘Having an impact’

Student Adam Reid, 29, used to work in financial services but felt that, no matter how effective he was at his job, all he was ever doing was reducing piles of paperwork. “I want to do a job where I can do something creative – I like having an end product that has an impact,” he says.

Fellow student Chae Cramb, 30, is one of CodeClan’s first graduates and has now been recruited by Simul8 – a company that designs mathematical software to improve business processes for the likes of Ford and Nasa. Cramb, who previously worked for a world-leading professional services firm, has found a job satisfaction that previously eluded him. “Every coder I know loves coding,” he says, adding that whatever your interests – be they art, sport or something else entirely – there is “barely a sector that doesn’t employ a software engineer”.

From the students to the chief executive, most at CodeClan seem to agree that the time to start learning the basic coding that opens up such careers is around P5.

But CodeClan instructor and former computing teacher Kate Farrell warns that there is a “very worrying” decline in school computing departments across Scotland, and that sometimes the subject does not capitalise on the dynamism of coding, so, for example, pupils will be asked to create static web pages rather than interactive ones.

Right from the start of primary school, Ms Farrell believes, children could be learning “computational thinking”, which involves breaking down the ways in which a problem can be resolved into logical, sequential steps. In England, computing is now on the national curriculum at that level.

Pupils might be asked, for example, to examine something as basic as getting dressed for rainy weather in the right way; this type of learning helps them comprehend, from an early age, the real-life impact of programming. Computing at School Scotland, which promotes computer science, is “very supportive” of CodeClan but stresses that schools and local authorities hold “the real key” to closing the digital skills gap.

A new world of opportunity

CAS Scotland co-chair Mark Tennant says that it has “never been easier to develop coding skills” in the “broad general education” before pupils start taking national qualifications, thanks in part to “innovative and engaging” volunteer-run projects such as Code Club and CoderDojo.

However, an Education Scotland report ( found patchy delivery of coding skills in primary schools.

Mr Tennant adds: “Our biggest concern for computing in our schools remains the provision of appropriately trained teachers.”

He is also open to the idea of making greater use of non-teachers with relevant computing skills – “much like peripatetic music specialists”.

The optimism of CodeClan is tempered by the realities outside its premises. Fewer than one in five people working in ICT are women (see box, above right); Wheaton ultimately wants to see a 50-50 gender split in the sector. And he believes that there is still a sizeable image problem for computing that prevents mass participation in the subject.

Wheaton says that he would like all young people to leave school with at least rudimentary coding skills, whatever their aspirations in life, but computing is still relatively niche compared with dominant subjects such as maths and English.

SQA figures show that, in 2015, there was a sharp fall in Higher computing entries – to 3,008 from 4,468 in 2014 – compared with 14,211 for English and 10,855 for maths.

Pupils do not consider taking computing unless they aspire to a career in the sector, says Wheaton. “Yet when you teach English or maths, you don’t assume every pupil wants to be a mathematician or an author.”


How primaries can help close the computing gender gap

I’ve just introduced a new college course that is designed to encourage more women into computer science ( I would have loved it to be around when I was studying.

I knew when I chose computing at university that it would probably be male-dominated. I was the only woman in the class and lacked confidence to the point where I took a year out. But this was what I wanted to do and I went back, although I still felt insecure.

I have been researching in primary schools for six years – this is where we need to start. Children learn from an early age and it’s our responsibility as adults to show them that, no matter their gender, they can do anything.

So why don’t we help them to make computer games in schools? It is, after all, now part of the Scottish curriculum from P5 onwards.

I’ve been teaching pupils in Glasgow to use Scratch, a free programming language aimed at children. My research involved nearly 400 children aged 8-11. I rarely heard gender-related comments. There were a couple of P6 or P7 classes who, when told they’d be working in mixed-gender pairs, gave that awkward pre-teen look that said “How can I work with a boy (or girl)?”, but after two minutes that was forgotten and awesome games were soon made.

I’m hoping that the new course will encourage girls and young women to think seriously about computing careers. As educators we must work together to change attitudes – otherwise we’ll still be having this conversation in 20-30 years’ time.

Amanda Wilson, computing lecturer, West College Scotland

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