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2/5/2013
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U.K. Students Not Lining Up To Study IT

New figures show sharp decline in the number of British teenagers taking up IT as a subject. The government says it has a solution, but will it come too late?

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Between now and 2020, according to an October report from the Royal Academy of Engineering, the U.K. will need 10,000 more new graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) each year just to fill current employment needs.

It's difficult to see where they're going to come from, especially in tech, judging from January data from the U.K Department for Education. Only 3,420 British students, or 0.4%, took a computer science A-level (similar to a U.S. high school diploma) in 2011-12, compared to a high of 12,529 in 1998.

The gender gap is another concern here, as a mere 7% -- 255 total -- of computing A-level students were female in the 2011-12 school year.

In London, which likes to see itself as a future Silicon Valley competitor, the figures are near disastrous: only 376 students registered to do an A-level in computer science. To put this in even starker perspective, in the six central London boroughs identified by the Greater London Authority as having the highest concentration of tech in Europe, a total of 33 students selected to study computing at a pre-college level.

[ Want to know more about efforts to improve IT education? See Google U.K., Raspberry Pi Donate School PCs. ]

The results highlight the truly perilous state of tech education in Britain, critics say. "The statistics show the sheer scale of the challenge in front of us to get programming back in schools," warned Ian Livingstone, an activist for IT skills.

Livingstone chairs the Next Gen Skills campaign, a body set up to try to improve the computer programming skills of British youngsters necessary for the growth of the U.K. economy. The group is led by local games and interactive entertainment trade body UKIE, with active support from major high-tech companies based in the U.K., as well as startups, business associations and major education sector bodies. Supporters include the British arms of Google, Facebook and Sony, as well as Blitz Games Studios.

The group has welcomed recent government moves to shake up the way British youngsters are exposed to tech, such as a plan to make practical computing a key plank in a proposed new English Baccalaureate, so as to inspire a new generation of Brit computer programmers. Specifically, the government says computer science will be included as an optional science on the proposed school-leaving exam set, the Baccalaureate, which could be offered alongside A-levels but have a broader topic base. To get into an "EBacc" course would require pupils to get good grades in English, math, sciences, a humanities and language, and computer science would count as one of the science options towards this measure.

It must be said that not everyone who takes computer science at A-level then studies it at college, and many universities select their computer science students from the regular math and science student pool. But the data does underline the size of the challenge British policymakers face in attracting youngsters to what is seen as a highly paid, rewarding profession.

In Livingstone's view, "Whether it's making games, fighting cybercrime or designing the next jet propulsion engine, computer science is at the heart of everything in the digital world," but this data shows English schools were "failing to produce students in enough numbers to fill the needs of hi tech and creative businesses."

Can data analysis keep students on track and improve college retention rates? Also in the premiere all-digital Analytics' Big Test issue of InformationWeek Education: Higher education is just as prone to tech-based disruption as other industries. (Free with registration.)

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