U.K. Tech Chiefs Demand Revolution In IT Education

British CIOs say schoolchildren need to learn programming as early as possible to get the U.K. back in the tech game.
CIOs from some of Britain's biggest enterprises are demanding a complete overhaul of the way the nation's young people are introduced to technology at school.

Their intervention highlights national concerns about both long-term industrial decline and the perceived need to instill real coding skills in schoolchildren as early as possible. While British kids are taught ICT (Information and Communications Technology) as a core part of the mandated syllabus (National Curriculum), they don't get much more practical exposure to the digital world beyond learning MS Office programs. Increasingly, it's become clear that Brits don't engage with enough of what makes tech work -- therefore becoming passive consumers of computers rather than creators.

This weakness at the pre-college stage has been linked to a decline in the number of people studying technology at the university level. In 2003, 16,500 students applied to study computer science or IT first degrees; in 2007, that figure had slipped to 10,600. Though latest figures suggest a bounce back to 13,000 or so, the fact remains that Britain offers few global challengers (apart from Autonomy, now controversially a part of HP) when it comes to technology companies. Indeed, qualifications in ICT are so weak that many U.K. centers of higher education don't consider students prepared for college study in technology.

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The government has finally woken up to the problem, with the Education Minister last year issuing calls for a reform of ICT in schools. His plan: shifting away from the Microsoft tutorial approach and toward real engagement with computers beyond the trivial. This plan was accompanied by talk of making coding "the new Latin," in a reference to the historically highly regarded strength of a Classical education. There was also talk of building on the U.K.'s acknowledged strength in gaming technology as a way of fostering possible job-creating industries in the near future.

Now British CIOs have added their voice to the discussion. The Corporate IT Forum is a community of IT professionals from large, well-established businesses who come together to share insights in enterprise IT problems and solutions. Its 300-plus membership roster includes 145,000 professional IT staff and more than 6 million employees globally, including parts of the U.K. central government, DHL, Aviva, major retailers and aerospace giant BAE Systems.

While the Corporate IT Forum backs up the complaints about the state of ICT education in Britain, it doesn't believe the government's plan to fix it will be effective. Specifically, the group argues that the government's plan is shaped by IT vendors rather than by the user/practitioner community -- let alone the group nobody seems to consider: teachers of ICT.

Thus, the group says, "Government interest in ICT is confined to the value of technology as a business sector rather than recognizing the key role it plays in success across every industry. This is in part evidenced [its] near-exclusive focus on engagement with the IT vendor community in relation to ICT consultation events and development of the new curriculum."

Why is that a problem? The Forum's report agrees that there is a skills gap and that their firms need employees with basic digital literacy as well as those with advanced ICT skills to manage new business applications. But to get there, the IT leaders argue, will require a long-term national strategic approach. The problem may be more complex than a drop in graduates with fresh IT diplomas -- the 2011 class has a 17% unemployment rate. The real area of softness is what the Forum characterized as "experienced mid-level" IT workers, not entry-level candidates, as many of the more experienced posts have been outsourced.

To boost digital competence, the Forum suggests that schools offer three new modes of ICT: Literacy and Information Technology (compulsory for all students), and a more challenging element called Computer Science, which would be offered to students who are interested in pursuing professions in technology. All three modes would be taught by adequately skilled IT teachers, perhaps supported by the IT industry.

The Forum's report has caused much debate in the U.K. technology community, who wonder if the problem stems more from economic issues than inadequate school programs. What is clear is that too few Brits are learning the "new Latin," and seemingly all stakeholders know that's not good enough in the long term.

Tech spending is looking up, but IT must focus more on customers and less on internal systems. Also in the all-digital Outlook 2013 issue of InformationWeek: Five painless rules for encryption. (Free registration required.)

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