The Steady Decline of Computing Education in the UK

As you may recall from our previous article discussing the UK’s distinct lack of engineers, there is a growing concern regarding the growing gap in vital technical skills.  Of course, an obvious step in finding a solution is to focus on the training of the next generation of engineers, yet it seems that the UK isn’t fairing too well on that front either.

Where Have All The Teachers Gone?

With the number of students entering into education on the rise, the need for skilled teaching staff is more important than ever.  However, it seems that the retention rate of new teachers has taken a hit with only 67% of students are making the decision to maintain the profession five years after completing their training [1].  When you filter this down to the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) alone this decline is even more pronounced, with a report from the Education Policy Institute placing this five-year retention rate at just 50% for these subjects.  Taking this a step further, of all the topics that fall under the umbrella of STEM, computing comes out on top as the hardest to recruit for with only 66% of vacancies being filled in 2017.

In recognition of this decline, the government has been offering incentives hoping to draw graduates into teaching, for example alongside the core sciences, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, Computing trainees can apply for £26,000 tax-free bursaries.  However, the flaw with having encouragement upfront is that trainees in shortage subjects are prepared to complete their training, using the money to pay off their debts without any plans to go into the profession full time.

As things stand, schools are left to try and cope with the current availability.  In many cases, this means having to rely on more creative staffing approaches, where non-specialist teachers are put in charge of teaching shortage subjects alongside a small number of specialised individuals.  As you would expect this will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect, as much like adding water into a solution to reduce its potency, the use of unspecialised staff to teach subjects that often require specific knowledge will water down the expertise of students as they make their way through the education system.

The Failing Popularity of Computing in Schools

It seems that, despite recognition and active encouragement by the government, the number of students achieving a Computing qualification has dropped significantly and schools have begun pulling back on the number of hours spent teaching the subject.

According to an annual study by the University of Roehampton (UoR), in 2018 only 130,000 students gained a GCSE in Computer Science or ICT (Information Communication Technology). This fall in passing grades comes hand in hand with the phasing out of the broad but weak ICT GCSE and the introduction of it’s ‘more complex’ replacement Computer Science.

Whilst there has been a slow rise in the number of entries into Computer Science, this new qualification has already gained a reputation for being harder than a lot of other subjects.  Unsurprisingly, this has been rather off-putting for many students, especially those that struggle in an academic setting, who are seeking the best way to achieve the top grades.

The old ICT course got a bad reputation for giving children few skills apart from how to set up a spreadsheet or make a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.

[2] bbc.co.uk

Alongside this drop in entries, the study notes that that the provision of computing education outside of exam classes has dropped.  With Key Stage 4 (KS4) timetables prioritising exam-classes, little time is put in reserve for scheduling non-exam Computing classes.  As far as students at a Key Stage 3 (KS3) level are concerned, the time being offered up for Computing has dropped to an average of 45 minutes in 2017, from an hour in 2012, regardless of the growing demands of the National Curriculum at this level [3].  As highlighted by the authors of the UoR study, this means that for the large majority of students that opt out of sitting the Computer Science exam it is very unlikely that they will be receiving tuition on Computing past the age of 14.

To rub salt into an already sore wound, many schools that previously offered courses such as Computer Science as an option for its students, have now dropped it from their course list, many of them being all-girl comprehensives and grammar schools.  On the other hand, as a mild balm to the UK’s ailment, the Department for Education (DfE) has stated that Computing will now be forming a compulsory part of the National Curriculum as well as an investment of £84m over four years to up-skill 8,000 Computer Science teachers in hopes of driving up participation in Computer Science.

Computer Science Grads Dropping Like Flies

Unfortunately, the trials of Computing education don’t seem to stop at a secondary school level.  With a rate of 10.7% for the 2017/2018 school year, according to official figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), courses in Computing are experiencing the highest number of first-year dropouts compared to any other subject at this level. It’s nearest competitor being Advertising, with a rate of 7.7% [4].

The top reasons behind this high figure?  According to a study by theknowledgeacademy.com of both current and former students, value for money, enjoyment of the subject matter and lack of practical skill development.  Our own experiences and conversations with placement and graduate engineers, concur with these findings.  We have lost count of the number of times we have had a placement student mention that, without the opportunity to gain experience of working in the industry, they would have felt totally underprepared for starting a career in software at the end of their course, and that a lot of the topics covered in the first year proved to be almost pointless in the workplace.

There’s Always Another Way, Right …?

So far this article has been rather negative about the current state of affairs, however, a comment at the bottom of a slightly unrelated article in the Guardian really stood out to us during the rather grey results produced when conducting our research.  The commenter, who goes by the username LoobyLou1, mentions that, despite doing well in her computing degree, when she started working as a programmer she felt as though she didn’t really know what she was doing or how to learn what she needed to perform.  However, after three years in another profession, she returned to being a junior developer and is now much happier and progressing much better than she did previously.  She cites this difference down to the fact that her employer takes a very serious stance on training, and the availability of online resources to assist in continuous learning.  So maybe trying to emulate this environment in a classroom and lecture hall would help to stem this downward spiral we seem to have found ourselves in.

Just like this ladies’ employer, Zircon strives to promote the continuous improvement of our teams’ skills.  Whether this be our placement students or staff that have been with us for many years.  We also believe that in terms of educating the next generation of engineers, a lot can be said in favour of the hands-on approach of Apprenticeships.  The fact that learners can gain the experience of working expectations, all whilst learning the theory and earning a wage, seems to solve many of the issues that a Computing degree seems to introduce.

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