You know that disaster movie feeling – when you can see what’s going to happen but there’s nothing you can do to stop it? That’s how it feels for many of us in the AI and digital field right now. At the upper echelons there’s great work being done developing incredible new technology and (my field) pushing ahead to define data ethics and governance, but there’s a yawning chasm ahead of us – lack of fundamental digital skills. And it’s going to destroy our ambitions for the UK to be a leader in the digital future unless we make radical changes.

The new report out today from the Learning and Work Institute gives you all the data you need:

  • Fewer young people are taking ICT subjects at GCSE – down 40% since 2015
  • IT teaching in schools dropped by 36% from 2012 – 2017
  • Only 23% of Computer Science or ICT GCSE students were female, with girls less likely to take ICT apprenticeships.

Are you surprised by this? I’m not. The way computer science is taught in schools is, frankly, boring. Not only is the curriculum for GCSE and A level uninspiring but far too many teachers have no real world experience to use to enliven lessons so you’ll get a couple of kids in a GCSE class who are interested in the subject and the rest are just taking it to fill a gap in the number of subjects the school wants them to choose.

What a dreadful waste of everyone’s time and talent – and a dire future for our country.

So what’s the solution? There are going to be a lot of digital strategies coming out from the Government and from research institutes this year and I’ll bet they all advocate grand national strategies and programmes. I’m not condemning this approach – after all I’m currently benefitting from the strategy that’s set up new Masters degree programmes for people like me to convert to careers in Artificial Intelligence and Data Science. But they’re not going to solve the grassroots problem of uninspiring teaching and crappy curricula.

What does work are ground-up initiatives. In my area, John Bradford has pioneered Digilocal, working with disadvantaged young people to nurture skills and inspire passion. If the Government were to fund a Digilocal-type club in every disadvantaged area of the UK then we’d see some progress.

Over the years I’ve talked and written extensively about the need for businesses to shake up their CSR activities. In the tech world enlightened self-interest demands a new approach. If they want a pool of employees to draw from in the future, tech businesses have got to put more effort in. They should stop patting themselves on the back for going in to schools for an hour once a year to deliver a (yawn!) careers talk – which if you’re lucky will inspire 1 student to think of a tech career. Instead businesses need to partner up with teachers to help them be inspiring in those computer science lessons. Take a robot in to the school that uses AI to solve a Rubik’s cube and let the kids mess with the programming to see what happens. Buddy up with the local youth organisation and digital skills charity (or start one if there isn’t one) and give kids the chance to design their own computer games in the evenings.

This is urgent – I believe the UK will be at the forefront of the new digital revolution and I want this amazing future to belong to everyone and not be the preserve of a digital elite. What about you?

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