MORGAN Stanley, JP Morgan and the University of Glasgow are among more than 60 organisations that have signed up to a new digital charter that aims to tackle a potentially critical decline of computing science learning in Scotland.
The campaign comes amid growing concern that without action to attract more children to the subject, Scotland will not produce enough candidates to fill the thousands of jobs created by the technology sector each year. The charter seeks to foster greater collaboration between industry and academia, to inspire more young people to study computing science at school, and to highlight the breadth of careers the sector offers.
The charter has been inspired by West Lothian-based computing science teacher Toni Scullion, who was concerned about the lack of attention being given to the subject in schools.
Despite the opportunities being created in the tech sector in Scotland each year, Ms Scullion said there are fears computing science may slip off the curriculum in some schools altogether, given the steep fall in the number of teachers in the last decade.
Official figures show there were 766 computing science teachers responsible for 25,000 pupils in Scotland in 2008. But by 2020 there were 595 teachers educating fewer than 10,000 pupils – and less than 2,000 of those pupils were female.
This decline would ultimately appear to be contributing to a shortfall in job candidates, with research from tech industry body ScotlandIS suggesting 75 per cent of employers are experiencing difficulties recruiting digital staff.
It is feared the shortage poses a major threat to Scottish Government plans to establish Scotland as a “world-class technology hub”.
Ms Scullion, who has been teaching computing science for 12 years, said: “There is on average 13,000 new digital jobs created in Scotland every year but through apprenticeships and graduates we are only training around 5,000 to fill them.
“Inspiring pupils at a young age is crucial to filling this skills gap. Not all schools even teach computing science anymore. For a sector that is increasingly touching every aspect of everyday life this is completely mad.
“This has been a pattern for at least the last decade and we need to take action now or the subject, along with the vast employment opportunities that it provides a grounding in, will be lost for a generation.”
Eve Wallace, executive director of technology at Morgan Stanley, which employs around 1,600 staff in Glasgow, believes the roles on offer within computing have to be more clearly communicated to young people to address the situation. Ms Wallace, who believes Scotland is at a “critical point” over the issue, said: “There is an outdated perception, and a general lack of awareness, of the opportunities on offer within technology which inhibit talented people from exploring and ultimately building successful careers in the industry.
“Through this charter, Morgan Stanley is excited to be a part of an initiative that promotes a partnership between industry and education, helping to tap into and develop the exceptional young talent we have in Scotland and hopefully raise awareness to current and future generations the opportunities that are available to them in the digital sector.”
Ms Wallace noted that Morgan Stanley runs a broad range of educational initiatives to engage young people, from coding competitions to careers fairs, and has well established graduate programmes and internships. Other companies make similar commitments but what is lacking is joined-up thinking between the commercial sector and academia, she said.
“A big purpose of the charter is: how do we enhance the collaboration across education [and] industry so there is more structural accessibility for everyone, and not leave things to chance,” Ms Wallace noted.
Ms Scullion echoed that sentiment, stating that “computing science… needs to be for everybody.”
She said it was exciting that global brands such as Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan and Adobe have a big presence in Scotland, but said the “barrier needs to be broken” to ensure more children from deprived areas can ultimately secure jobs with these organisations.
Ms Wallace said there are many jobs that would suit people who are creative and logical thinkers, but who find the language surrounding computing science to be a barrier. “There was a bit of research in 2019 by NWU in Princeton, that identified that if you use action-focused language, so doing science, rather than identity-focused language, of being a scientist, with kids, they are materially more likely to remain in engaged with a subject, particularly girls,” she said.
“That’s a two-word difference. It shouldn’t be a two-word difference to help early-stage school kids think about what they will enjoy when they grow up.”
Dr Matt Barr, computing science lecturer at the University of Glasgow, said: “It is critical that pupils develop an interest in computing science from a young age if they are to go on and study it further and ultimately take advantage of the varied job opportunities that are available in the tech sector.
“Getting the message across about the range and variety of career options computing science opens the door to is not being done effectively at the moment, with the next generation potentially missing out on well-paid fulfilling careers.
“Hopefully working together with industry through the Charter we can help reverse this.”
Ms Scullion is involved in a growing grassroots network of teachers called Computing Science Scotland, which now has hundreds of members and produces its own magazine. A big of its remit is to share good practice in the classroom.
She said: “It is all these teachers in their spare time, wanting to do more and inspire many. I do think there are great people out there and we are trying our hardest to as much as we can.”