The digital economy is booming – but are we adequately preparing our young people to be a part of it? Clare Verga considers the landscape…
UK is failing to prepare today’s pupils for a future in the economy of tomorrow. There is a coming crisis in digital and technology skills and careers awareness, which will mean that our nation’s young people will not be able to fulfil their potential in an increasingly digital economy. Teachers and pupils are not getting the right support and training, and there is a serious lack of a careers provision across the country.
This is why the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) called a summit recently, inviting leading industry figures from Google, Microsoft and the BBC and me, representing UK schools as the Principal of City of London Academy Islington, to discuss this significant issue. BIMA’s Digital Day, which takes place on 17 November 2015, is one of the initiatives that will allow schools to work with digital agencies to raise awareness of digital career opportunities.
The digital skills desert
Since 2012, careers services in schools have suffered a serious demise. With Connexions now run by the local authority due to changes from electoral reform, UK schools are severely lacking support, particularly state schools. Although there is still a small provision for careers, it varies wildly between different counties depending on budgets, needs and perspectives in that particular community/locale.
An Ofsted report published in September 2013, based on a survey of 60 schools, found that only 1 in 5 of the schools surveyed provided their students with sufficient information to consider a wide range of career possibilities, whilst links with employers were limited. Further to this the Education Select Committee has repeatedly warned that the careers’ services have been neglected.
Meanwhile, the digital economy is booming. A report written by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills in 2013 identified:
- 3% of the workforce are employed in the digital sector.
- The sector contributes 7.4% of GDP (£69 billion per annum).
- Growth of employment in the sector is up 5.5% between 2009 and 2012 (against a backdrop of recession) – more than twice the rate of growth in the economy as a whole.
- The digital industry is predicted to be one of the main drivers of the UK’s economy over the next decade.
For this growth and productivity to be maintained, the sector requires highly skilled recruits; however, many employers are reporting difficulties in finding the right people with the right skills.
There are young people in our schools today who have the potential to be future contributors to this vibrant sector. All of this serves to highlight how initiatives such as BIMA’s Digital Day can be of significant benefit to all parties involved, but also emphasises why it is critical to improve the quality of education in schools in order to better support the future of the digital career sector.
A joined up approach
One off events like BIMA’s Digital Day are powerful and serve a purpose. Digital Day is organised by industry heavyweights, and sets out to provide much-needed career support to the UK’s young people – to raise the profile of digital careers’ and engage the interest of our young people in pursuing a career in digital. However, that interest and motivation cannot be sustained without a repetitive approach or the provision of a comprehensive offer that will ensure impact longer term. While the industry certainly has a part to play in this, it is untenable to expect the responsibility to sit with them without support from the government, which is why a joined-up approach is essential.
Consideration must be given to teaching students how to employ their skills in a digital context and engage them practically in facilitating this. Careers education needs to be high quality and informed with the most up to date developments in digital. It must make it clear to young people the full breadth and range of digital pathways available, highlighting the auxiliary roles and all opportunities beyond the obvious, in a way that is accessible.
Practical steps forward
Opportunities for young people to visit off site facilities are stimulating and often prove to be inspirational. Work experience is an important part of this and it is key to give exposure to quality placements.
In the absence of quality careers’ advice and guidance in school, many students are reliant on family and peers to advise and support them to make decisions about their futures. Many do not have the knowledge or connections to support their child in achieving a career in digital. Teachers must keep up to date with digital developments to be of genuine benefit to young people. Webinars and online conferencing, websites linking schools with the local digital economy, development opportunities such as immersion courses or digital placements for teachers, and dialogue through social media would all be highly valued by those working in education.
I serve a community where 75% of our students are eligible for free school meals. Many come from households where no adult is in work, or where their parents work in unskilled occupations. A tiny proportion of our students have parents who received a university education; few of them have parents or family friends working in the digital sector. We drive aspiration amongst our young people and make sure they are aware of the wealth of opportunities available to them. There is no ceiling. We have a thriving digital economy on our doorstep so drawing on initiatives such as Digital Day, to support what we are doing, is a very exciting opportunity.
Fundamentally though, it is about engaging policy makers to address the issue of the sector’s talent shortage and growing skills gap crises in a way that is centralised. That is, galvanising experts from the digital industry and establishing a core group or think tank to link with parliamentarians and government departments, teachers and unions. The future of recruiting from UK talent for this sector is at risk and current educational reforms, I would suggest, will likely sustain and indeed arguably further frustrate the risk to the sectors’ talent shortage and growing skills gap crisis. This cannot be ignored by government anymore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Clare Verga is Principal of City of London Academy Islington
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