Scotland's education system needs to give greater priority to computer studies – Angus Robertson

Our young people need the skills to play their part in the exciting opportunities presented by Edinburgh’s drive to become Europe’s ‘Data Capital’, writes Angus Robertson.

By Angus Robertson
Tuesday, 1st September 2020, 7:30 am
Learning about computers is vital as the digital revolution continues to transform our lives (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Learning about computers is vital as the digital revolution continues to transform our lives (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The digital revolution has transformed our lives – mostly for the better. Never before have we had as much information at our fingertips with unprecedented computing power on phones, tablets, laptops or desktops accessible for most with unimaginable capacity measured against even a few years ago.

Despite this, the number of computer science teachers and students is actually going backwards in Scotland. According to a new ground-breaking report on Scotland’s tech future, it is a trend we need to reverse and computing is a subject that needs to be taught to all. I couldn’t agree more.

Over the last decade, the number of computer science teachers has fallen by almost 23 per cent while Nat 5 participation in computing science has fallen by 19 per cent. While mathematics is compulsory through most school stages, computing science only accounted for only 15 per cent participation in comparison. This doesn’t reflect the importance of the subject and its exponential growth in its relevance for our personal lives, essential skills, employability and economic importance.

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When Apollo 11 flew to the Moon in 1969, the year of my birth, it used a command module computer which packed a puny punch, equivalent to a present-day pocket calculator or USB-C charger. In the early 1980s, when I went to computer club at Edinburgh’s Broughton High School, everything was focused on the Commodore 64, while games were played on ZX Spectrums and Ataris.

Looking back at their computing power, capabilities and graphics, it is funny to think that this was once cutting-edge. Throughout these last decades, the speed and capacity of our computers has increased every couple of years, while their cost has reduced. It’s a phenomenon known as Moore’s Law.

While we all depend on information technology it is remarkable that we don’t lay greater importance on its teaching and learning. While maths features from Primary 1 onwards as an intensively taught subject, computing science usually begins as an optional subject in third year at secondary school. By this time, gender stereotypes have kicked in and, on average, only 16 per cent of students studying higher computing science are female in any given year. What a massive loss.

Last week, a hugely important report written by Mark Logan on the future of the Scottish tech ecosystem was published by the Scottish Government. The former chief operating officer of Edinburgh-based Skyscanner outlined our current shortcomings and also the opportunities if we get decision-making right and make the tech sector a key priority. It should be compulsory reading for all decision-makers in Scotland.

Recent statistics have shown the preponderance of small independent countries amongst the latest Bloomberg Innovation Index including: Singapore, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Norway all of whom are better rated than the UK. It is time for Scotland to aspire to have the same independent powers as these nations and seek to emulate their innovation and success.

Edinburgh has the aspiration to be Europe’s ‘Data Capital’. Scotland’s capital city already has the UK’s largest technology incubator at CodeBase, is already a leading global hub in the FinTech sector and Edinburgh University plans to build Europe’s first regional data innovation centre.

Surely all of our young people should be equipped with the necessary skills to play their part and benefit from this exciting opportunity.

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