Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Scotland’s schools are woefully behind in the tech revolution

This article by Alison Payne first appeared in The Times on 31 May 2024.

In August 2020 Mark Logan completed his review of the Scottish tech ecosystem. Describing the system as a funnel, with school as the base layer, he noted that “the larger the pool of engaged and skilled young people at this stage, the easier it will be later for start-ups to form and to grow”.

However, despite the welcome his report was given by politicians, our base layer remains in poor condition and is getting worse, not better.

Using freedom of information requests, Reform Scotland discovered that more than 32,000 pupils attend a Scottish secondary school with no qualified computing science teacher. That is roughly 12 per cent of all secondary pupils. This rises to about 50 per cent in rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway and the Highlands.

There are 66 secondary schools with no computing science teacher, including 27 with a school roll of more than 500 and ten with more than 1,000 pupils. In addition, 25 secondary schools with a roll above 1,000 pupils have only one qualified computing science teacher. We also found that not all pupils have computing as a compulsory subject in S1 and S2, and many of those who do are taught by specialists in other subjects.

This research, published in our report, Computing the Future: Creating Digital Leaders, Not Just Consumers, is set against an already precarious situation — the number of computing science teachers has been in steep decline for many years, while the number of pupils choosing computer science has been falling since the education secretary was herself a school pupil.

To be a leading player that develops and creates high-tech companies, rather than simply using imported technology, Scotland needs a workforce with the knowledge and skills necessary to meet that challenge. As the Logan review highlighted, the development of those skills starts in school. That isn’t to say one subject should be given greater value over any other, rather it is a warning that there will be consequences to such a vital area being allowed to decline.

Reform Scotland has made a series of recommendations, including ensuring a suitable digital skill base among primary school teachers, being more flexible in the qualifications required by the General Teaching Council Scotland and increasing collaboration with the independent schools sector.

The report also calls for Scottish Teachers Advancing Computing Science to be placed on a permanent footing. This government-funded initiative is helping to address upskilling and supports non-computing teachers in learning about the subject. However, at present it is only a temporary body.

The future is digital. Scotland needs school leavers who are able and ready to be at the centre of this technological revolution — for their sake and for the nation’s.