School IT curriculum putting students off IT career, E-Skills head says

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The way IT is taught in schools is putting children off an IT career and causing problems for an industry that is struggling to find 150,000 new recruits, the head of the UK's training body for IT has warned.

The current curriculum for GCSEs and A-levels is having a “detrimental” effect on the IT industry as a whole, said Karen Price, chief executive of the IT sector skills council E-Skills.

Research by E-Skills UK and the Council for Professors and Heads of Computing has concluded that youngers drop out of IT at A-level, because of negative experiences at school.

“We need a curriculum that embraces creativity, and that employers help to develop,” she said, speaking at a roundtable organised by Microsoft.

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“The school curriculum also has a knock-on effect into higher education and employment, as students wrongly presume that school ICT courses are an indicator of the content of IT-related degree courses and careers,” she said.

Gordon Frazer, managing director of Microsoft UK, agreed. “The way we teach IT skills to children today is actually quite scary. We start by teaching people how the internal [technical] stuff works, and it is just not that interesting.”

Phil Willis, chair of the department of universities at the Innovation and Skills Select Committee, said more investment in high-level skills is needed before the UK can become a place where innovation thrives. “Innovation will not occur at any level without a huge investment in skills. We need to have that entrepreneurial culture.”

The government's attempts to improve Britain's skills are founded on a study by Lord Leitch published in 2006. Leitch recommended a demand-led approach, making employers pay for skills and training and giving them more of a voice in deciding the contents of school and university syllabuses.

But Willis said this is a risky approach, “If that is successful, it will the first time ever that we have had an employer-led skills agenda that has actually worked.”

Karen Price said it is the “soft” skills that employers most often want to see. Many employers already spend a lot of time developing softer skills such as good communication and interpersonal skills. But they need to start communicating to parents and pupils how much they value soft skills, and to emphasise that it is not only academic qualifications that matter, she said.

The panel agreed the main task is to try and create a culture where young people are not afraid to take risks if the UK is to compete with fast-growing, entrepreneurial countries such as India and China.

“While the 17th century is described as the industrial revolution, the 21st century will be described as the innovation revolution. Those who master innovation will be the winners in terms of wealth creation and economic success,” Willis said.

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