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A slice of raspberry Pi

“A slice of raspberry Pi” is the third in a series examining the shift in society caused by technology by Theo Wooster. Building on Clogs & Conspiracy Theories and Hello, Hal, can you help me with AI?, we now start to look forwards starting with a specific focus on education and training, considering what policies are currently in place and what else might help ensure the benefits of smart technology significantly outweigh the disadvantages.

Called Out

Eric SchmidtIn August 2011, Eric Schmidt spoke at the annual Mactaggart Lecture in Edinburgh. What he would go on to say would arguably influence the shape of education in the UK for the coming decade with echoes beyond.

The former Google Chairman lamented the failure of the British education system to teach programming; that it was “throwing away [your] great computer heritage” and was “flabbergasted” that coding was not on the curriculum.

By the following January, then education secretary, Michael Gove, and his then-advisor (with something of a Silicon Valley fixation) Dominic Cummings announced a radical reform of computer education with a particular emphasis on coding and computer science.

Office skills != Computer Science

TypewriterThe previous “ICT” lessons, which primarily focussed on using Microsoft’s Office Suite and in developing little more than basic office skills, were rightly thrown on the scrap heap.

The old curriculum had little to do with developing a technically literate workforce, and more in common with the old Pitman typing exams.

However, as we move towards a new frontier where artificial intelligence and smart technology is increasingly commonplace in both the home and workplace, the risks of having a computer-illiterate population become more urgent than cultural embarrassment at the hands of a global tech giant.

In the second blog in this series, we explored how the changing demands of employment require a workforce comfortable interacting with, as well as creating and managing, smart technologies – and, not least, understanding the ethical concerns that this shift presents!

Groups of people, indeed whole nations, who are unable to do this are likely to face structural unemployment on a scale previously unseen. And as we discussed, this will not be restricted to artisan weavers or coal mining communities as the professions are equally at risk this time around.

It becomes crucial, as the rate of adoption accelerates, that there are suitable strategies in education and society to ensure that the UK does not become a passive consumer of technologies inflicted from afar, but rather is able to shape and reap the benefits.

The State of Play

Mortar boardWhile the old ICT curriculum had few supporters, will the relatively new curriculum prepare the current generation of students sprinting start towards the new employment frontier?

In terms of the content of the computing curriculum, in short, yes.

In terms of its implementation and fit into the wider curriculum, less so.

The programme of study for computing in England in particular is pretty solid – with baselines by the end of Key Stage 3 (Year 9) that includes the ability to use two or more programming languages, understand key algorithms, and be comfortable with Boolean logic.

These are skills that very few school-age pupils would have been seen previously and should provide a foundation on which to appreciate the digital world, rather than be left baffled and ill-prepared.

Finally, students may get a slice of Raspberry Pi? It is the implementation, integration, and execution of this curriculum for the machine age that has been found wanting.

Clued up, thumbs down

Firstly, the subject, while compulsory until the age of 16, is optional as Thumbs downa qualification – much like the position of physical education. This is an issue compounded by the startling unpopularity of the subject, particularly amongst girls.

While data on this is somewhat sporadic, the picture it paints is clear.

Counting the fear

This apparent failure can be largely attributed to two factors in particular – the lack of teachers sufficiently trained and available fully to teach the programme, and a chronic fear of mathematics amongst many students.

In 2019, only 79% of the computing teachers required were recruited, and 64% of the maths teachers.

In England, between 2013 and 2018, the number of teachers delivering computing fell by at least 17%, and the amount of computing teachers having relevant A-Level qualifications stood at just 35.9% in 2018.

There are regional disparities too – England is alone in the UK by running computer science in the pure sense – Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland generally teach it combined with other disciplines or more similarly to the traditional “ICT” lessons.

Even then, in 2016, 47% of Scottish local authorities reported recruitment difficulty with computing and, in 2017 in Wales, only 40% of computing teachers were trained in the subject.

The government funded NCCE (National Computing Centre for Education) was created in 2016 with the aim of retraining 8,000 teachers in computing. The measure of their success, however, will only be revealed at towards the end of this decade, leaving many cohorts of students with often substandard teaching.

It’s all in the numbers

It’s been argued that there is only one true science, and that’s mathematics.

Whether or not you agree, it’s undeniable that computer science, like all scientific disciplines, is severely limited without a solid basis in mathematics.

Any attempt to integrate true computing into the curriculum will only be successful if it is done in tandem with relevant and supporting mathematics teaching.

However, mathematics as a subject carries negative connotations to many people.

While there are very obvious struggles with teacher recruitment (it ranked worst in 2019), the biggest issue maths faces is its image with declining number of students choosing to take it at A-Level.

In a 2010 study in England, researchers found at age 12, 15% of boys and 16% of girls had decided they definitely did not wish to continue with mathematics past 16, with 47% and 54% undecided, respectively.

However, by the age of 14, 22% (+7%) of boys and 32% (+16%) of girls had decided they didn’t want to continue with maths.

The study clearly suggests that enjoyment or confidence in the subject decreases having experienced just 2 years of secondary school maths (years 7 to 9). The growing disparity between genders is also of concern.

A Personal Note

As someone who completed secondary schools not so long ago, the findings of the study ring true.

It was clear to me that the subjects I wanted to take at University would require more maths than I gleaned at GCSE, so I took the subject up to AS-Level but in just one additional year of study my interest, enjoyment, and confidence in the subject evaporated to the point where I would readily claim that I hated the subject.

My experience it seems is commonplace and its impacts are easy to see. For example, it is perfectly socially acceptable to claim “being able to do maths just isn’t for me”, or “I’ll never need maths”, when no-one would say, for instance, “reading just isn’t for me” without at least some shame or embarrassment.

Negative maths

Another embodiment of this problem is maths anxiety. Poor skills, fear, and lack of confidence in the subject can lead to avoidance and stress involving the topic later in life.

And this is very much a school-thing.

I went on to University to study Economics with its unavoidable mathematics, and I now find the subject challenging but relevant, and the confidence I completely lost during 6th Form is largely restored.

This is entirely down to the very different way maths is taught beyond school – I have been fortunate.

The Maths Anxiety Trust have shown that one in five adults in the UK lack basic numeracy skills to even budget, and 36% of young people feel anxiety about maths. This is an exceedingly long way short of the kind of maths needed to engage in the future jobs market.

According to National Numeracy in 2014, 80% of adults had low numeracy levels, costing the current economy £20.2 billion (1.3% of GDP) annually.

The Economic Hit

To put this in context, poor numeracy is wiping out the equivalent of total economic contribution provided by agriculture TWICE over!

Further, in 2015, the OECD estimated that if every pupil in the UK achieved a basic skill level in maths and science, the economy could grow by 147% by the end of the century.

The success or otherwise of the new Computer Science curriculum will be so heavily influenced by the incredibly sad state of mathematics in schools, especially for girls.

The UK’s transition towards an economy founded on maths and computer literacy will not be a smooth one without more radical reforms.

What now then?

Attitudes and attainment in mathematics and computing need to significantly improve if the UK is to be internationally competitive and able to mitigate the negative impacts of intelligent machines.

And this is not solely a school-age problem as the economic transition is already underway with the UK somewhat playing catch-up. Anyone planning on being relevant to the jobs market over the next decade or two will also need to develop these new skills.

Money where the mouth is

The computer science curriculum for England seems capable of preparing the next generation for the digital world. It just needs to be properly and universally implemented.

While the NCCE is doing good work in rectifying the teaching issues, the subject is in a critical condition. More pointed government investment and incentives to encourage people in industry with the technical skills combined with the practical context to teach the subject meaningfully may well be the only short-to-medium term solution.

The scarcity and high demand for computer literate graduates means they command much higher salaries than many graduates, making teaching an unattractive career path.

The government, therefore, may need to consider more radical (and expensive) policies if students and the wider workforce are to be reskilled quickly enough but the alternative is much worse.

Another ten years of limited education in computing means another swathe of employees entering the labour market whose skills may become irrelevant while those already in work become increasingly less productive (in an economy already plagued by low productivity).

Maths can be…fun?!

Being competent in mathematics is going to become more essential in the coming years – so a focus needs to be placed on getting people excited to choose it.

Maths, as its taught today is dusty and disconnected from everyday life. Linking maths to real events, setting it in a context that makes it relevant is at least half the battle.

People with industry experience in maths and computing can explain that:

    • Google is not really a tech company but the world’s largest
      Mandelbrot sequence
      Mandelbrot fractals = Maths

      statistical business and show how they use maths

    • Without fractals computer games would look unrealistic
    • Calculus drives Formula 1
    • Graph theory ensures Amazon can deliver next day
    • Interpolation cured cholera in the London slums and found gold in South Africa
    • Pythagoras created his theorem to solve a land dispute

By concentrating on the “fun” and applied aspects of maths, more students are likely to engage as becomes relevant to their lives and go to have fewer negative connotations with the subject. In turn this encourages confidence and a lifelong recognition of its usefulness, rather than falling victim to maths anxiety and avoidance in later life.

In the shorter term, campaigns to increase basic adult numeracy are a must – again such encouragement will require investment (or tax incentives) from the top-down into the workforce. But in our current economic climate such policy has potential to be used as a catalyst for long term recovery.

Result?

Rectifying issues in the education sector creates opportunity for the UK.

In minimizing structural unemployment by creating a workforce with relevant skills as AI and smart technologies advance, the UK can re-emerge as a digital pioneer rather than continue as a passive consumer.

However, the investment and policy frameworks need to happen. Merely spending enough so that schools have just enough stationary and books to teach the current curriculum will be nowhere near sufficient. There needs to be a real push to up-skill the labour force and ensure pupils leave school with the skills to contribute in the ever changing economy.

By missing this opportunity, generations of people face being left behind, entrenching current inequalities and stigmas.

The time is now.

About the Author

Theo Wooster

Theo is a student at Birmingham University study Economics & International Relations, as well as working part-time at Xpedium

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