Make computer science a core school subject - Mark Thomson

Five hundred delegates from the public, private and third sector gathered at the EICC in Edinburgh on 25 November for the fifth Future Scot annual Digital Scotland conference, a return to face-to-face after Covid measures forced last year’s conference online.

The government’s keynote speech was delivered by Kate Forbes, who was appointed Scotland’s Digital Minister in 2018 and Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy in 2021. And as befitting her experience in those dual roles, the subject of her speech was building on Scotland’s strong digital foundations and securing a technology-led recovery.

“I strongly believe that the next ten years are going to be absolutely critical for Scotland. I’m working right now on a ten-year economic strategy trying to lift our eyes beyond the immediate challenges on the horizon and look beyond that to see where Scotland wants to be in ten years’ time. And I don’t think we will be effective, successful, unless we get our digital strategy right,” she said.

“Key to our recovery in becoming a leading digital economy, we need to set the scale of our ambition and vision. Having already become one of the most innovative high growth sectors in Scotland by contributing 5.1 billion GDA to our economy in 2020, the potential for our tech sector to go further is within reach.”

Front and centre of this digital strategy is Mark Logan’s Technology Ecosystem review and in the final session of the day, Supercharging the Scottish Tech Ecosystem, Logan spoke on some of the challenges with scaling up the industry and the crucial importance of nurturing talent. Ground zero for this is education, beginning at school.

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Computer science should be made a core subject and we desperately need to increase the numbers of computer science teachers, as well as establish education and industry partnerships to enable those who work in the tech industry to share current practices and innovation with computing teachers. In addition, we need to address the gender imbalance which currently sees very low take up of the subject by girls. And, as Logan points out, means that we are cutting ourselves off from potentially 50 per cent of our future workforce.

And while our universities are highly regarded for the quality of their research, teaching and calibre of their graduates in terms of technical skills, there is a gap in the understanding and importance of the entrepreneurial skills necessary to launch a successful start-up. Scottish start-ups attracted £345 million in venture capital during the pandemic.

The tech sector is crucial not just to our economic recovery after Covid but to Scotland’s ambitions for the future. At present there are 13,000 vacancies for tech jobs but universities are only providing some 5000 graduates.

It’s clear that Covid has represented a damascene moment across all sectors in Scotland regarding the importance of rapid adoption of digital. But it is also clear that the window of opportunity will not be open forever.

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And in addition to the need to invest from the ground up in the education of our future digital workforce, it is vital that SMEs, who may not be technology companies per se, future proof themselves in terms of the necessary digital infrastructure and training.

According to Skills For Success published by Open University, only 50 per cent of SME business leaders in Scotland say they plan to address gaps in skills in the next 12 months. 33 per cent citing time and money barriers, while 20 per cent don’t think adopting digital is of any value.

But there is reason for optimism. Ms Forbes ended her key note on an upbeat.

“You could make a list of the challenges which are as long as your arm, but I tell you what, the list of opportunities is double that, triple that, quadruple that if we ensure that we collaborate, focus on our clear objectives and we are flexible and nimble as possible to ensure that we don’t stifle innovation.”

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These opportunities include making Edinburgh a world leading data centre, developing a world class technology ecosystem, and in purely macro-economic terms providing a solution to that long standing bête noir of the Scottish economy, low productivity, resulting in low GDP and tax revenues and a ballooning national deficit.

Back in 1973 Gavin McCrone predicted that the North Sea oil bonanza would make Scotland one of the richest countries with one of the hardest currencies in Europe. The SNPs ambitions reflected in last Sunday’s backing of a resolution on the establishment of a Central Bank suggest that they still see that as a realistic possibility . . .

With data substituting for oil combined with a world beating digital economy.

Mark Thomson, industry observer

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