As the UK’s class of 2015 GCSE students discover their exam results this week, how many will have the digital skills needed to cope with the changing demands of the work environment? How many will have the digital mind set to extend their learning in subjects which will be key to the UK’s future economy?

Earlier this year a House of Lords Digital Skills Committee called on the government to address the growing shortage of young people capable of filling jobs in the technology sector. Its key proposal was to make digital literacy the third core subject alongside literacy and numeracy in schools.

Understandably the report sparked considerable debate in the media over whether or not digital skills should be held alongside maths and literacy in the national curriculum. In fact the whole curriculum has come under scrutiny with suggestions that former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s legacy is a little too Dickensian and does not embrace the 21st century. The Government’s response was “underwhelming” according to Sarah Morgan, the Chair of the Lords’ Digital Skills Committee, although there is a plan to revisit the idea next year.

The problem is that this has been a problem for years and as a country we have been slow to react to the changing demands of modern industry. While we have exceptional expertise in technology and engineering, we have not been able to capitalise fully on this expertise. Fast growing, UK-owned technology businesses are still the exception, not the norm.

So why do we need these skills?

It’s no secret; there is a shortage of digital skills in the market. According to a report by Cap Gemini Consulting this year, around 4.4 million IT jobs will be created around Big Data by 2015 but only a third of these new jobs will be filled. The report also cited Martha Lane Fox, the UK’s digital inclusion champion, who believes over 16 million people in the UK lack the basic digital skills to fully benefit from the Internet.

This was echoed by a report in April this year by IT skills association CompTIA. It found that 45% of 1,507 IT execs are experiencing an “excessive” shortfall in IT talent to the point where it is affecting productivity and opportunities.

Of course the UK has always had an IT skills shortage and industry has always demanded more from the education system to create the necessary skills and candidates for the job market. Two years ago former Education Secretary Ken Baker said in an interview with the TES that even under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, industry forced the hand of education policy.

So what has happened? Why do we consistently allow this situation to occur and are we doing anything about it?

In May, Professor Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Lab said in an interview with The Guardian that the UK missed an opportunity in the 80s and is now playing catch-up. Unfortunately that is how it feels. Coding clubs have only started emerging in schools to any great extent over the last two years and while computer science is now an established subject, it is not given the national importance that it perhaps deserves.

What we need is a top-down policy. We need direction and cannot rely solely on the fragmented nature of digital skills teaching that seems to exist today. Importantly we also need to give the teachers the necessary training to make the most of the technology available and work together to ensure there is consistency. Perhaps then, we will enthuse a new generation and give them the tools to tackle the challenges of the new job market. Whether they leave school after GCSEs or head into further education, these skills will be as important as the foundations laid in numeracy and literacy. And that’s a fact.

Marc Ambasna-Jones

About the author

Supporting the government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy we’re keen everyone has the skills and confidence to use IT. Here, we share thoughts on a variety of digital matters.