‘Some girls don’t realise what computer science is all about - they think it’s boring and it’s just for boys,’ says Amy, a fifteen-year-old pupil at George Green’s secondary school on the Isle of Dogs, not far from one of London’s financial heartlands. ‘Then you do these sessions and delve into stuff you’ve never heard of before and it’s so interesting - girls need to know that it’s more than just computers and numbers - and it’s mind blowing.’
The ‘sessions’ Amy refers to, that have fired up her interest, is a homework club. Mentors from a major international bank come into the school, located in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, and help teenagers revise for their GCSE and A-level computer science exams.
It’s a Monday afternoon and around Joy Wang, a software engineer from Morgan Stanley and her table are another fifteen teenagers. Each is sat at a small table with volunteers from the investment bank. There is a hum of intense discussion as the youngsters pore over their text books, thoughtfully quizzing staff from Morgan Stanley about anything from algorithms to AI.
Jill Baker, the head of George Green’s School surveys the room and her pupils and says: ‘You’ve got some of the highest earners in Britain, working next to people with the highest levels of deprivation. It could be a very tense relationship but the way we view it here is that this is an opportunity sitting on our doorstep.’
The school, in the borough of Tower Hamlets lies within the top thirty per cent of the most deprived areas in the country. It is a mere fifteen minutes, by Docklands Light Railway, to the gleaming skyscrapers of London’s Canary Wharf, one of the world’s largest financial centres. George Green’s is one of six local schools that are visited by a team of mentors from Morgan Stanley, all of whom work in IT.
Morgan Stanley helps deliver results
When George Green’s school ran a Computer Science GCSE course for the first time in 2015, 46 per cent of students achieved a grade A-C. For the following year, the school made a number of changes and, including working with Morgan Stanley, and began to see significant improvements. In 2017 all of the students achieved an A-C mark.
Mike Skells, a vice president from Morgan Stanley, says he and a couple of colleagues came up with this idea of engaging with the community and says why this project is personally important: ‘They’re our neighbours. I live and work a hundred yards from here. If Canary Wharf is something that they can see but don’t aspire to, then that’s a pretty sad state of affairs. We want to make a job here, or anywhere in tech, an obtainable goal.’ Mike’s plan is to get the young people to believe in themselves and the opportunities that are there for the taking, such as going to a redbrick university, or taking up an apprenticeship with the bank:
‘There are bright students here, as there are at many schools, and this is a case of showing them this aspiration is achievable. It’s not just people from privileged backgrounds who do these things. You’ve just got to be smart and work hard.’
Another of Joy’s students, Wafee, says he is now thinking about what qualifications he will need to go to Oxford or Cambridge and adds: ‘Coming from a family where no one went to university, I feel like that is something I want to aim for. Building a network with such a big company could help me as they probably have so many connections.’
Untapped talent in diversity
English is the second language for two thirds of George Green’s pupils which Mike believes is not a disadvantage in tech: ‘Computer science, as a discipline, is really good at ethnic diversity. Look at my team where the white English male is a minority. We take people from all around the world, all different backgrounds. ‘If we can get someone from here to be employed with us, then they can come back and say to a school assembly “if I did it, you can do it”. That is the goal and it’s great for us to get skilled people in and it’s great for positive role models here - it completes the circle.’
Speaking of positive role models, as well as two women mentors from the bank, there are far more girls in the afternoon homework club for computer science than is usual. On average, girls usually make up around 20 per cent of pupils taking this GCSE. This group feels closer to 40 per cent, which Amy, the teenager who is now keen on computer science after coming to these sessions, puts down to the mentors: ‘I think they gave me confidence. In the STEM field there aren’t many women, but the mentors make sure all of us get an understanding of the subject.’
In the UK women make up only around 17 per cent of the tech industries workforce and headteacher, Jill, believes the approach taken in her school could help change that: ‘I passionately believe in this - if you look around here, we have a mixture of girls, because we have women coming into the schools. ‘As soon as they see women role models it just becomes a possibility and it takes away the barriers immediately. The girls are incredibly engaged, and I bet that if we didn’t have this contact with industry, we would only have boys in the class, the girls would not want to know. The power in the model is huge and potential for growth is fantastic.’
Plugging the IT skills gap
The digital skills gap, and concern that not enough is being done, has long been a topic of national debate. According to government figures, around two-thirds of large companies and half of small medium enterprises in the UK are experiencing a shortage of skilled IT workers.
Rakesh Nair, an application engineer at the bank, is originally from India, where he says employers are spoilt for choice: ‘In India we factory produce engineers and there are a lot more opportunities. Companies go to campuses and can literally recruit truckloads of people.’ But not in the UK, it seems, and that is what has drawn Rakesh to volunteer at the school: ‘I’m keen to help get the numbers up of people in computing as it can take months to hire someone into our UK team. This gives me an opportunity to give back and get more people into computing.’
Getting industry involved in schools is a major part of the £84 million government backed initiative, The National Centre for Computing Education. Its mission is to upskill 8,000 computer science teachers and boost the numbers of young people studying this subject so that headway can be made to bridge the digital skills gap.
BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, is part of the consortium behind the NCCE and one of its responsibilities is engaging industry in schools and colleges to improve computer science in the classroom.
Julia Adamson, Director of Education at BCS says: ‘These young people are our future - we must ensure that every pupil leaves school with the knowledge and skills to thrive in the digital world that surrounds them. Those who go on to specialise in the subject and choose a professional digital career, hold the key to the prosperity of the country - they will use their knowledge to help drive the UK’s future economy.’
She called on businesses to get behind the NCCE industry initiatives to help pupils: ‘Computing is as important as reading and writing. Every child in every school deserves an inspiring and world-leading computing education, and we want to encourage industry to get involved.
There are a number of ways to do this, from volunteering with initiatives like Barefoot and Code Club to visiting local schools to talk about their own experiences to inspire the next generation to take up a career in a field that is exciting and growing fast, just like the team at Morgan Stanley are doing.’
Headteacher Jill says: ‘I never ask the companies for money, never. That seems to me rather rude and not the best approach for fostering positive relationships. We’re not out there with a begging bowl, it’s about forming relationships for experiences that benefit our students.’
For Mike, he’s more than happy with the success of his team helping these and other pupils - and he says this type of scheme helps bust a couple of myths in one go: ‘Tech hasn’t got a good reputation for doing well in society. Banking hasn’t got a [good] reputation either. This makes us do good and we are seeing that we are doing good - it’s beneficial all round.’