An entirely avoidable talent vacuum

By James Cook on January 7th, 2013

Scan through the curriculum of any modern Business or ICT qualification and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the UK’s start-up industry simply doesn’t exist. With east London’s technology sector set to overtake the City “over the next five years” [Guffaw!—Ed.] and university applications dropping, we need to rethink how college-level education caters to the technology industry.

“What about social media?” I asked my A-Level Business Studies teacher, mid-way through a lesson on marketing techniques. “No, you can’t do any marketing on the internet,” was the response I received. Again disheartened with the syllabus ignoring one of the UK’s fastest growing industries, I turned to the equally outdated computers to finish writing a blog post that would help me more in my career than a PowerPoint presentation on radio advertising ever could.

Sadly, the above wasn’t an isolated incident. Business Studies is an outdated qualification that fails to comprehend the fact that business has advanced since the 1980s. Over half of the teaching time for exam-based courses is spent on exam technique. Worryingly, college leavers are entering the workplace having spent the majority of their time learning how to pass their exams and attain a good grade, rather than gaining the skills they need to secure a job.

Here is where I should be extolling the virtues of practical courses, those that rely not on exams, but instead on how a student advances throughout the year. Unfortunately, these are seen as “lesser qualifications” by universities. Students are actively encouraged not to apply for them. As a result of the low intake on BTEC courses combined with budget cuts, colleges across the country are choosing to withdraw them.

But what of IT and computing? Surely these subject areas will fare better? Unfortunately, potential developers and future start-up founders are let down by a curriculum so archaic that it makes the Palm Pilot look newfangled.

And teachers are so caged in by restrictive mark schemes and grade boundaries that they are too scared to learn new programming languages, let alone teach them. Lessons consist of archaic languages taught in a dry, academic manner to meet requirements set out an the exam body.

Eidos founder and recent CBE recipient Ian Livingstone co-authored a report (PDF) into how technical subjects are taught in schools and colleges in England. Worryingly, only 22 per cent of ICT teachers consider themselves good at creating basic computer programs. Additionally, over 35 per cent of ICT teachers surveyed consider their skills creating or modifying advanced programs to be “very poor”.

Frustratingly, an example of how computing ought to be taught can be found in film studies departments all over the country. Students usually have access to a suite of new iMacs, the latest editing software, film cameras, and syllabi consist of practical skills taught by industry professionals. A similar approach for computing would pay gargantuan dividends.

I spoke to a Dutch student who has studied programming in both the UK and Holland. Here’s what he had to say: “The approach is totally different. In Holland the course is completely up to date, it’s all practical. If I stayed in England I’d have probably given up coding altogether.”

Is our outdated education system having an effect? Well, if you can get past the recently beefed-up security measures at London’s Google Campus, go and sit in the cafe downstairs. Bring a MacBook and some facial hair. Time how long it takes you to receive a job offer. Start-up founders are (sometimes literally) clamouring over each other in search of developers.

Many founders are having to outsource development work overseas in a desperate attempt to get their sites built. Programming education in the UK is undervalued and ineffective, resulting in the talent vacuum that we are experiencing today.

We’ve seen how these courses should be taught, up to date technology and a flexible curriculum that adapts and changes to meet market demand. With the curriculum for Business Studies currently being rewritten, now is an opportune time for us to bring technical education up to date.

One unlikely crusader is popstar and Intel’s Director of Creative Innovation, who recently donated half a million pounds to The Prince’s Trust. According to, “there’s no tech in East London”. If we don’t raise the standard of college education, that might end up becoming true.