It’s Ada Lovelace Day – and what better time for digital skills, and technical education, to be top of the agenda. And indeed, with the prime minister’s focus on 16-19 education last week, this is a pivotal moment. Because it is absolutely critical we raise the aspiration and prestige of technical pathways if, as a nation, we are to compete globally and realise our industrial aims and economic needs.
In tech, where we at Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, are focused, employers are crying out for talent. Yet fewer than half of British employers believe young people are leaving education with sufficient digital skills to access the industry. And no wonder, when over 50 per cent of secondary schools in the UK were not even offering computer science as a GCSE in 2021.
So while I support the prime minister’s ambition, I question whether his proposals are the best way to achieve it.
Recruitment and retention problems in teaching are well known, but there is a regrettable lack of focus on FE – where the situation is far worse. According to research for the Lifelong Education Commission, staffing rates have fallen by one-third over the past 10 years.
So I fear that career bonuses of £30k, while obviously welcome, won’t be enough to recruit the high-calibre dual professionals we need, who can combine up-to-date experience and expertise in industry with the ability to teach young and adult students to a high standard. This is particularly the case in tech, which already commands salaries 80 per cent higher than average.
On top of this, we have seen at Ada that qualifications alone are insufficient. To be successful, young people need a strong technical foundation as well as excellent communication, project management, initiative, creativity and the experience and confidence to use these to good effect in the workplace. So blending is the right approach – but with more than just academic and technical education in the mixer.
An easier fix
There is another way to bring this expertise into our colleges. At Ada, we work in lock step with industry to deliver our bespoke curriculum, aimed at developing the skills businesses actually need. All our students work with current professionals and gain first-class industry experience through our partnerships with a raft of global businesses.
In common with the prime minister’s proposals, Ada students also follow a blended academic and vocational curriculum of BTECs and A levels, with T levels on the way. They already receive over 1,450 teaching hours over two years, very close to the Prime Minister’s figure of 1475, and the majority study maths to 18 (core or A level).
And this approach is delivering results. 91 per cent of Ada’s apprentice alumni are in aspirational tech-focused jobs. 98 per cent are in full-time employment or higher education. 43 per cent of Ada’s most recent graduating cohort of apprentices achieved first-class degrees validated by the Open University with 100 per cent passing their degree programme. Our high-performing sixth form was the top centre for the computing BTEC nationally in 2020, and among this summer’s sixth form graduates were two students taking up apprenticeships at Lloyds Banking Group – with starting salaries of £35k.
With T levels still bedding down, further change may be difficult to deliver and the outcome we all desire harder to achieve. So what is the answer?
Today marks the official opening of Ada’s fantastic new London campus – a state of the art tech space where our students, who have increased four-fold since our launch, can thrive. Interestingly, our new building – a converted free school and now a flagship technical institution – shows change doesn’t have to break the bank when everyone pulls in the same direction.
In Ada, government already has a blueprint for change and a proven approach for delivering the prime minister’s ambition quickly, with relatively modest resources and using established industry pathways employers already understand and support.
It’s great to hear the prime minister make the case for transformational technical careers – now we just need the right approach to achieve it.