Author: Mark Richards

Technology is changing the workplace at an ever-faster pace. Is the UK doing enough to educate its young people about the challenges that will bring? Or is Amazon starting to do the job the Education Secretary should be doing?

Anyone with an Amazon account cannot have failed to notice that ‘Black Friday’ – officially due on November 24th – has started early.

Bleary-eyed you check your e-mails in the morning. And there it is, your ‘deals of the day’ e-mail. Clicking on mine on Saturday morning I was offered a steam cleaner and a rubbish bin – leading me to suspect that my wife had hacked into Amazon’s database and left a gentle hint. Tracksuit bottoms – well maybe, if I don’t have to order X-large – and then Amazon suggested I take advantage of ‘25% off kids’ coding toys.’

This may be the fabled Amazon algorithm going slightly offline. My youngest child is 19 and could not be less interested in ‘coding.’ But I am curious – so I take a look.

Amazon is offering me ‘Meccano Max’ and something called the ‘Osmo Genius Kit.’ Given the prices I am relieved my children are not into coding – but if they were 10 again? Then I would undoubtedly be suggesting to my wife that Max very definitely came under ‘educational Christmas presents.’ I would also be asking her a question: is Amazon – and the wider private sector – now starting to do the job that the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Education, really should be doing?

Amazon to educate our children?

We recently wrote that it would make economic sense for the Chancellor to offer tax concessions to encourage older people to keep pets. Whatever it costs in lost revenue would be repaid many times over, given the clear evidence that pets help to combat both loneliness and obesity: two ‘epidemics’ for which the UK is paying a heavy price. That suggestion was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it would at least have been an example of joined-up government.

Surely though, the government must take action on a recent study by the Royal Society, which found 50% of the schools in the UK do not offer a GCSE in Computer Science. This simply seems to be out and out madness: if there is an explosion of technical jobs in the future, then 50% of the UK’s young people are going to be at a serious disadvantage.

The report, done with Google and Microsoft, concluded that there needs to be a ten-fold increase in funding for the subject and urged the Government to commit an extra £61m of funding over the next five years. (To give a comparison, £61m is roughly half a percent of the UK’s foreign aid bill for one year.)

Whilst a new curriculum did introduce coding lessons for pupils in 2014, the Royal Society’s report warned that this did not go far enough: in particular, it highlighted a lack of teachers, with the government only meeting 68% of its target recruitment for computer science teachers. It is hard to imagine that China finds itself with a similar problem…

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So could it be left to Amazon to fill the gap left by our national curriculum? Whatever your views on that question, the simple fact is that British youngsters will need a technical education. Professor Steve Furber of the University of Manchester – and one of the early pioneers of the Acorn Computer – put it very simply: “The rate at which technology is transforming the workplace means that we live in a world where many primary schoolchildren will work in technology-based roles that do not yet exist, so it is essential that [they] can apply digital skills with confidence.”

If you are the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg then you are already up in your bedroom building a computer or teaching yourself coding. The vast majority of people are not the next Gates or Zuckerberg, but they are still going to need technical and computing skills. Can it be right that they are relying on Amazon and Meccano Max to teach them?

Meccano Max to the rescue

When I was nowt but a lad, a box of Meccano was full of spanners and screws and metal plates with hundreds of holes in them. Now along comes Meccano Max to ‘challenge young minds with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) robotics. Perfect for budding engineers, builders and visionaries, M.A.X requires kids to engage in critical thinking.’

Meanwhile the Osmo Genius Kit is promising to turn core subjects like maths and spelling ‘into fearless fun.’ What is more, it is going to encourage ‘visual thinking, problem-solving and creative drawing skills.’

Obviously, there is a little hype at work here – after all, we are just five weeks away from Christmas and Amazon has an army of couriers itching to deliver your parcel – but this is exactly what our schools should be doing. And without wishing to make a political point, middle-class parents will be able to click ‘proceed to checkout’ on the Meccano Max page. Other parents may not be so fortunate. As Theresa May seeks to create a ‘country that works for everyone’ this is not an educational policy that works for anyone in the short term, and certainly not for the wider UK in the long term.

It is not just our children that need educating

This lack of a science and technology education does not just impact the future.  According to recent research carried out by the Confederation of British Industry the UK could get a £100bn boost to productivity if firms were willing to embrace everyday technology such as cloud computing and online procurement. The CBI is now urging the Government to do more to help firms focus on innovation, making the best use of the technology available. CBI director Carolyn Fairbairn said that not making use of technology was “one of the missing links in the UK productivity puzzle.” But then again, firms can only make use of technology if they have the staff trained to do it – and with a good grounding in science and technology. Which brings us back to education…

20 years ago a youthful – and much poorer – Tony Blair famously said, “Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you education, education, education.”

Twenty years in the UK continues to teach what it has always taught and cast around desperately for teachers with the skills to teach what really needs teaching. Meanwhile, other countries are thinking about the future – and thinking a long way ‘outside the box.’ If you want an example, go to Singapore where there is a school to train professional gamers. And why not? The global e-sports market is poised to hit $1.5bn over the next three years – between two and three times the turnover of Manchester United. In the UK we are still asking children to learn about Oxbow lakes