by vijay riyait.
In the current debate about the schools exam system, the discussion has been based on the type of examination system that kids leaving school at 16 should undertake. While this is an important issue it fails to focus on the type of knowledge we would like our children to develop and how that learning should be relevant for today’s society and for the economic success of our country.
In the film, Dead Poet’s Society, there is a great scene in which Robin Williams explains that medicine, law, business, engineering are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life but that poetry, beauty, romance and love are the things we stay alive for. So, I want to be clear before I set out my argument that STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are not the only important ingredients for a successful country and our children need to have a broad based educational background for as long as possible before specialising.
Having said that, if we look at the statistics, women only make up 12 per cent of engineering graduates and just 2 per cent of girls take physics A Level. There has been an enduring and growing gender imbalance in STEM which severely limits the growth of this country and hugely distorts the available labour market. Computing has been falling in popularity overall as a subject and at degree level, 91 per cent of computing/engineering students are male. The last Labour government set up the UK Resource Centre for Women to advance gender equality and diversity from the classroom to the boardroom in science, engineering and technology. However, progress has been slow, painfully so. What we need, and the thing which government is bad at doing, is leading a cultural shift about the way we see the role of women and how women view the opportunities available for themselves. In India, you are far more likely to a see a female programmer than in the UK and this is in a large way due to the fact that computing is seen as a valuable part of the overall economic engine. It is a way for women to have careers and get paid well and be respected in Indian society.
The current government has taken steps to change the way ICT is taught in schools and a move away from just teaching computer packages and towards a curriculum which has had input from companies such as Microsoft, Google and organisations such as the British Computing Society. This is all goods news but we can do more and we can and must do more at grass-roots levels as the ICT changes won’t occur until 2014. There has been a growing movement to take computing for girls into the heart of communities and to inspire them to work on simple programming tasks. I would like Labour to support not only changes to the school curriculum but to support these initiatives at the local level (in our poorest areas) and to put them higher up the political agenda. I would also contend that KS3 is not early enough to catch the imagination of many girls and to challenge stereotypes and this must be done by at least KS2. We need young role models to take the message that computing is for you as a girl and that you can still do all the things that other girls do and not be considered ‘strange’ and ‘weird’.
A major part of our future economic success in our evolving digital age in the 21st Century will depend upon whether we can involve our young women and not so young women (computing skills are blind to the age of the person) in taking up careers in software development. The best way to see what can be achieved with people willing to make a difference can be seen by the energy and passion of a daughter of a good friend of mine in Canada who is an award winning technology business woman. Her daughter, Genevieve L’Esperance has been teaching girls coding and this video conveys more than my words can ever do.