Simon Jenkins Calls For More Digital Muggles

In a polemic piece in the Guardian today Simon Jenkings argues for a shake up of the education system, and less focus on Computing or STEM.

Some of what he says about the education system being outdated has a lot of merit. But there are three huge fallacies in his assertion that we should spend less time on teaching Computing so we can focus more on the skills that employers want – i.e. communication, team working, critical thinking and problem solving.

Firstly, the single biggest win from engaging and high quality delivery of the new computing curriculum in all state schools in England from this September will be an increased focus on computational thinking. The latter term has many interpretations but it is generally regarded as leading to an increase in precisely those ‘soft’ skills that employers want. Contrary to the geek in a garage myth, successful software developers are first rate problem solvers, thinking critically, communicating their ideas and collaborating with their colleagues.

Secondly Simon’s assertion that service sector jobs do not require digital skills because they are all about dealing with people entirely misses the point about how we increasingly deal with people intermediated by technology. This is not a futurologist vision of holographic avatars or an assumption that face to face spoken word has little value. In fact, I am a passionate believer in the importance of good written and verbal skills and the value of human empathy. However, it is a simple fact that almost all interactions with suppliers and customers will over time involve multiple media channels and tools for communicating, transacting business and acquiring knowledge. So, irrespective of the chosen career, competence with technology will be a necessary pre-requisite skill alongside the three Rs.

In a submission to the recently published Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s World report by Maggie Philbin, we argued that in a few years time only 10% of jobs will be available to Digital Muggles (those people for whom technology may as well be magic). See our full submission here. See the analysis of the SOC Codes here.

The importance of digital acquisition of knowledge mentioned above links nicely to the third fallacy in the article. It is true that we need to radically change our education methodology to move away from Victorian rote learning. But the way we will most likely do this is by embracing technology in all curriculum subjects, facilitating a model of peer learning where the technically savvy six year olds Simon refers to are able to learn curiously in an engaged manner, helping one another and thereby, surprise, surprise, increasing their social and communication skills. So, the very reform in education for which Simon argues will happen most effectively if we embrace technology rather than knocking it.

As a final note it is worth observing that the reasons for the apparent statistics that Computer Science graduates have lower employment prospects than those studying history or English are complex. This excellent article by Liz Bacon, president of the BCS, also published in The Guardian provides some excellent insights into some of the factors behind the misleading topline statistics.


Chris Mairs is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Chair of UKForCE

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Chris Mairs

About Chris Mairs

Chris is Chief Scientist at Metaswitch Networks and is also Chair of Code Club, a Not For Profit organization providing after school clubs in over 2,000 UK primary schools. He is a fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering and in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List was awarded a CBE for services to engineering. Being blind himself, he delivered the 2006 IET/BCS Turing Memorial lecture entitled “Lifestyle Access for the Disabled – adding positive drift to the random walk with technology”. Chris’s 35 year career has been in communications software, working with many of the largest global players in the computer and telecommunications industries, including IBM, Microsoft, AT&T and BT. He has a first class degree in Computer Science from Cambridge University and was one of the founders of Metaswitch, where he spent many years as CTO. He now spends much of his time mentoring UK start-ups around Tech City, where he is also an active early stage investor.