What’s the big deal about the new ‘tech-levels’?

What keeps the UK’s finance chiefs awake at night? The threat of a Brexit from the EU? The abrupt slowdown in China’s economic growth? Weak demand and shaky consumer confidence? According to a recent survey carried out on behalf of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS) and law firm DLA Piper, it is actually the skills shortage that is causing sleepless nights. Seen as the second biggest threat to growth in the UK, it is only surpassed by worries about the oil price.

Of course, none of this is news to the tech industry. That the UK is knee-deep in an IT skills crisis is well-known, which is why there are all sorts of programmes in play to give the next generation the skills it needs to sustain a high-wage economy.

Getting coding skills into schools – an initiative beloved by the media and policy-makers alike – is certainly being promoted hard. We have just entered the second academic year in which coding is part of the core curriculum. In the private sector, BT recently announced that it was expanding its Barefoot Computing programme to teach IT skills to 400,000 children across the UK by 2016. And there are plenty of extra-curricular programs like Coder Dojo and Code Club to encourage young people too.

At the tertiary education level, the government has created a £500,000 fund to develop cyber security skills within universities and colleges. The goal is to help them construct innovative teaching methods to provide the skills that are needed to protect the UK from hackers, malware and other information security threats.

But just as interesting are the new tech levels that have been launched by the AQA exam board – not least because they shine a spotlight on more areas than just coding. The new qualifications are on an equal footing with A-levels and have been developed in response to the Wolf Report of 2011, which said many vocational courses do not help students’ career prospects.

AQA believes that employers will start making the tech levels a key qualification for job applicants, because they will guarantee the right knowledge and skills. Time will tell, but at first look, the new tech levels seem promising. Here are just five reasons for thinking that they could really start to address the IT skills shortage:

1. Education is about preparing students for the ‘real’ world they will face once they leave school. The seven new tech levels will teach young people about everything from cyber security to IT programming. Already launched are tech levels in design engineering; mechatronic engineering; power-network engineering; IT networking; IT programming; and IT user support. Two more – cyber security and entertainment technology – are due to launch next year.

2. As expected, technology companies including Siemens, Microsoft and Toshiba have helped to create the new qualifications. But equally interesting is the involvement of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, suggesting that the tech level modules have taken into account the fact the IT skills are needed in a wide range of contexts. These really could be the fit-for-purpose qualifications that enhance both skills and employability.

3. Equivalent to A-levels, tech levels offer students a path to university. They help close the gap that has existed for too long in British education between academic and vocational studies. Smart students interested in entertainment technology, for example, need not have their future education choices restricted or their academic ambitions restrained: we’re likely to see a broader talent pool for all industries to pick from in the future as a result.

4. The new tech levels take coding out of the box and breathe life into it. Coding is not an isolated activity, and so it shouldn’t be an isolated subject. These wide-ranging tech levels give coding context and relevance. They should also help applicants meet employers’ demands for computational thinking and problem-solving in a wide variety of areas.

5. The sheer breadth of the topics covered is excitingly ambitious. They cover some of the most important skill-sets that businesses of all kinds most frequently ask for. They get young people thinking about these areas at an early stage, while still giving them the broad skills and knowledge base that they – and the industry – need.

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