Is the Coalition Government aware of the skills gap? Tony Parkin hears reassurance from David Willetts MP
Central Foundation girlsSwitched-on 'Apps for Good' girls at Central Foundation“How are we going to get more girls like us involved in IT?” ”What are you going to do to get universities offering the right courses for us?” Fresh from Bradford and his support for "Behind the Screen", David Willetts MP, minister for universities and science, probably wasn't expecting a grilling from the girls at Central Foundation Girls School in London.

He was at the close of the Tower Hamlets school's Skills Showcase event, hosted by the Tech City Investment Organisation (TCIO) on Thursday (September 15) where a raft of industry launches was announced to support STEM education. The minister clearly relished the challenge, and took delight in giving them a clear statement that demonstrated that he was up to speed with their concerns.

Karen Price, chief executive of e-skills UK, along with the representatives of CC4G (Computer Clubs for Girls) who had been kept busy throughout the afternoon beamed at his mention of their own contribution to the cause. The girls, teachers, parents and industry representatives were delighted to hear the vision for real IT in education so clearly welcomed and supported from Government. Perhaps because this was marked contrast to the signals on ICT  from the Department for Education over the past 18 months. Though he was late arriving, the minister’s words more than made up for the delay, and the large crowd went away impressed and happy.

Earlier in the day the event had been opened by Eric van der Kleij, boss of TCIO which is responsible for the running Tech City UK, the development initiative announced by David Cameron for the area bounded by the City and the Olympic Park, in November 2010. Erik van der Kleij stressed that he would not be drawing Tech City on the map any time soon, since the aim was include all the surrounding districts where new technology, media companies and start-ups were springing up. He said: “Since November, we’ve seen a rapid rise in the number of new technology companies in the area. This event is about supporting the growth of Tech City at a grass roots level.”

During the afternoon the STEM skills fair showcased the latest technology innovations coming out of Tech City and the potential of technology as a career path. Leading technology companies, including Facebook, Intel, BlackBerry and Cisco, had stands showing a series of initiatives that aimed to inspire young people to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. Though to reach the stands you had to get past the crowds of eager girls, clearly delighted by the opportunity to talk to the company representatives and find out more about what was needed for a career in technology. Among the crowd another group of CFGS girls pounced on any visitor they encountered – wonderful ambassadors  keen to show off the Apps that they had created as part of the Apps for Good programme, which has been running at the school with great success (see "East End girls flood Apps for Good course").

Industry rallies for STEM agenda with raft of programmes

As well as the Apps for Good announcements from Facebook and Reuters, each of the industry stands appeared to have something new to offer the STEM agenda or the Tech City UK initiative:

  • Cisco announced that it will be investing in the creation of new Cisco Networking Academies across several schools in the Tower Hamlets area to add to the existing network of 650 Cisco Academies in the UK, many based in secondary schools.
  • BlackBerry launched Blackberry Hands-On Workshops, aimed at teaching 11-14-year-olds the basics of mobile technology. The workshop includes the chance for students to take apart a BlackBerry and see for themselves how it all works. More than 40 BlackBerry employees have volunteered and been trained to deliver workshops to over 600 students, coinciding with the British Science Festival.
  • Intel launched the Intel STEM Fairs toolkit, created in partnership with the British Science Association. This is an online tool ( to help teachers generate more interest in science fairs amongst students, and to help and encourage them to create their own science fairs.
  • The Li Ka Shing Foundation, working with SRI International, are to pilot a programme of technology-augmented maths learning to improve maths achievement and reasoning. Following successful pilot schemes in the US, the cornerstone maths project will be rolled-out in ten UK secondary schools in September 2011, seven of the pilot schools being based in and around the East London area included within Tech City UK.
  • Other launches included  East London-based Playmob’s  first social game, WeMonster, and the National HE STEM Programme, a three-year initiative across England and Wales, hosted by the University of Birmingham, which is aimed at enhancing the way universities recruit students and deliver courses within the STEM disciplines at university level.

David Willetts MPDavid Willetts MP: backing 'Behind the screen'In his closing address, David Willetts said he was delighted at the rapid take-off for Tech City UK, pointing out that though David Cameron had mentioned 100 hi-tech start-ups, there were now more than 500 new technology and media companies that had been identified working in the Tech City area. He also pointed out that the issue was not confined to the East End of London, nor was it only about recruiting more girls into IT.

“With technology and digital companies providing increasing opportunities for employment, it is crucial that students are aware of potential career paths but also have the skills needed by the industry," he said. "Today, the ICT sector contributes £66.4bn annually to the economy. By introducing young people to job opportunities in technology in the local area and supporting private sector schemes that focus on STEM skills development, the Government seeks to establish a legacy that will safeguard Britain’s future economic growth.”

The Minister also reiterated points made at his visit to British Festival of Science at the University of Bradford earlier in the day. He announced that e-skills UK and a partnership of employers including IBM, the BBC, Capgemini, Cisco, Deloitte, HP, John Lewis, Microsoft, National Grid and Procter & Gamble, are launching “Behind the Screen”, a programme to transform the IT curriculum. The phrase had come from Stephen Uden, of Microsoft, speaking at a think-tank on the failure in English education to encourage and enable children to be creators rather than merely passive consumers in the world of IT, later highlighted by Eric Schmidt’s well-publicised speech in Edinburgh.

It is planned that new GCSE and A-levels will cover computational principles, systemic thinking, software development and logic. Coursework will develop deep analytical, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Industry-backed challenges will aim to encourage creativity, entrepreneurship and team work. Teachers will be supported by inputs from employers, and students will have access to an online resource pool – including online lessons from national and international experts. A pilot programme is beginning in November 2011 to run until next summer, after which it is anticipated that new GCSE courses will be developed and rolled out more widely.

More information

City Foundation Girls School
TechCity UK – the Digital Capital of Europe  
Royal Society responseto Willetts' announcement 
e-skills UK
Press Association – Willetts announcement in Bradford  
Intel: STEM Fair Toolkit  
Apps For Good : Facebook partnership    
Computing at School   
CC4G (Computer Clubs for Girls)

Tony ParkinTony Parkin, former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and now an independent consultant, describes himself as a 'disruptive nostalgist'. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Twitter via @tonyparkin

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