Scotland’s education bodies have come under fire from the Scottish Government’s chief entrepreneurial advisor over their lack of progress on computing science teaching reform.

Mark Logan said working with the likes of Education Scotland and related bodies was like dragging a ‘heavily sedated bull elephant backwards through cold treacle’ – lambasting a committee-led approach for a lack of decision-making and leadership.

Logan, Professor in Practice, Technology Entrepreneurship, at the School of Computing Science at Glasgow University, was giving evidence today to MSPs at the Scottish Parliament.

He said that the one area of his landmark Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review that had not seen progress, in terms of its 32 recommendations accepted by government, had been education.

In his report he had called for parity of esteem and greater provision of computing science in schools – in order to satisfy the huge and growing demand for software engineers in the tech sector.

But he said that despite an encouraging reception from authorities like Education Scotland, that it became clear over time that they simply did not view the subject as ‘important’.

As a result, the last four years since the report was adopted have proved to be largely unfruitful in tackling the dwindling number of computing science teachers across Scotland – with many schools now not even having access to a computing science teacher.

Logan, who gave evidence at the Education, Children and Young People Committee at Holyrood, levelled his criticisms at a system which does not have a single point of ownership for the problem. He listed Education Scotland and other stakeholder bodies, including the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate, the exam regulator Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), local authorities, the General Teaching Council for Scotland and head teachers – all of whom are involved in administrating the education system in Scotland.

He said: “For most of the last four years, I think the problem has been that Education Scotland and related authorities didn’t consider computing science to be important and didn’t believe the subject was in a dynamic crisis.”

He added: “My interpretation was that against the fact that they didn’t think this was important, and they didn’t think it was in crisis, that that seems like action not worth taking. So I have found that over most of the last four years, when energy was expended, it was usually expended in defending the situation and hoping I’d go away, rather than trying to lead on these issues, because we leadership’s what’s needed here.”

Professor Logan – appointed chief entrepreneurial advisor to the Scottish Government in 2022 – said he had been encouraged by some recent developments, but did not go into detail what they were, although a new director general was appointed for education and justice – Neil Rennick – at the end of last year, with whom Logan has had some “encouraging conversations”.

However, at the beginning of his session, the former Skyscanner executive outlined some of the raw data to illustrate how much of a challenge it has been in recent years to sustain computing science as a subject.

Before going into them, he did say that the Scottish tech sector is in ‘strong health’ and there are more credible startups in the ecosystem than at any point in his career.

He said, though, that the entire tech sector is a “function of the number of engineers that you can supply to it”, and that the education system is key to sustaining its future.

Some countries such as Estonia, Finland, Lithuania had “really absorbed that point” and had invested significantly in their skills and talent pipelines.

But in Scotland he pointed to weak – and weakening provision – for computing science teaching.

“If you look at where we are from a numbers perspective, we have today in Scotland at least 32,500 pupils, which is about 12 per cent of the total base with no access to a computing science teacher in their schools,” he said, caveating that the data had been gathered at local authority level and some of it was not in a form that could be fully understood.

But he said those figures pertained to 66 schools, including 27 schools with more than 500 pupils and 10 with more than 1,000.

“It’s not a great picture,” he said. “It’s worse than that, though, because there’s a bunch of schools that only have one computing science teacher. So, let’s not fool ourselves: that’s not really a computing science provision in those schools.”

The problem is also not evenly distributed across Scotland as a whole.

“We have computing science deserts in Scotland. In the north of Scotland, over half of our schools have no qualified computing science teacher, and in the south of Scotland, two thirds of our schools have no qualified computer science teacher.

“That adds up to a bad static picture, and to me it sounds like a crisis.”

Compounding that is a stark long-term decline in teacher numbers, Logan added, with computing science teachers falling by 25 per cent since 2008. In that year, there were 766 teachers compared with 578 now – a record low. Only 16 were recruited into the profession last year, compared to an average of 44 at its peak.

There is also a “demographic time bomb”, said Logan, with eight times as many computing science teachers in the over-55 age bracket versus under-25.

All of these factors, when added together, make computing science “very vulnerable”, said Logan, who added: “That’s why in STER, I raised this as a priority area, but we haven’t made the progress that’s required.”

There were, however, “bright spots” that Logan pointed to, including the creation of the peer-led Scottish Teachers Advancing Computing Science. The group – led by computing science teachers Toni Scullion and Brendan McCart – had been set up as part of an unpublished recommendation following STER. It is designed to bring computer science teachers together from across the country in a network, so as to disseminate latest best practice teaching guidance, foster the uptake of new skills and address what itself is a dynamic and constantly-evolving discipline, given the impact of new technologies such as AI.

Logan celebrated the achievements of this group, which has voluntarily signed up 490 of the 578 computing science teachers across the country. Crucially, it supports the ‘teachability’ of the subject and addresses blind spots of teacher knowledge which – working with the SQA – have enabled teachers to focus on some of the more challenging areas of computing science examination. He later singled out the SQA as once agency that has played an integral part in upskilling teachers.

He said: “It’s a fantastic model that should be being replicated in all the sciences, in my view, which is to take our most experienced teachers, who have created material to teach our less experienced teachers in the areas that they are currently feeling challenged.”

“The great thing about it is that it’s a national scale programme right away, because it uses the teaching network,” he added. “In my view networks usually trump hierarchies.”

He recommended that STACS move to the centre of the education process – because if you can engage teachers in the challenges that face them, rather than having things “visited upon them”, it becomes a very powerful tool.

When it comes to overcoming the barriers, though, Logan said that the issue of recruiting computing science teachers should be addressed. It’s not the case that salaries are low, or that everyone wants to be a software engineer, he said. One idea would be to get computing science teachers to go and talk to young undergraduates about the profession in universities, which would be a cost-effective way to promote the subject. He said also that a computing science degree often incorporates options such as AI in the third and forth year – so why not explore combining elements of the PGDE teaching degree.

“My ask is that the authorities who are charged with educating our children lead on this like they really mean it. And that hasn’t really been evident,” Logan told MSPs.

Turning to STACS, Logan said the group had also produced a crib sheet of around 50 issues that could be fixed quite easily, and without money, which would raise both standards and morale among the teachers.

One of those, as an example, was that computing science teachers currently need to go to local authority officers for approval to use certain online teaching materials – because of data protection regulations. Asking teachers to do that was not an effective use of their time – and it should be done for them, said Logan, adding: “Somebody should be convening and knocking heads together and getting that sorted. Interestingly, our independent schools don’t have that problem; they can use all these tools because they have a sensible approach to GDPR.”

“I would like responsible leaders to sit down with the STACS team and say, ‘What is it you need? We will get that done for you,'” he added.

“We don’t need committees to be formed of you know, and no disrespect to this committee as committees have value. But I have gone through the committee approach in terms of, we convened a committee of people from different education bodies, and we tried to make progress here. I spent a year-and-a-half in that process. It felt very inertial; there was a lack of leadership in the room.”

He said: “It was like walking through cold treacle backwards, dragging a heavily sedated bull elephant.”

He said they reached the point of agreement to recruit more computing science teachers – and it has been costed. But eventually the plans were not funded, with Logan concluding that it had been a “waste of time”.

Going forward, he said he wanted people at the most senior levels of government to sponsor this plan and that he would like to see STACS moved centrally, and to provide the leadership and authority to enact many of the changes it had identified.

“We need to lead on this issue like it matters to the economy,” he said.