In 2018, the House of Commons Education Select Committee described the development of digital skills for young people as “crucial to the success of the fourth industrial revolution”. This need has been exemplified, and most likely accelerated, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that almost half of young people in the UK believe that their education has not prepared them for the world of work. On the other hand, 40% of employers say they are struggling to fill entry-level jobs due to young people not having the right skills. Much has been discussed about how we close this digital skills gap. But too little attention has been given to the changemakers who can make the greatest impact. McKinsey’s 2007 report on the world’s highest performing education system stated that “no education system can be better than its teachers”. This is as true to the development of digital skills as it is to any other educational improvement. Investing in teachers makes economic sense – one teacher will influence the outcomes of thousands of young people over their career. As the demands on schools and teachers increase significantly over the next academic year, and closing the digital skills gap becomes ever more urgent, teachers need more support in addressing this gap. We need to recognise that when most of the current teaching workforce were trained, there was little emphasis on digital skills. Therefore, there is a real need to provide high-quality professional development for teachers to equip them with the knowledge of digital technologies as well as the skills necessary to teach digital skills to young people successfully.

Developing digital skills is too important to leave to a subset of teachers or even to teachers alone. It is only by (A) involving industry, (B) starting young and (C) embedding digital skills across the curriculum that the achievement and engagement in digital skills of all young people can be realised.

Impactful involvement of industry

Industry can add significant value to teachers’ professional development. Their involvement helps contextualise teachers’ own knowledge development and support them to bring digital skills to life in the classroom. For example, this can be achieved through employers contributing to professional development courses or hosting these courses at employers’ venues to enable teachers to see digital skills in action. Greater collaboration between teachers and employers will help teachers better understand employers’ skills requirements and use this to inform their teaching; thereby exposing young people to the breadth of opportunities available to them. Through this, the potential and aspirations of young people, particularly those from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, can be realised.

Starting young

As we know with all knowledge and skills development, getting the basics right at primary school is essential to success at the latter stages of education. The development of digital skills is no different and should therefore be a focus throughout primary. However, with primary school teachers having to cover all subjects, there is a greater need to provide continuous development opportunities to allow them to keep abreast of the rapidly changing digital landscape. Primary school teachers also have a key role to play in ensuring that from a young age, children understand the opportunities and varied need for digital skills in careers. By teachers addressing common misconceptions and biases, such as coding not being for girls, early on and by broadening their horizons and raising their aspirations, young people are able to achieve more and make more informed choices in secondary school and beyond. This will only be possible if we invest in the knowledge and skills of primary school teachers.

Digital skills across the curriculum

Digital skills should not be confined to just computing as a subject, and instead needs to be considered a key skill. It must therefore be embedded across the curriculum and placed at the centre of learning, just as literacy and numeracy are. This can range from modelling the eruption of a volcano in geography to creating digital animations in drama.  Elevating digital skills in this way will clearly demonstrate to young people the value of digital skills to all disciplines.

With the quality of teachers being the biggest determinant of students’ outcomes, it is teachers who are going to make the biggest impact on closing the digital skills gap and ensuring a prosperous economy in our increasingly digital world. However, if we are going to place this reliance on our teaching workforce, we need to invest in them and therefore empower them to ensure all young people can achieve their potential through being highly digitally competent.