Digital EconomyKeynote

Digital Education – Transforming Scottish Education for the 21st Century

Modernizing Education is central to Scotland's ambition to build a world leading digital nation.

The mission of Digital Scotland is to help build a world leading Scottish digital nation, and of course technology skills and careers are central to that ambition.

As the Herald reports Kate Forbes has announced £45m in funding to “transform Scotland into one of Europe’s leading economies to start or grow a technology business.”

However there are significant challenges standing in the way.

Key startup sectors like FinTech are facing a skills crunch challenge, experiencing a talent shortage that could inhibit the growth of this booming industry and therefore limit the extent to which this overall goal can be achieved.

As far back as 2018 Digital Skills Scotland reported that Scotland faces a skills shortage challenge that would hamper our ambitions to build a world leading digital economy, and Scotland’s Auditor General lambasted the government for a lack of leadership with regards to workforce skills planning. Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council have not been able to agree how integrated approaches to skills planning should work. Together, they spend over £2bn each year on training and post-school education.

Particularly concerning is Scotland’s general education performance, their PISA results pointing to declining performance in key subjects like Maths and Science. Especially poignant is the collapse of Computer Science adoption, the skill that is absolutely central to our ambitions to build a world leading digital nation.

A Vision for Transformation

There are of course many different technologies that have great potential for Scottish learning. The Cloud makes powerful new teaching tools more easily available, Virtual Reality provides an immersive experience, and so on, but these are at the level of individual teaching. To define the wholesale transformation of education we first need to craft a vision of what a future state transformed system might look like – Entirely new ideas, new models for how Education is delivered.

We can look to other countries for inspiration.

As described in a previous blog Estonia offers an exemplar of a small nation who has mastered technology to greatly advance their country. Education is one headline example of this, where they have leveraged technology to achieve astounding levels of success on the same rankings, the first in Europe. Indeed they describe it as a platform for enabling an ‘Education Nation‘.

The Times analyzes what it takes to build Europe’s best school system.

“Despite relatively low spending on education Estonia is among the top countries in the world in all three areas on which 15-year-olds are assessed: reading, mathematics and science. Its schools are also the best at promoting fairness and Estonian pupils are among the happiest in the OECD.”

Of course technology alone can’t transform a policy system, especially one that has been concretely set in it’s ways for decades if not hundreds of years. James McEnaney notes this in his tweet, highlighting that as well as technology mastery Estonia also have an entirely different different approach to Education. It’s both this different culture and technology Scotland needs to adopt.

Writing for TES James also sets the scene for the types of changes needed, describing 4 Ways to Transform Scottish Education, most notably a reformation of the exam system:

“Our current approach, the one that grinds students through a needless annual exam cycle and ties so much of their future to performance in just a few hours of a single day, has failed far too many people for far too long. The richest pupils are more likely to leave school with five Highers than the poorest are to leave with one. Those from the most deprived backgrounds are also more likely to fail their courses than achieve an A grade.”

This of course is the backbone of the education system, how grades are assessed and rewarded, and it is here therefore where the biggest levers for change are possible

Resistance to Change

This leads us to the central challenge – Policy systems that are set in their ways and highly resistant to change.

For example in this white paper the authors document the MySkills project, a collaboration between the City of Glasgow College, The Scottish Qualifications Authority and APPII, to define a model for digital certification to be used and adapted by other awarding bodies throughout the rest of the UK.

This explores how academic certifications may be digitized, applying them to the Scottish Education and Employment market, demonstrating walk-throughs and process models for how it would work in practice and defining how the pilot project can be scaled to a nationwide roll-out.

Most notably it highlights the core challenge that really stands in the way of modernizing Scottish Education:

“Government policy can be driver. In Scotland, where this project is based, the adoption of digital certificates for vocational education qualifications is a good fit with the Scottish government ambitions for digital services and a digital economy.”


“Adopting digital certificates is not a very technically demanding challenge, it’s more an issue of cultural change. The challenge in going digital with certificates of learning is symptomatic of the wider challenge of adopting technology generally in education. We are dealing with a complex social, legal and economic system that is resistant to change – despite all the hype (and worse) about the ability of technology to transform education.”

EdTech – Embedding Innovation in Policy Design

Therefore exploring new ways to overcome inertia and resistance, and to encourage wholesale policy transformation are key to Scotland’s goals of creating a world class Education program, and building on that to populate the jobs market with highly skilled candidates.

One example of a highly effective policy is to stimulate and accelerate related startup sectors, ie in this case ‘EdTech’.

A keystone foundation for rejuvenating Scotland’s Education sector is the role of commercial startups. Another function of E-Estonia’s holistic digital nation approach is that it also results in high-growth tech businesses: A country 1/5 the size of Scotland has produced nine ‘unicorns’, startups valued at more than a $ billion.

Embedding startups at the heart of a policy framework embeds raw innovation there, the most important ingredient needed – An ambition and ability to envision new ways of doing things and a hunger to disrupt an established order. Exactly what Scotland needs, a shake up of the establishment.

An extremely powerful dynamic for Scotland to harness is to utilize local startups to advance these broader national goals. This would encourage a compounding benefit as the improvement of Scottish Education would simultaneously drive the commercial success of Scottish businesses, critically providing them with case study success stories that would support their international expansion, further boosting the economy.


Editor of On a mission to build a world leading Scottish digital nation.

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