Technically educating the digital workforce of tomorrow

Toni Sekinah, Research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, in Tottenham, North London is an innovative, new educational institution focused on preparing students for careers within the tech and digital sectors. It has two missions. The first is to be a centre of excellence for teaching digital skills and the second is to promote social mobility.

Tom Fogden, COO and dean of Ada, the National College for Digital SkillsAda was conceived five years ago by, CEO, Mark Smith and, COO and Dean, Tom Fogden They were both teachers working with Teach First, but had also worked in industry in different tech roles. When forming Ada they took inspiration from an IT college in Estonia as well as educational institutions in the USA, including MIT and Harvard, and inner city schools.

It is now entering its third academic year of educating sixth form students and apprentices aged 16-plus. I met Fogden at the college where he told me about the curriculum and the school’s social missions, the impact he hopes the this new style of learning will have on the students, and the incoming data apprenticeship.

"The BTEC in Computer Science is more flexible."

With its focus on giving students the skills to be the digital work force of the future, all students in the sixth form take a BTEC in Computer Science. Fogden explained that this qualification was chosen over the A-level in the same subject because it is broader and offers a “genuine specialism” with twice as many contact hours. “It is more flexible in the way you can deliver it. We have computer interaction, games units, programming units, and cyber-security. It is a really good taster for someone who is into this sort of stuff,” he said. Fogden also sees the BTEC as being more applicable and not just based on theory.

The college also offers A-levels in maths, further maths which incorporates Python and programming, physics, graphic communication, business and psychology to complement the computer science core curriculum.

"The data apprenticeship has a mathematical bent, using Python and statistics."

For those aged 18-plus, the college offers higher level apprenticeships currently in computer software engineering and from this October in data analytics and visualisation. “That has a more mathematical bent, using Python and statistics at its core.” The industry partners for data apprenticeship are Deloitte, Siemens, Expedia, Whitbread, Hill+Knowlton and Hackney Council.

Student scrum sprint with post-its on whiteboardThe 28 apprentices will spend the first year of the data analytics and visualisation apprenticeship studying the concepts of statistics, data analysis, databases, Python for data science and how they all fit together. The second year focuses on building on those core skills. To make sure that the students have a good grasp of soft skills, the college designs its courses and experiences to simulate real life, involving a lot of group work, feedback, leadership, people and time management as well as presenting to peers, educators and guests from industry. In addition, the entire student body of the college starts the day in an agile way with a stand-up meeting, using the scrum methodology to go through their tasks for the week and suggest solutions to each other’s obstacles.

Fogden clearly sees this apprenticeship as beneficial to both the students and to the data and analytics sector as he said: “We only go into an area when we know there’s a lot of really great inspirational jobs at the other end.”

"They get employment, get paid and don't take on tuition fees."

Students at Ada, the National College for Technical Skills, doing a stand-up scrumThe apprentices spend 80% of their time with their employer and the remaining 20% studying in the college. Two years of the apprenticeships amounts to a foundation degree, but if the student wants to and the employer is happy with them, they can do one more year and earn a full BSc. It is also open to career-changers. Fogden highlighted the benefits, saying, “it's a pretty great offer. They get employment, they are getting paid £21,000 a year, and they're not taking on any tuition fees.”

The possibility of graduating debt-free is a serious attraction when one considers that the average English graduate of the class of 2018 has a student debt of £34,800 by the time they are eligible to start repayment. Ada’s dedication to social mobility means there is a push to increase the proportion of girls enrolled at the college to 50% within five years from its current level of 25%. Just 17% of the UK's tech workfore is female.

The mission also heavily influenced the college's location as the founders wanted it to be easily accessible to as many students from low income backgrounds as possible. Students come from as far as Essex and Kent to attend the college with some commuting up to an hour-and-a-half each way. To help ease the financial burden of attending, all students are given a laptop and there are bursaries as well for travel and clothing.

At the end of August, Fogden saw the hard work of the students and teachers pay off with 100% of the students passing the BTEC Computer Science and 34% getting A*-B in their A levels and 85% getting their first-choice destination. “There were lots of happy smiley faces,” said Fogden. “Students are achieving all sorts of things: going to Russel Group universities, going to Google, a scholarship at GCHQ, or getting just the job they were looking for. We are very proud. It’s a good start.”

Ada, the National College for Digital Skills seen from the outsideHoused in a renovated job centre, this college is continuing the building’s tradition of helping people into work. However, the National College for Digital Skills is playing the long game in getting people not just into jobs, but rewarding careers. In two years’ time, a new cohort will be ready to enter rewarding data careers as well.

Knowledge-based content manager, DataIQ
Toni is the senior features editor responsible for the origination of DataIQ's interviews, articles and blogs.