The association for the people and businesses of Sheffield's digital industries.

talent 23, a year of talent and skills

a year of talent and skills

Sheffield’s Tech Talent Pipeline – where is it?

Liz Wallis of Sero Consulting introduces our new Skills resource with an overview of pre-19 activity in Sheffield.

“Wow! I didn’t realise there was so much happening!”

That’s a typical comment whenever I talk about the different coding and making activities happening all over Sheffield in the education and skills space for under 19 year olds.

So what is going on and why is it not more visible?

In this post, I’ll attempt to give a brief flavour of what’s already happening, in Sheffield in particular, and hope that it will whet your appetite to know more. I’ll then go into more detail in a series of brief posts about each activity over the coming weeks.

Firstly, what’s happening in schools? One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the introduction by the government of a new computing curriculum, launched in 2014 in response to lobbying by the industry. This requires all children aged five to 14 to be taught the basics of computational thinking, so by the age of seven, pupils are now expected to understand what algorithms are and how to create and debug simple programmes.  By the age of 11, pupils are expected to be able to create and debug more complicated programmes, understand variables and use devices to collect, analyse and report back on data.  By the age of 14, they should be using two or more programming languages, learning simple Boolean logic, working with binary numbers, and studying how computer hardware and software work together. In addition, a Computer Science GCSE has just been introduced for teaching from 2016.  This new qualification covers writing code and designing computer programmes, as well as the ethical and legal aspects of digital technology.

To help cement this approach, the government has just funded free BBC micro:bits for all Year 7 students in the UK.  Schools recently took delivery.

So a major shift has taken place to teaching ‘computing’ as opposed to ‘ICT’, which is focused on how to use rather than create software – though in practice many schools are still delivering ICT.  The philosophy of the new curriculum is that, regardless of whether children end up in the computing industry, if they can think computationally they will be better prepared for today’s world and for the future.  They will be digitally literate, therefore able to express themselves and develop their ideas, using technology as active participants in a digital world not just consumers of technology.

Of course, it requires that teachers can deliver the new curriculum, which in turn means that they need to access training and support. There has been no shortage of big initiatives to help. At local level, Sheffield Council’s eLearning Service is providing a lot of support to schools, not just with the new curriculum but also digital literacy more broadly.  However, schools suffer from initiative overload and it is hard for teachers to get release off timetable. Plus the new curriculum does not automatically involve or deliver more employer engagement.  

This is where University Technical Colleges (UTCs) come in, offering a model of education for students aged 14-19 based on involving employers systematically in all aspects from curriculum development to master classes, from mentoring to work experience.  Sheffield is about to get a second UTC specialising in Computing, which could be a key piece of the jigsaw. We already have a successful UTC specialising in Creative and Digital Industries with significant sector involvement – more about the UTCs in a separate post. At the same time, The Sheffield College has recently launched a new Centre for Creative Industries at the Hillsborough Campus with high-spec industry-standard facilities.

But what about informal grassroots learning outside of formal school and college settings? There is no shortage of initiatives in this space, some of which are purely online, some with face-to-face opportunities.

Code Clubs are the most obvious example – a nationwide network of free after-school coding clubs for children aged 9-11, led by volunteers.  Sheffield has 21 Code Clubs which you can find on the Sheffield Digital map.

Yoomee and Sheffield Hallam University have run Festival of Code events, part of the Young Rewired State network, to support the ‘premier league of programmers’ aged 7-18 to teach themselves how to code.  The next Festival of Code will be 2017.

Sheffield Hardware Hackers and Makers is an informal grouping based at Portland Works that focuses on physical making, such as 3D printing, woodworking, metalwork, textiles, and more.  Workshops are mainly suited to adults because of safety issues, but they would like to offer more to young people.

In addition, of course, there is a plethora of free online resources like and Hour of Code, as well as global movements that offer templates for free, volunteer-led, community-based clubs or tutorial like CoderDojo and Django Girls, which are starting up in Sheffield.

The important thing to say at this stage is that there are some things which Sheffield is doing above and beyond any national or global initiatives, both to support schools and also to nurture informal grassroots learning.  These activities are creating the beginnings of a ‘tech talent pipeline’ into jobs, apprenticeships and university – but it’s still patchy and it could be so much better.  More of that later.

 Make.Learn.Share is a good place to begin because it involves young people aged 12-14 working with primary-age schoolchildren to teach them coding and digital making.  It’s a unique and powerful model. The programme was funded by NESTA in collaboration with Sheffield City Council and ended in 2015 but it engaged more than 1000 young people as well as secondary and primary school staff. This simple but effective model enthused all those who participated and the approach has been taken forward and extended in two ways.  Firstly, through Make.Learn.Share:Europe which replicates the model in four other European countries. In fact, young ambassadors involved in the project from across Europe will soon be meeting together in a Hackathon/conference to share skills, knowledge and understanding. Secondly, through CAFÉ…

CAFÉ Computing as a Family Experience built on the Make.Learn.Share model of teenagers teaching primary school children and extended it to families.  Funded by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, again working with the City Council, this programme is currently operating in six secondary schools and 18 primary schools, with associated weekend activities to engage the broader community.  The first Family Digital Makers Day held at the new Creative and Digital Centre at Sheffield College’s Hillsborough Campus was a great success – the next one is coming up on 16th July.

The Made in Sheffield Computer Science Programme is working with students aged 13-15 in four secondary schools.   Where Make.Learn.Share and CAFÉ are about introducing students to coding and digital making, the Made in Sheffield scheme co-ordinated by the Council is focused on engaging students with the Computer Science curriculum and giving them industry experience.  Students do master classes at University of Sheffield, participate in a two-day software hackathon and undertake a series of employer visits, building up and reflecting upon their skills portfolio.  The programme lasts two years and participants receive a ‘Skills Passport’ endorsed by the Cutlers’ Company at the end.

Code>Make>Win is an annual competition for young people aged 9-19 offering prizes in three categories: software apps; physical computing; digital making.  Now in its first full year with support from the Raspberry Pi Foundation working with the Council, it has been used to ‘unearth’ and support young people interested in coding and making beyond school and college activity. The Awards event on 7th July at The Workstation will showcase what young people have been developing.

The Discovery Project is supported by Sheffield Hallam University and the STEMNET organisation, focused on widening participation in STEM subjects among 6-18 year olds.  Discovery is well connected with the home schooling community and also runs holiday clubs and regular events, including monthly junior engineering and making clubs at their new base at Kelham Island. Young participants are now asking for regular digital making clubs.

So, what does all this add up to?  That’s a big question.  For sure, there’s a lot of activity and many young people and families in Sheffield are already enjoying new opportunities in computing and digital making; however, there are gaps and effort is patchy. It feels like some momentum is building and we may be on the verge of making more sense of what we are already doing and identifying the potential as well as the mechanisms for gluing a ‘digital skills pipeline’ or ‘talent pipeline’ together, supported by the Council, both universities, the UTCs, The Sheffield College and Sheffield Digital. That’s a whole piece in its own right, but next up is more information on the new UTC specialising in Computing.

In the meantime, if any of the above has already sparked your interest and you feel you could offer support, please get in touch by emailing me at