Beyond the Impact: Preparing Kids to Build the AI Revolution, Not Just Survive It

The recently published Independent Review of Education, while well-intentioned, falls short in its vision for the future. Merely preparing kids for the impact of technology on their working lives is akin to teaching them to adjust to the tide rather than equipping them to build the ships that navigate it. We must set our sights higher, fostering a generation capable of not only consuming technology but also creating it, shaping it, and using it to solve the challenges of tomorrow.

While the review recommends the development of new Level 1 and 2 qualifications in “digital skills”, the reality of the future workforce necessitates a deeper dive. The challenges we face - from climate change to healthcare innovations - demand more than digital citizens; they require digital trailblazers. We need a generation equipped not just to consume information, but to manipulate it, analyse it, and use it to create solutions.

Sure, basic keyboard fluency is important, but the true currency lies in understanding the underlying architecture of these tools, wielding programming languages, Large Language Models, and cloud services like experienced artisans, and building systems and teams that push the boundaries of what's possible. This isn't about rote memorisation or chasing the latest tech trends; it's about fostering a deep understanding of how technology works and a boundless drive to use it for good. Let's not settle for a workforce merely "comfortable" with digital tools; let's cultivate software creators, engineers, and architects of the future.

Northern Ireland's software industry is a hidden gem, punching far above its weight on the global stage. It has grown to employ 22,000 people and contributes £1.7bn to the local economy. Those in the industry receive reward and remuneration packages that are typically 50% greater than the average worker here. But to maintain this momentum and truly unlock the potential of a "10x economy," as outlined in the "Software Skills for a 10x Economy" report, we need a fundamental shift in how we prepare our young people.

This is where the software industry steps in, not just as a job creator, wealth creator, and attractor of inward investment but as an active participant in shaping the future workforce. The Software Alliance’s flagship TechTeach program is a prime example of this commitment. Through TechTeach, volunteer software professionals from across the industry deliver monthly sessions to teachers on cutting-edge topics like artificial intelligence (AI), cybersecurity, and the metaverse. This isn't just about introducing teachers to cool tech; it's about reigniting their curiosity, unlocking industry insights, and equipping them with the capacity and confidence to deliver engaging and inspirational software related lessons in the classroom. It provides teachers with the tools to encourage their students to pursue the knowledge, experience, qualifications, and pathways that this growing industry expects rather than those deemed to be an easy pass.

TechTeach is just the beginning. We need a comprehensive approach to education that weaves technology seamlessly into the curriculum, from primary school through university. This means not just teaching kids to code, but also fostering critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration skills – the essential ingredients for innovation.

Imagine a classroom where kids aren't just learning about Shakespeare, but also using AI to analyse his writing style and generate new sonnets. Or picture a science lab where students design and build robots to explore new methods of technology enabled construction, demolition and recycling required by the circular economy. These aren't pipe dreams; they're the seeds of a future where our kids are not just consumers of technology, but creators, builders, and problem solvers.

There are pockets of excellence here in the region. Software Alliance Board members recently had the privilege of visiting the Creative Digital Technology Hub in St Malachy’s College in North Belfast where we saw kids do just these things. While the college leadership should be commended for securing the charitable and philanthropic funds to build the hub, they should not have needed to. Government needs to step up and ensure the funds are there to build and maintain such facilities in all schools. Not in 6-8 years as proposed in the Independent Review of Education but now. Having a functioning and stable NI Executive in place would also be helpful in this regard…

While AI promises advancements and efficiencies across various fields, it also presents the potential for automation to reshape the professional landscape. For young people aspiring to a broad range of careers that are currently the mainstay of the Northern Ireland economy and inward investment, equipping themselves with the skills discussed here isn't simply about embracing the future; it's about building a hedge against this potential displacement.

The technical fluency fostered by coding and exposure to cutting-edge concepts like AI, fintech and cybersecurity will become essential for navigating an evolving job market. But beyond technical prowess, the critical thinking, creativity, and collaborative skills nurtured through TechTeach and similar initiatives will be the true differentiators. These are the traits that will allow our kids to rise above the machines, to become the business analysts, problem solvers, innovators, and leaders who will define the professions of the future, not simply adapt to them. In an increasingly automated world, these non-automatable skills will be the ultimate currency, ensuring that our young people thrive in a landscape transformed by technology, rather than be defined by it.

Of course, this transformation requires a collaborative effort. The software industry, educators, policymakers, and parents must all work together to create an education system that nurtures the tech talent of tomorrow. We need curriculum updates that reflect the realities of the 21st century, investment in teacher recruitment, training, development, and retention, as well as access to technology and resources for all students, regardless of background. Timetabling of computing subjects need area and regional co-ordination. This will enable industry practitioners to leverage technology in supporting teachers in the delivery of lessons in a way that is consistent and more co-ordinated. That investment needs to ensure that quality and equal provision is delivered in all schools from Belleek to Ballycastle, Newry to Newbuildings and from Coleraine to Crossmaglen.

The "Software Skills for a 10x Economy" report highlights the immense potential of our software industry to drive economic growth and societal progress. Accounting for productivity increases enabled by AI and cloud infrastructure I believe that the software industry could increase headcount by over 50% whilst increasing GVA by 100% enabling it to employ 34,000 people contributing £3.4 billion to the regional economy by 2034.

Let's stop merely preparing for the impact of technology and start equipping our children to build the future. By fostering a generation of tech-savvy creators and problem solvers, we can ensure that Northern Ireland's software industry not only thrives but leads the way in building a more innovative, prosperous, and equitable world.

But unlocking this potential requires a workforce equipped with the skills and mindset to build the software solutions of the future. We need to prepare our kids not just to adapt to change, but to be the architects of it.