Why the National Curriculum is investing more in teaching digital skills

Computer lessons

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Pupils as young as five are learning how they might fit in with the digital world of work, as David Marsh finds out

For those of us born in the analogue rather that the digital age the IT skills of today’s computer savvy kids, who live life in the fast lane of the information super highway, seem very impressive. So it might come as a surprise, particularly to those of us too often stranded in the information super lay-by, that there are those in hi-tech industries who say the kids are not savvy enough. The result has been a major shake-up in the way information communication technology (ICT) is taught in the nation’s schools following the introduction of a new national curriculum for computing.

There are three strands to the computing curriculum – computer science, information technology and digital literacy. And since September 2014, children as young as five years have been learning about computer coding, algorithms, how to create a simple program and how to ‘debug’ it to sort out any glitches.

A classroom exercise might involve an attempt to program a floor robot, such as a BeeBot, to trace a particular shape. The lesson may also allow a child to look at someone else’s code and predict what it will make the robot do.

Slightly older primary-school children will be creating and debugging more complicated programs with specific goals and by the time they enter senior school, they will be using two or more programming languages to create their own programs.

The subject lends itself to a range of fun activities from animation to designing computer games; coding is what makes it possible to create computer software, apps and websites.

In a speech just ahead of the computing curriculum’s introduction, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove said: ‘ICT used to focus purely on computer literacy – teaching pupils, over and over again, how to word process, how to work a spreadsheet, how to use programs already creaking into obsolescence; about as much use as teaching children to send a telex or travel in a zeppelin.

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‘Our new curriculum teaches children computer science, information technology and digital literacy; teaching them how to code and how to create their own programs; not just how to work a computer but how a computer works and how to make it work for you.’

The curriculum is an attempt to respond to demands from some UK technology companies struggling to find people with the skills necessary for the industry to develop. BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT and Royal Academy of Engineering were among those involved in helping to develop the computing curriculum. The UK technology sector is expected to grow in the years ahead, presenting a variety of job opportunities.

But campaigners for the new approach to the subject argue that the new curriculum is not just about employment prospects. It is claimed that learning coding skills will help children be more creative and will benefit them regardless of whichever career they opt for.

So how has the new curriculum bedded in since its introduction? Pretty smoothly, according to Stuart Watson, head of computing at Ashville College, Harrogate, which has about 1,000 pupils ranging in age from pre-prep school to A-level students.

He said: ‘I have contact with staff from other schools and it appears there have not been too many problems. Our pupils’ reaction to the curriculum has been pretty good. It can take a while for them to get used to the idea they aren’t going to be writing the programme for an all singing, all dancing game in a matter of minutes but when they get to grips with getting the computer to do exactly what they want, they get quite excited.’

Computer and internet safety, including how to report concerns about ‘content or contact’ online, is included in the curriculum. Mr Watson said: ‘This plays a major role in schools and is intertwined with all lessons.’

Learning is not confined to the classroom. There is a wide range of after-school clubs with projects that complement the new curriculum. Among them is Code Club, a network of volunteer-led computing clubs for children aged 9-11, founded in 2012. There are currently over 3,600 Code Clubs across the UK, nearly 350 of them in Yorkshire. Clubs are run in schools, libraries and community venues. Projects focus on three programming languages - Scratch, HTML/CSS and Python - and act as step-by-step guides to creating fun games, animations and websites.

Maria Quevedo, director of Code Club UK, said: ‘We think it’s really important for children to develop digital skills which enable them to become active creators of technology, rather than just passive consumers. Code Club also aims to show that programming can be a fun and creative activity which can be useful for loads of different things - creating websites and apps, academic research, making art and music - the possibilities are endless.’

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