Bridging the digital divide: the changes to computing in schools

A new programme of computing study will be introduced this year as part of the national curriculum. Dave Whyley and Brett Laniosh, experts at Naace, analyse the current situation in schools and discuss the benefits, progress and challenges that the changes may pose.

Computing has been part of the national curriculum since 2014, with the changes gaining a mixed reception from both primary and secondary schools across the country. For 2016, a ‘new and more challenging’ programme of study has been announced, featuring a number of key changes and additions which have been met with widespread uncertainty.

There is a very clear divide between schools when it comes to computing.

In some schools, teachers are meeting the challenge head-on and adapting incredibly well. When computing is delivered effectively, it can be a highly-structured learning experience and holistically very beneficial, as the subject itself develops problem solving capability; something which is relevant in every subject.

In her speech at Bett this year, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: “I want our next generation to have the skills to compete in the global jobs market.
That’s why we have put in place a computing curriculum that gives them the basic building blocks but also seeks to give them specialist knowledge, too.”

She also goes on to say that the government is committed to delivering ‘world-class’ qualifications.

The UK used to be a world leader in computing, however today we are seeing other nations, especially the likes of North America and Canada, forging streets ahead.

The main issue is that there is no clear strategy for what we are trying to achieve with the teaching of computing. Other nations have clear-cut objectives, including the cultivation of positive digital footprints, and understanding how to use technology effectively. In the UK however, we are continually hearing claims of our need to be ‘preparing young children for the digital world’, but how many jobs truly exist in the UK technology and computing industries? Technology is fast becoming one of our greatest assets, and the establishment of Tech City is a testament to this, but is the current narrow interpretation of computing as coding really preparing our students for the future workplace?

In reality, it’s not so much about the languages that students learn.
Many secondary pupils will now learn to code in more than one language, including Javascript, Python and HTML. It is the process of learning these languages that will teach students more about how to use technology and to solve problems through perseverance.

Computing is also a highly collaborative subject, as working in teams will often provide multiple solutions to the same problem, allowing all students to work out the logic of the language.

Those students who may have struggled to engage with traditional subjects, often find computing far easier to engage with.
This is particularly true of students for whom English is an additional language (EAL), as the logical structure of coding languages has helped them to demonstrate their intellect and give their teachers a real insight into their abilities.

Literacy, ethics and legality
There is a great deal more to computing than just learning how to code and the recent changes to the curriculum reflect this. Our world is increasingly becoming more and more digital, and understanding the ethical and legal aspects of technology, as well as having a strong understanding of online safety, are crucial to any lesson based around the study of digital practices. We must teach pupils how their use of technology can affect those around them, and how to act safely and legally online, both inside and out of the classroom.

Accessing and evaluating digital content is one of the skills that will definitely be of significant benefit to students in the future.
It used to be that all pupil work was done using books and paper, however today students often use the internet to research their topic, so the ability (or lack thereof) to discern the validity and legality of a source can have serious implications for their work.

In this sense, working with the wider community can be incredibly valuable, and making sure that parents also have a solid understanding of online safety issues and the legal implications of technology can help reinforce this learning massively. Digital literacy is incredibly important in today’s society after all.

What needs to be done
Contrary to what you might expect, it is often the older teachers who excel in the teaching of coding, simply because they initially learnt to use computers on systems which required commands to function. Modern computers now execute most of these commands autonomously, thus the knowledge of manual operation has slowly faded away. Teachers who have never worked with computers in this way often struggle with the concepts of computational thinking and there is still a great deal of confusion in the classroom around certain terminology, such as ‘algorithm’ for example, particularly at Key Stage One.

When it comes to computing and technology within the classroom, there are a lot of nervous teachers out there. The annual Bett show is a great platform to demonstrate what technology has to offer but it’s important to remember that those who visit make up a small percentage of the total number of UK teachers, and many of them are ‘evangelist teachers’, who are already incorporating technology well in the classroom. There are many others who are feeling lost and have only two sides of A4 in the curriculum programme of study to work from; these are the people we must support and reach out to.

One of the things we must focus on in the next two years is ensuring that teachers have the resources and support frameworks in place to deliver a rich and exciting curriculum. Although there are some very high-quality resources for computing available, there still aren’t enough to support teachers effectively. Schools are struggling with the allocation of budgets and where to focus their continuing professional development (CPD). Indeed, there is a great demand for computing training courses in schools. Some schools will have an enthusiastic ICT teacher who will pick up the subject and run with it, whereas others will employ a single teacher or support assistant to teach the subject. Some will even focus on computing over a period of a week to ‘get it out of the way’ so to speak.

Computing is not yet being delivered in a consistently effective manner and the level of support offered to teachers has not been sufficient, despite the injection of funding to organisations, such as Computing at School. There simply aren’t enough professionals to support schools in developing the full range of their computing programme.

Appropriate infrastructure, relevant teaching
Although the digital divide is partly due to a lack of teacher confidence in using and teaching technology, there is a far more fundamental issue at hand in that some schools simply don’t have the capacity to implement new technologies. The BESA Leadership Briefing report showed that 38 per cent of primary school pupils and 20 per cent of secondary-level students will continue to suffer from poor internet access in 2016, meaning that a great deal of superb and helpful resources for computing, such as Espresso Coding, 2Simple’s 2Code and J2e’s J2Code will remain out of reach no matter what they cost.

We have made a positive start, but we still have a long way to go before all schools are delivering computing appropriately and effectively. All schools are finding it a challenge as it is still a relatively foreign concept to teachers, so they have to get to grips with the terminology and practice of programming. It used to be that the Department for Education (DfE) and the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) published reports on the efficacy of the computing curriculum, but this has recently dwindled, and thus, we have no authoritative research on how well we’re doing, how effective the government sponsored support mechanisms have been or how teaching computing really benefits our students.

Many teachers understand the need for the subject, and enthusiastic IT specialists have been keen to pick it up, but from experience, it seems that most are still very daunted by the task. Schools are told by conferences and suppliers what they should be doing, but very few explain how to go about it, and it is this crucial element that has led to the piecemeal adaptation of computing.
If we can lay out clear objectives for our pursuit of coding excellence, as well as establishing a strong support network for teachers and schools, we will be able to begin teaching computing in a way that truly benefits young people.

Further information