Digital skills crisis Contents

3Digital skills in schools

Embedding digital technology in the school curriculum

59.Addressing the digital skills crisis starts with our education system. The Royal Society identified the central importance of education as the engine of a more digitally skilled workforce:

If the workforce is to be future-proofed, education systems in the UK must be designed to equip everyone with strong literacy and numeracy skills, information literacy and a mind-set that is flexible, creative and adaptive. This will be crucial to preparing today’s young learners for a future economy in which the skills needed are not only unpredictable now, but will continue to change throughout their careers; a future in which workers must have the ability and confidence to continue to learn and adapt long after leaving formal education.113

Crucially, witnesses impressed upon us that students who were only exposed to digital education in designated ICT classes suffered a distinct disadvantage when compared to those whose schools chose to mainstream technology and digital skills across the curriculum.

60.Over the last two decades, there has been a gradual shift to embed digital technology, with pupils being more active participants in the classroom, for example through the use of interactive whiteboards and tablets.114 Research has shown that digital technology can be effective in teaching mathematics and science as well as increasing attainment levels in numeracy and literacy.115 Technology can make a positive contribution to the lives of all learners, but attempts to use IT to improve learning outcomes may not always be effective, especially if students become over-dependent on the technology.116 Students using technology in the classroom is not enough in itself—they only translate this experience into key digital skills through good teaching and following good role models.

61.Despite Government initiatives in this area (paragraph 63), however, Ofsted has concluded that the impact of digital technology on education standards has been varied, reflecting different levels of investment, access to high quality broadband and teacher support.117 Not only do just 35% of ICT teachers have a relevant qualification but the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) calculated that 22% of IT equipment in schools is ineffective.118 There are currently 730,000 tablets in schools (expected to increase to 903,000 in 2016). Many schools are using them as part of everyday learning to deliver some aspects of the school curriculum, but there are still other schools that are relying on the use of a separate ICT suite.119

62.The Government has set targets for recruiting teachers in Maths and Physics. They should also make a similar pledge for Computer Science. This would demonstrate a commitment to equip our future generation with the tools and resources to navigate the digital world, and provide a means of monitoring progress.

The computing curriculum

63.Since the Education Reform Act 1988, ICT has been compulsory for all pupils aged 5–16 years in maintained schools.120 In 2013, Ofsted reported on the quality of ICT teaching in schools in England, concluding that it was stronger in primary schools than secondary schools, where “poor teacher capability and lack of resources accounted for significant weaknesses in delivering the ICT curriculum”.121 It was left to schools’ discretion how ICT was taught and Ofsted noted that overall more emphasis was given to office applications (e.g. Microsoft applications) than design elements (such as programming). This was dependent on individual teachers’ confidence and ability to deliver the subject content. A Royal Society report in 2012 stated that many pupils found ICT “repetitive and boring”, resulting in a steady decline in the number of students studying the subject since 2007.122

64.In February 2013, the Department for Education launched a public consultation on the Government’s proposal to replace the national curriculum ‘ICT’ syllabus with ‘computing’ at all four Key Stages.123 The changes were proposed because of what the Government described as “the negative connotations and poor value associated with ICT, as well as making the subject a more rigorous academic discipline”.124 The consultation proposed not to offer both ICT and computing courses because there was an overlap in their subject contents. Responses to the consultation showed that 39% were in favour of replacing ICT, while 26% were against and 26% were unsure.125 The Department for Education decided not to approve two GCSEs and A-levels that would offer similar qualifications and decided not to redevelop ICT at GCSE and A-level.126 The Government told us that “the reformed computing curriculum is equipping young people with the computational thinking that will prepare them for continued study or employment in digital roles”.127

65.The new computing curriculum was launched in September 2014, focusing on the basics of how computers work, digital literacy and information technology.128 The curriculum was designed by industry experts and academia. Computing is now a statutory national curriculum subject at all four Key Stages (alongside english, mathematics, science and physical education). ‘Computer science’ GCSE is also now included in the English Baccalaureate as a ‘science’. ICT is still available to 14–16 year olds, but only at vocational level.

66.Google, Microsoft, BBC and many other witnesses welcomed the new computing curriculum, seeing this as a “world leading” step in equipping children and young people with fundamental skills for the UK’s digital economy. However, it is a significant step up in what teachers are being asked to teach and, therefore, implementing the curriculum continues to be a challenge for some schools due to lack of qualified teachers (as we discuss below) and IT resources. The Government and industry recognised these issues early, however, and a lot of work has been done to develop the new curriculum. This includes a range of resources and support for schools and teachers and coding clubs (paragraph 77). Schools and industry could also look to whole school programmes with which they are already familiar, like the Big Writing literacy initiative, as a possible model for mainstreaming digital skills.129

67.Every student must have access to education that enables them to participate in the growing digital economy. The Government deserves credit for its leadership in introducing the computing curriculum but there is still some way to go for it to become truly embedded in all schools, let alone delivered to a consistently high standard. Given that digital skills are of the highest priority to the future of the UK economy and the future chances of young people, we find it surprising that computing is not explicitly considered in Ofsted’s schools inspection framework. We recommend that the Government request Ofsted to include the computing curriculum in their inspections and require schools to deliver credible, sustainable plans for embedding computing.

68.The Government should encourage the uptake of existing available resources by schools, many of which are free. Learning from the success of existing teacher support initiatives like The Big Write, and working closely with academia and industry, the Government should consider whether developing a similar model for computing will also help address gaps in IT resources.

69.Furthermore, to ensure digital education in schools continues to keep pace with business needs in an evolving tech environment, we recommend that the Government work with the Tech Partnership to establish a regular forum for employers to raise and discuss their priorities for ensuring the computing curriculum and its teaching stay up to date, and to help ensure that other school subject qualifications provide a foundation for a broader range of digital careers. This forum—which could be attached to the minister-chaired Digital Engagement Council (paragraphs 7 and 90)—would also be a springboard for ambitious expansion of industry support to schools, going beyond code clubs (discussed below) to include careers advice, Apprenticeship schemes and work placement programmes (paragraphs 46–53).

Upskilling teachers for a digital age

70.With only a third of ICT teachers holding a relevant qualification, the British Computer Society recently reported that many teachers were struggling to deliver the new curriculum, stating that only 25% of computing teachers felt confident delivering the curriculum.130 The Department for Education has provided more than £4.5 million over the past three years for ICT teachers to be upskilled to deliver the new curriculum through organisations such as Computing at School, Naace and the UK Forum for Computing Education.131 There is no mandatory requirement, however, for teachers to take up this training. Submissions we received show that there is some residual, continuing resistance to the change from the ICT curriculum to the computing curriculum.

71.Computing at School has developed a network of ‘Master Teachers’ to support the implementation of the computing curriculum. A study by Sheffield Hallam University showed that the Master Teacher programme was well regarded by teachers. There were still schools, however, which have not yet engaged with the computing curriculum.132 The British Computer Society thought that it was an “unrealistic expectation that the 15,000 hours of training would be enough” to ensure a smooth transition for teachers.133

72.Beyond the computing curriculum, digital technology can enable teachers to be more creative in the classroom where it can be used to teach many subjects, including literacy, maths, art and design. However, research from the University of Cambridge showed that some teachers may lack the confidence and skills needed effectively to integrate the use of ICT across the school curriculum in a way that would motivate students or create an interest in digital technology.134

73.As well as difficulties in upksilling ICT teachers, the Government has only been able to recruit 70% of the required number of computer science teachers into the profession.135 There are currently an estimated 14,000 teachers delivering ICT at GCSE and A-level, who will need support and training to teach computer science.136 In 2012, cash incentives were given to schools to release teachers from the classroom for training, but this central funding is no longer available. Andrew Seager, head teacher of Stratford School Academy, argued that the Government’s focus should be on retraining and incentivising recent computer science graduates to become teachers.137 The shortage of qualified and experienced teachers has become an issue for some schools competing with an industry that inevitably pays much more. Although initiatives such as Teach First and bursaries have attracted computer science graduates into teaching, retention rates have not been high, with 50% returning to industry.138 Simon Humphreys from Computing at School expressed his concerns:

The challenge that the new curriculum has presented cannot be underestimated. We are introducing a brand new subject in the school curriculum, fundamentally computer science labelled as computing [ … ] The key people in that process will be the teachers. It is absolutely vital that we ensure they feel sufficiently equipped and confident to teach the new subject. Many will lack the required subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge they need to teach the subject, so highest on the agenda should be: What can we do to support that workforce as best as we can?139

74.Given the pace of technological advances, it will always be a challenge for schools to keep up with the latest innovations. As digital skills are increasingly becoming essential for industrial sectors, schools will need to invest in offering high quality computer science courses and upskilling teachers so that digital skills can become more mainstream rather than as a standalone subject. The Government seems to treat computer science as a separate subject rather than a mechanism to enhance learning across other subject disciplines. ICT teachers are now expected to teach the new computing curriculum, but too many do not have the qualifications or the confidence to teach computer science. The Government and industry deserve credit for efforts so far to embed the computing curriculum, including in the provision of free resources and training. However, it is clear that greater investment is necessary to address the teaching skills gap. We therefore recommend that the Government increase its investment in teacher training as a long term commitment and request that, as part of its monitoring of the delivery of the computing curriculum, Ofsted take into account the uptake of free resources and training.

75.The Digital skills crisis includes not only shortages of key digital skills in the economy but also a shortage of qualified, confident ICT teachers. We commend Teach First and the Master Teachers initiative but, given the rate of loss to a highly attractive private sector, we believe that the ICT streams of these programmes should be scaled up to have any hope of delivering the sheer number of teachers needed for the long term health of UK digital education.

76.So far financial incentives have not attracted sufficient computer science teachers to the profession. In its forthcoming Digital Strategy, the Government should review the case for financial incentives for recruiting and retaining computer science teachers in schools, mindful of the higher pay remuneration available in the private sector. As an interim solution to recruitment shortfalls, the Government should consider categorising computer science teachers as one of the ‘shortage occupations’, thereby making it easier for schools or local authorities to recruit from outside the EU.

Informal learning

77.Outside the curriculum, informal learning is also being used by schools to increase digital skills. Coding clubs, such as Code Club, are typically free volunteer-led after-school networks, usually for children aged 9–11. Since 2012, there have been 4,900 Code Clubs registered in the UK, teaching over 57,000 children.140 Their activities include making computer games, animations and websites. The BBC recently launched ‘micro:bit’—a collaboration between 29 partners to inspire digital creativity (Figure 1). This provides an excellent opportunity for Year 7 students to experiment with a pocket-sized codeable computer and develop skills in science, technology and engineering as well as digital creativity.141

Figure 1: micro:bit

The BBC microbit is a project to stimulate coding at secondary school level by equipping every year 7 student (or its equivalent) in the UK with a free codable device. It will be distributed through schools for use in association with a dedicated website featuring advice for teachers and year 7 pupils. The website includes a series of videos, step by step tutorials, fun projects and resources to inspire users.

Source: BBC

78.While coding clubs have been a success, their accessibility across schools around the country has been patchy, being dependent on commitment from teachers, parents and industry. Amy Solder from Nesta believed that while clubs were successful in getting both boys and girls interested in computing, there was a geographical divide. She told us that “areas that are more rural and less urban-centred have many fewer opportunities”.142

79.There is also a big role for volunteers from industry in helping to support children, acting as role models. Amy Solder highlighted a techUK estimate that less than 1% of tech industry employees volunteer, and told us that “industry can probably play a greater role”.143 TechUK have listed ‘making it easier for industry to volunteer’ as one of eleven key steps to meet the digital skills challenge.144

80.While video games and gaming have often been perceived as a distraction from learning, they have recently been shown to have cognitive benefits such as improved perception, attention, memory and decision-making.145 Educational video games can complement formal learning, increasing levels of literacy as well as teaching mathematics, biology and computer programming.146 Research by BESA found that many schools see games consoles and smartphones playing an important role in primary school education.147 Gaming has also helped to stimulate children’s interest in digital technology, with many children wanting to design and develop games themselves in after-school clubs.148

81.Given the pace of technology change and the challenge it presents for teachers trying to keep up with it, it is right for schools to take up the opportunity to offer coding clubs.

82.We have been impressed by the range of innovative and exciting coding and computing clubs and resources offered by industry for schools. Given the pace of innovation, industry will in many cases be best placed to provide the technical underpinning of these initiatives. We believe therefore that it is only common sense that take-up of these clubs and resources should be the norm for schools rather than the exception. It is vital that the Government encourages industry to scale up its involvement in these initiatives, and schools to grasp the opportunities that become available.

83.We recommend that the Government works with the Tech Partnership to raise the ambition for, and coverage of, industry-led digital training, and to make it easier for businesses of all sizes to get involved.

Role models and diversity in STEM

84.Research by Nominet Trust has shown that parents’ perception of IT can significantly influence a child’s level of digital skills.149 Parents who are familiar with IT and regularly use it are able to play a crucial role in their children’s internet and IT use in a way that it does not distract from learning.150 A proportion of parents are not aware of the range of career opportunities that exist in the IT industry, and encourage their children towards traditional careers.151 There is also a lack of home support for technology use among lower income families, where it is easier to purchase a tablet or smart phone than a functional computer, limiting a child’s digital skills.152

85.In a school setting, individual teachers’ pedagogies can also have a significant impact on a pupil’s level of attainment as well as stimulating interest in digital technology.153 There has been an increased emphasis on teaching coding since the introduction of the computing curriculum. This can help develop problem-solving and logical thinking skills that can be used across a wide range of disciplines and careers.154

86.There is continuing concern over the lack of diversity among computer science/IT graduates and in wider Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers. Role models are an effective way of inspiring confidence to pursue a career path, but FDM Group highlighted that children and young people are more likely to identify with Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) as technology role models than Baroness Lane-Fox, Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook) or Marissa Mayer (president and CEO of Yahoo).155

87.Despite long standing campaigns from Government and industry, however, there remains a marked gender imbalance in those studying computing—only 16% of computer science students at school are female (compared with 42% who studied ICT) and this low level of representation persists through higher education and in the workplace.156 A survey of more than 4,000 girls, young women, parents and teachers in 2015 showed that 60% of 12-year-old girls in the UK and Ireland thought that STEM subjects were too difficult to learn and nearly half thought that they were a better match for boys. Sheila Flavell from FDM Group told us that:

Computer Science is a turn off for girls [ … ] because it is deemed to be engineering; it is boring and techie, and in the main it is not for girls [ … ] If you ask a young person to draw a typical IT worker, they will probably draw a geeky fellow with glasses and spiky red hair.157

88.If students have such ill-founded misperceptions, they need to be tackled head on and as early as possible in their school years. Embedding science and digital skills in the wider curriculum must be part of the solution. Many witnesses emphasised the need to address the gender imbalance. Simon Humphreys from Computing at School told us that:

If we have not enabled, motivated and inspired girls, as well as boys, that STEM-related subjects and computer science are relevant to them and provide an opportunity to participate in the workplace in something so transformative and life-changing, we have lost them. That is why the changes made to the primary curriculum for computing in computational thinking, creative problem solving and setting challenges prepuberty are very important.158

Although girls ranked parents and teachers as their biggest influencers when making a decision about study choices, 51% of parents felt that they were ill-informed on the benefits of STEM subjects and only 14% said they understood the different career opportunities that existed for their daughters.159 There have been several initiatives to attract more girls to STEM such as STEMNET and Girls Can Code. 160

89.More young people—particularly girls—must be attracted to education and careers in computing. With only 16% of students studying computer science being female (paragraph 87), the UK is missing out on a large talent pool. The Government needs to work with employers and educators to better understand and address why female students in schools, colleges and universities do not apply for digital courses and careers. However, the Government also needs to focus on other areas beyond gender—looking at other diverse backgrounds such as disability, ethnicity and disadvantaged socio-economic groups—so that children and young people can have a wide range of role models to inspire them to study and pursue careers in STEM.

90.Employers can also actively engage with schools, acting as role models and mentors. Interest in computer science (and STEM) needs to be captured at primary school level, then maintained until key career defining choices are made in selecting subjects at GCSE and A’ level.

113 Royal Society of Edinburgh (DIG0010)

114 National College for School Leadership, Issues of ICT, School reform and Learning-Centred School Design (2003)

118 British Educational Suppliers Association, Tablets and Connectivity, Full Report English Schools (June 2015)

119 British Educational Suppliers Association, Tablets and Connectivity, Full Report English Schools (June 2015)

120 House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, The school curriculum and SATs in England: reforms since 2010 (April 2016)

123 Department for Education, Reform of the National Curriculum in England (February 2013)

125 Department for Education, Changing ICT to Computing in the National Curriculum (July 2013)

129 Big Writing is an approach to teaching to improve writing standards. The aim is to advise schools on how to raise attainment levels in speaking, listening and writing using vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation. The model is currently used by numerous primary schools in the UK, targeting students in Key Stages 1 and from ages 5–11; See University Alliance and CaSE roundtable, Standing Out from the IT Crowd: How do we make Britain a world leader in digital skills (March 2016)

130 See University Alliance and CaSE roundtable, Standing Out from the IT Crowd: How do we make Britain a world leader in digital skills (March 2016)

131 Westminster Higher Education Forum, Next steps for computer sciences in Higher Education (February 2016)

133 Westminster Higher Education Forum, Next steps for computer sciences in Higher Education (February 2016)

135 National Audit Office, Department for Education: Training new teachers (February 2016)

137 Q95

138 Q70

139 Q134

140 Code Club (accessed April 2016)

141 BBC micro:bit (accessed April 2016)

142 Q106

143 Q113

145 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Moving learning games forward (2009)

146 Paul Howard-Jones – University of Bristol, Toward a Science of Learning Games (2011)

149 Nominet Trust, Mapping learner progression (October 2014)

150 The Children’s Partnership, Empowering parents through technology (October 2010)

151 Association of Colleges, Careers guidance: guaranteed (May 2014)

152 Brian Sharland (DIG0038)

153 ICF Consulting Ltd for the Scottish Government, Literature review on the impact of digital technology on learning and teaching (November 2015)

154 STEMNET (DIG0015)

155 Q107

156 Joint Council for Qualifications, GCSE and Entry Level Certificate Results (Summer 2015)

157 Q109

158 Q104

160 STEMNET (accessed April 2016)

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10 June 2016