Big tech has called for computer science to be taught in all US schools as a core subject – could similar moves solve the UK’s digital skills crisis?
In July, bosses from hundreds of the biggest tech companies in the US signed an open letter urging governors and education leaders to introduce computer science to be taught to kids from as young as five years old. The signatories included Google, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft, as well as universities and non-profits in that sector.
The letter argued computer science should be considered “a core subject, just like basic biology or algebra” and emphasised how important it is for children to learn digital skills from a young age, as well as build an understanding into how the technology they use every day works and is built.
The sentiment of this letter rings true for the UK, too. The British economy is estimated to be losing an astonishing £6.3bn in GDP per year, largely due to a widespread lack of proper digital and computing skills in the workforce resulting in unfilled jobs.
With British businesses and consumers suffering as a result, prioritising digital skills education in schools should be a top priority for the UK tech community and our government’s education agenda, just as it is becoming across the Atlantic.
Simply growing up with an iPad doesn’t teach you how to code. The term ‘digital natives’ has often been used to describe the generations brought up since technology has become omnipresent in society, but this tag can be misleading. While those born in the last 20 or so years have most likely been exposed to technology every day, this does not equate to digital literacy or digital competencies.
Having practical software skills and understanding digital syntax are as important to digital literacy as understanding how to use social media and browse the internet safely. Today, technology has a huge amount of influence and power – suggesting and, in many cases, controlling what political views, news and information you see as well as what media you consume, and which marketing is targeted at you.
To safely and effectively navigate modern life and the technology that is entrenched within it, understanding how this tech is built, who builds it and how your information is used, is vitally important. It is also considerably more effective to begin building these skills at a young age, so new workers join the working world already ahead.
A substantial digital skills education will allow our young people to take a full part in the debates and decisions that will shape all our lives.
So, what’s the state of digital education in the UK, and how can we improve it? The UK curriculum has already made steps in the right direction. Unlike the US, the UK introduced computing for kids from primary through to secondary school in 2014 – but there are still substantial challenges to overcome.
Diversity is a key issue. Computer science has the highest gender disparity of any A-level subject, with just 15 per cent of total entrants this year being female. To encourage young people to study computer science, it is imperative that it is seen by all as a space for all, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Achieving that requires close assessment of how lessons are taught, and how the subjects are presented. For example, we know handheld devices like my own organisation’s Micro:bitpocket-sized computer encourage more female learners and those from under-represented backgrounds to get involved in computing, bringing it ‘to life’.
The provision and teaching support available for computer science also leaves a lot to be desired. We conducted research earlier this year among UK primary school teachers and found many feel unprepared and unsupported. Of the teachers surveyed, 61 per cent who are responsible for teaching computing and digital skills in their schools have no formal training or background in the subject, while nearly a quarter cited limited teacher knowledge and a lack of digital skills as a key challenge to teaching computing.
Additionally, the rigidity of the curriculum was often cited by teachers as an obstacle preventing them from spending more time exploring new tools and creative thinking in lessons – especially in England. This is crucial. Computing skills shouldn’t be limited to one lesson – computing should also be integrated across the curriculum, adding value to how children learn numerous other skills and topics. This would both encourage more students to try learning digital skills while reducing the burden on teachers who feel they need to try and ‘fit’ computing in with other core subjects and learning benchmarks to hit.
This is an issue for the whole tech community. The modern working world will only become more dependent on tech, ensuring the demand for digital skills will continue to rise alongside it. To ensure the current digital skills gap gets smaller and computer science gains recognition as a core subject as much as maths or biology, educators, the tech industry, government and businesses must all contribute towards making this change.
As an organisation driven by making positive change for digital education, Micro:bit Educational Foundation is already collaborating with some of the world’s biggest tech organisations, like Arm and Microsoft, to improve computer science education in the UK and across the globe. Their insights and expertise, combined with on-the-ground educator feedback, are the perfect combination to ensure the future of computing education works for the whole community.
Want to join the movement? Organisations can learn more about joining our mission at microbit.org.
Magda Wood is chief of learning at Micro:bit Educational Foundation.
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