digital world

Julia Adamson from BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT explores today’s digital world and asks if our children ready for it

The Autumn 2017 Budget recognised that the UK’s future prosperity, growth, productivity, exports and ability to attract inward investment all depend on how the nation responds to the challenges of the digital revolution. Unlike earlier technological revolutions, which created opportunities for low, medium and high skilled workers, those without the skills to enter the new economy will be driven into lower-skilled roles that add to the UK’s productivity problems.

Economies will similarly be faced with the choice between actively pursuing the high skill, high-value end of the economic spectrum or drifting into the lower-skilled lower-value areas. A positive vision for the digital future is welcome, not least because the economy and society are inextricably linked – young people’s future opportunities depend on the shape and structure of the economy and digital skills are now essential for active citizenship and all areas of life.

The budget identifies, though not always explicitly, some key roles for government. Firstly, there is a focus on leadership and vision, identifying future opportunities for innovation and growth, such as driverless cars and artificial intelligence. Secondly, there is a focus on creating the conditions in which innovation can flourish by building the right infrastructure and regulatory environment. Thirdly, it recognises that the government has a central role in ensuring that everyone has the knowledge and skills needed to participate actively in the digital economy.

As we prepare to make our way in the global digital world as a producer rather than simply a consumer of digital products, an ever-increasing number will need the higher-order digital skills to create new ideas, knowledge, products and services. Leaving the EU may affect the UK’s ability to recruit abroad, so home-grown talent will become increasingly important and the only way to address this skills challenge at scale is through the education system.

The importance of higher-order digital skills is reflected in the computing curriculum, which goes beyond basic user skills, aiming to equip “pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.” (National Curriculum for England). This is a great aspiration; however, governments and national curriculum documents do not teach students, teachers do.

The computing curriculum will only succeed if enough teachers have the necessary knowledge, skills and confidence. Currently, over 75% of existing teachers do not have an academic background in computer science and recruitment for computing teacher training missed the target for the academic year 2016/7 by the biggest margin of all English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects. Without a centrally led intervention to support the training of computing teachers, the introduction of this new subject will stall as evidenced by the slowdown in the growth at GCSE this year.

The DfE has supported the Network of Excellence (NoE) in Computer Science, part of the Computing At School group within BCS. The NoE provides effective continuous professional development (CPD) for teachers who are new to computing, increasing both their confidence and capability, the number of their students taking GCSE Computer Science and their grades. It has made fantastic progress. Since April 2015, it has provided over 80,000 hours of CPD to nearly 8,000 schools.

While these numbers are impressive and exceed the expectations for the programme, they amount to just over 3 hours per teacher. Few French teachers would be confident to teach Mandarin after 3 hours of training. The government has recognised that a step-change in the level of support is needed and we welcome the government’s commitment to upskilling 8,000 existing teachers to become a competent computer, science teachers.

However, simply ‘training’ teachers are not enough. Teachers need continuing support if the training they receive is to lead to a change in the classroom. There are many examples of teacher training schemes that have failed because teachers were not provided with the necessary support to implement what they have learned. Evidence shows that this support is best provided through the ongoing support of other teachers via a professional network. The NoE has recruited and supported over 500 Computing at School ‘’Master Teachers. These are skilled classroom professionals working in schools who provide support to others and are themselves supported by university-based regional centres. The recently announced National Centre for Computing will have the crucial role of ensuring that computing teachers can call on the continuing support they will need. £84 million is significant government investment. The potential return on that investment in terms of young people’s opportunities and economic growth are enormous, but achieving that return on investment will depend on the enthusiasm of teachers.

It’s clear that a lot more is now understood about achieving change at scale and we look forward to the CPD programme and the national centre building on what has been learned to ensure that the announced programme is done for and with teachers, rather than done to them. With proper CPD and the support of an effective professional network, teachers will embrace the new subject, the opportunities it offers for their students and their role in building the future.


Julia Adamson

Director of Education

BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT

Tel: +44 (0)1793 417 417


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