4 December 2015
The new computing curriculum in England: Why was it introduced? How will this affect school pupils? How will pupils develop these important computing skills? Will the initiative be effective?

In September 2014 a new computing curriculum was introduced into schools. Some welcomed this, saying the previous ICT curriculum (in 2003, described in a teacher’s guide) was ‘too soft’, while others felt the introduction was too hasty. The new curriculum was stated by the BBC to teach ‘pupils how to write code’, but it should cover a great deal more than just that (for all pupils, from the age of 5 to 16 years). A school curriculum should enable pupils to develop understandings of how to use code, how to solve problems using programming, and how to be creative in this respect. The first robotic hand was developed using computer coding – so, can pupils aim to be this creative? Or just as creative in coding for video games those shown in the picture above (which are actual outcomes of pupil coding)?

Why was it introduced?

A recent article in The Guardian questioned the merits of the new curriculum. There are different reasons for the computing curriculum being introduced. More details can be found in a paper presented recently, but in outline these are:

  • Economic – increasingly jobs require computing skills, there is a shortage of applicants with these skills, and higher demands for those with these skills are forecast.
  • Organisational - businesses and institutions increasingly employ learning technologists with computing skills to solve problems using computing, and these employees need to know how to apply those skills working with others.
  • Community - computing is increasingly being used by social and community groups, creating social media, or facilities and devices to support specific needs.
  • Educational – education should support understanding and development of emerging disciplines, and technology clearly fits into this category, likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
  • Learning – computer users need technical, operational and application skills and competencies to support their own and others’ uses, but they need opportunities to develop problem-solving and creative skills using computing and programming facilities.
  • Learner – learners should engage in areas that interest them, and computing is a subject that interests many young people.

So a short answer to the initial question is - computing in schools appears to be a good idea.

How will this affect school pupils?

For pupils 5 to 11 years of age the stated aims of the computing curriculum published by the Department for Education are ambitious. The aims are for teachers to provide activities allowing their pupils to ‘evaluate and apply information technology, including new or unfamiliar technologies, analytically to solve problems’, to become ‘responsible, competent, confident and creative users’.

How will pupils develop these important computing skills?

Teachers are clearly vital in this respect. What teachers do, what activities they provide, and how they enable pupils to work with computing facilities will affect pupil experience and outcomes. The focus at the moment seems to be more on computing and programming. While these elements are important, it’s not at all clear that these alone will address the reasons why the computing curriculum was introduced.

For example, will pupils know from year to year how jobs are shifting and which skills are needed? Will they work in teams, as a preparation for future practices? Will they work on community-based projects, solving problems and creating solutions? Will they gain understanding of how technologies continue to develop? Will they continue in their area of interest, if this is computing?

So, will the initiative be effective?

If this new curriculum is to be effective for school pupils, I suggest we need to carefully monitor what is happening (and these concerns are being discussed internationally, at a Nordic countries’ doctoral consortium conference in Lithuania later this month, for example).  From outcomes of such monitoring, we should identify very regularly ways to support teachers to address any gaps found, focusing on the very reasons for introducing the computing curriculum:

  • Economic – how will local, regional, national and international shifts and predictions in employment and skill needs become accessible to and used by pupils?
  • Organisational – how will group working be developed in computing lesson activities?
  • Community – how will engagement with community groups exploring and solving their problems and needs be fostered and handled?
  • Educational – how will pupils, teachers and schools be updated regularly about new developments in technologies and computing?
  • Learning – how will pupil problem-solving and creative skills be assessed, as well as computing and programming skills?
  • Learner – how will prolonged interest in longer-term engagement with computing be fostered?

What is happening in England is happening in other countries too. This is an important and potentially valuable initiative, but we need to consider carefully what teachers need to make it successful. Have we accommodated this adequately? If not, then perhaps a computing curriculum is not such a good idea!