The long-awaited new national curriculum for computing is the biggest shake-up in IT teaching history. Gone are the days of students learning to use Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint, and writing extensive and largely irrelevant essays. Instead, this curriculum will focus on the core elements of programming. Children as young as five will learn algorithms and basic commands.
This will hopefully produce a new generation of skilled programmers and problem solvers, who will help science, technology, engineering and mechanical industries, all of which are facing a skills shortage.
We spoke to five key stakeholders in the curriculum – one teacher and four industry leaders – to find out how it will affect the IT world.
Steve Beswick, Microsoft UK director of education
Microsoft has been largely supportive of the new curriculum and had significant influence on the programme's design.
V3: Is the new computing curriculum a good idea?
Beswick: At Microsoft, we feel that the new curriculum is absolutely the right way to be going. This is all about getting young people excited and inspired to learn about how computers work, rather than simply using computers for work. In the UK we know that jobs, particularly in small businesses - the lifeblood of our economy - will require more and more computing and coding skills, so investing in the education of young people at an early stage will be beneficial to the UK's future economic health.
What kind of school leavers do you hope it will create?
We want to see young people leave school and university with a curiosity to find out more about computing and computer technology. Technology has a huge role to play in helping young people work more creatively and more collaboratively at school, and these are key behaviours that young people will need when they begin their working lives.
What was computing like when you were at school?
Things were certainly very different when I was at school over 30 years ago. We were just beginning to see calculators being introduced into the classroom, which prompted a fierce debate about whether or not they devalued the learning experience and made people lazy. Today, we see similar debates in relation to the use of far more sophisticated technologies, but the fact that the calculator remains an integral part of school life shows that we cannot get in the way of progress as technology is very much part and parcel of learning.
Mark A'Bear, Adobe UK education manager
Adobe has a natural affinity towards the creative end of the curriculum, and A'Bear is a firm believer that it could go further
V3: What do you feel was wrong with the old ICT curriculum?
A'Bear: It was really designed around the use of traditional office productivity tools such as Microsoft Office. If a school had been utilising those tools in the classroom in a cross-curricular way, there would have been no need to teach ICT. It wasn't delivering a great deal of value, especially with today's students who know the technology pretty much inside out.
Adobe wasn't fully satisfied with the new curriculum. Why is that?
It's a shame that in the UK – one of the leading creative technology industries, with all the things we do well like games design and film production – creativity isn't brought more to the fore, either in computing or other subjects.
Our software helps develop some of the core skills employers are looking for, such as problem solving, communication and creative thinking. Those will make a young person employable or attractive to a higher education institution. The curriculum is a bit too prescriptive and it stifles creativity.
How will teachers cope?
Teachers closely follow the curriculum to help students understand what the examiner requires in order for the student to achieve one, two or three marks. So the risk in my mind is that teachers will follow the curriculum because of external pressures. We do have some teachers who are prepared to take more risks, but those are more the exception than the rule.
Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi Foundation executive director
The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a non-profit organisation that produces sub-£30 computers for both children and hackers on a budget
V3: What did you make of the old curriculum?
Upton: It wasn't fit for purpose, although there's value in teaching kids Office software. You only have to see the amount of lousy Word documents and lousy PowerPoints to see that it's not necessarily something people pick up by themselves. But it feels like that could be incorporated into other subjects.
What kind of people do you hope the new curriculum will create?
I don't think we should force everyone to be a professional-grade programmer. I'd like everyone to have the transferable problem-solving skills which come out of programming. Most high-value jobs today are effectively problem-solving jobs; they're jobs which involve figuring out what needs to be done.
If we expose everyone to programming, then we will get a small number of people who will be excited by the application of computers. It's a dual benefit.
Will Raspberry Pi do anything linked to the new curriculum?
We're trying to do that work in a non-Pi-specific way. I think the Pi is a great platform for doing this stuff, in particular it's a great application for kids to have in their bedrooms, but it isn't necessarily the right platform on which children should be learning coding at schools.
Schools already have computers, and the Pi isn't for the one hour a week at school, it's for the four hours a night at home. It allows schools to be confident that there won't be any children who can't afford to follow along.
Martin Gollogly, SAP University Alliances director
Global software firm SAP works with universities to provide services and job opportunities to students studying IT‑based subjects
V3: What did you make of the new curriculum?
Gollogly: It's a good idea. One of the things we have to understand is that a lot of programming skills are iterative. It's to a large degree self-guided, and you can provide students with the tools and have a robust curriculum. Ironically you create weakness in the economy and end up with cookie-cutter programmers with specific tool sets, who all know the same algorithms and techniques.
What kind of prospective employees will it create?
There is value in us finding somebody who's got three languages, who can project manage and think creatively, and you could find another person who's full on and deeply into databases. You get divergence because they were free to explore from an early age rather than being made to fit specific criteria.
The criteria for passing exams are sometimes set by people my age, and I'm 41. I think I have a good idea of what pupils need to learn but no idea of what a seven-year-old would be interested in. I couldn't guess what technologies will be in 10 years. I fear that some of that freedom is missing.
What was your computing education like at school?
What has always struck me as odd is that I did computing between 1986 and 1988 and Windows launched in 1985. I was learning DOS at school. That's a perfect example of the inadaptability of formal teaching programs - it takes too long to react and train people.
Most people I know who are interested in coding began as bedroom coders - had they relied on teaching they wouldn't have learned anything useful.
Gemma Palmer, primary school teacher
Palmer's school in Royston, Hertfordshire, will have to make investments to ensure staff and equipment are ready for the new curriculum.
V3: What do you make of five-year-olds learning computing?
I think far too often in schools young children are denied opportunities that would allow them to develop computing skills.
What are you expecting from the new computing curriculum?
I believe that the new computing curriculum will allow for more creativity; teachers will be given more choice, which will give children the opportunity to explore and make connections in their learning. I hope this change will enable children to enjoy computing at school and also support children in developing other areas of learning, in particular mathematics.
Will you have the skills required, or will you need extra training?
ICT received minimal attention during my teacher training; if I didn't have a personal interest in ICT and developing my knowledge, my understanding would be weak. The new computing curriculum is a huge change for teachers and schools, and because of this I think that extra training is crucial - without training and in-depth understanding of this area, teachers will struggle to deliver effective computing lessons.
What did you think of ICT during your school years?
I'd have liked the opportunity to explore ICT creatively at primary school, but the technology available was minimal compared with the wealth of technology in schools today. I think teachers struggle to combine ICT with a creative, enjoyable learning ethos.
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