Microsoft is working with the Welsh Education Authority to improve IT skills and technology access in the South Wales county borough of Rhondda Cynon Taff.
The county's schools have also joined the Microsoft IT Academy, which offers free IT training for teachers and official qualifications for students in Office applications.
While the general direction of IT and computing education in school curriculums in moving towards coding and becoming less focused on using productivity tools, the prevalence of Microsoft Office in many businesses means there is still a demand for workers proficient with the software.
Martyn Silezin, strategy officer at the Welsh Education Authority, explained in an interview with V3 that the qualifications give pupils in-depth knowledge of Office tools which can help to secure jobs that require digital skills.
"It's helping our youngsters stand out because these are qualifications that the employers understand and see," he said.
"One youngster went for an interview in the NHS in Merthyr and there were many others with similar qualifications, [but] it was the Microsoft Office specialist qualification that made him stand out," he said.
Silezin explained that the Microsoft Academy has helped schools in the county to better equip young people to get jobs in South Wales' growing technology industry, part of which can be seen in Alert Logic's new cyber security threat monitoring centre in Cardiff.
The Academy's qualifications break Office 365 into individual app packages, which Silezin said helps keep the pupils engaged as they can concentrate on a short-term course that gives them a tangible qualification at the end.
"The IT Academy offers industry-standard qualifications that are in great little packages, which means that [pupils] can do qualifications in Word, PowerPoint and Excel separately and then, using an overarching project, we can use three of those to convert them into a GCSE-equivalent qualification," he added.
The Welsh Education Authority also uses the Microsoft Academy to train teachers in the county to use technology as an integral part of education and not just to teach IT.
"Although you can guide someone in using technology in the classroom, it's using it appropriately and making sure you're hitting the objectives of the lesson that's the absolute clincher for me," said Silezin.
One example has been to use the Minecraft virtual building game, recently acquired by Microsoft, to recreate the mines in South Wales which pupils can explore virtually to learn about the area's mining history in a more interactive way.
Teachers taking part in the Academy can gain a 21st century learning qualification, and will be able to teach the skills they have learned. Silezin hopes this will create a self-sustaining model by eventually allowing teachers to train each other without relying on the Academy.
The introduction of coding into England's comprehensive education system met with some opposition from teachers concerned about potential disruption to the established curriculum, but Silezin said that the majority of teachers in Rhondda Cynon Taff have welcomed more involvement with technology.
He explained that the Welsh Education Authority has long-term plans to take this approach into the county's wider community to train adults in IT skills, potentially leading to more technology-related opportunities being generated in South Wales.
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