`Not everything under the sun is about coding'

10th April 2015 at 01:00
Vital topics are being squeezed out of computing, experts warn

Putting coding on the curriculum was hailed as a revolutionary move that made England a world leader, but experts claim it has been at the expense of other vital computing skills.

When the new curriculum was introduced in September, England became the first country in the world to make programming compulsory in both primary and secondary schools.

The subject was overhauled after former education secretary Michael Gove described its predecessor, ICT, as "demotivating and dull", saying it placed too much emphasis on digital skills such as word processing.

But according to Mark Chambers, chief executive of the ICT association Naace, the hype about teaching pupils to code has squeezed out other crucial aspects of computing - such as e-safety and using search engines.

"We have experienced over the past 18 months an incredible focus on computer science, as opposed to computing, and it has had a dominant influence on the way people think," he said. "Coding is important but not everything under the sun is coding. It takes a variety of skills if we want students to use technology and understand how it works."

Mr Chambers admitted that some parts of the old ICT curriculum had not always been taught well, but said that ditching it altogether had swung the pendulum too far. Students needed to develop a deeper understanding of how technology could be used, he insisted.

"We need to help young people become discriminating consumers and provide them with ways of recognising when they're being taken advantage of," he said.

He added that the shift towards coding had been accompanied by "a rush towards employing computer scientists and a jettisoning of those with digital skills". He also said the "voice of development" had not necessarily come from education professionals but "a commercial or higher education perspective".

Word processing and PowerPoint skills might have been labelled as dull by Mr Gove but they were "vitally important", said Will Franklin, a Year 5 teacher at Westdene Primary School in Brighton. He added that the fad for coding also meant that e-safety was at risk of being neglected.

"It is not until lower down the programme of study that you see `staying safe online', which is much more important than anything else," he said. "Now children are very much about the social element: they want to share what they do, and it's not just with 31 people in their class, but with 31 million people around the world. We need to make sure that, as well as teaching coding, we relate it to the world they're growing into."

Too much, too soon

Paul Hynes, vice-principal of George Spencer Academy in Nottingham and a member of the Department for Education's ICT expert panel, said that coding had been given too much prominence in the new curriculum, taking up "70 to 80 per cent" of the programme of study.

"The emphasis has all been about coding but when we talk to our employers, that is not what they're interested in," he said. "Our employers couldn't give a monkey's about computer science. They want to integrate [school-leavers] straight away and not spend three days teaching them how to use Outlook."

In response, Mr Hynes' school has developed its own computing curriculum for Years 7 to 9. It gives equal weight to computer science, digital literacy - including online applications, e-safety and cloud storage - and creative media, covering video, photo manipulation and app design.

Students are able to continue with one or more strands up to GCSE and A-level, and the school has reintroduced Microsoft Office qualifications for pupils in Year 8 and 9.

But Bill Mitchell, director of education at BCS, the chartered institute for ICT professionals, insisted that the new computing curriculum was about much more than learning to code.

He said that lessons in coding helped pupils to develop computational thinking skills, which could improve maths and English, and added that they still had the opportunity to learn both office skills and e-safety. "I don't think we have lost the imaginative and creative parts of the previous curriculum - quite a lot of it just happens earlier," he said.

`Digital literacy is just as important'

Will Franklin is a Year 5 teacher at Westdene Primary in Brighton and works with other schools as part of the master teacher programme for the subject association Computing at School. He says that many teachers have the impression that the subject is now all about coding.

"If you look at the curriculum statements, it is not just the first thing you see, it is the biggest and most overwhelming thing," he says.

"Teachers who have not taught it before are going to see it as top priority, but people are forgetting that digital literacy is just as important."

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