Digital technology has pervaded almost every aspect of modern life. Not so widespread, however, is a deep understanding of how our beloved apps and digital devices actually work. While not every keen computing student will be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, digital literacy is a key skill sought by employers.
England was the first G20 country to formally recognise the importance of teaching children computing. After disparaging the outdated ICT curriculum as “demotivating and dull”, former education secretary Michael Gove overhauled the national curriculum in 2014 and introduced computer science at GCSE and A-level, with the aim of creating young people who were “able to work at the forefront of technological change”.
Coding (formerly known as computer programming) is the new computing curriculum.
The previous focus was mainly on the everyday use of computers; now lessons involve skills such as coding, cyber security, networking and data storage, as well as programming principles that enable students to design and create their own websites and apps.
Children as young as five are learning the fundamentals of programming in schools all around the country.
Yet three years on from this educational revolution, ICT tutors are reporting a significant shortfall in skills. Pupils are struggling with the concepts of algorithms, debugging and Boolean logic. A shortage of qualified teachers, combined with the difficulty of courses, means the reformed ICT is not as popular at GCSE and A-level as it should be, says Kunal Patel, a tutor with Newman Tuition, who is working with Jewish-school pupils in Finchley and Wembley.
He blames poor training of school teachers, along with a preponderance of older teachers who are floundering at the fast pace and finding it hard to adapt to the change in approach. This is translating into a wider problem in the workforce.
Researchers have predicted a shortfall of 300,000 digitally skilled workers in London alone, with an additional 900,000 across Europe.
To meet the demand for digitally-savvy school leavers, new local initiatives are appearing, such as Newman Tuition’s robotics workshops, where pupils between the ages of eight and 13 had the opportunity to design, create and program their own robot, made of everyday materials and controlled by an app on their mobile phones.
Patel, an experienced engineer, ran the events. He says they demonstrated the impact of combined disciplines — mechanical, software, and electrical engineering — while having fun creating something in the process. “Pupils gain so much from making something practical using their hands and minds,” he says.
In May, Newman Tuition combined forces with the charity Work Avenue to offer a bi-weekly programming course, designed to equip job seekers with significant digital skills to get into, or back into, work.
“I saw there were lots of opportunities in the market with these skills and I also noticed you don’t necessarily need an academic background or degree to enter these kind of jobs, which made the course suitable for the people we work with,” says Debbie Sheldon, programme co-ordinator.
It is not only the job market that benefits from computer science training. Coding at a young age teaches pupils how to solve problems and think critically — skills that will benefit them wherever their career takes them.
Patel adds: “Digital skills are needed everywhere. In the future they’re going to creep more and more into every sector and we need to prepare our pupils for that”.
Zac Newman is founder and director of Newman Tuition