From education to employment

Why Big Tech wants Computer Science to be the New Algebra

Magda Woods FE News Exclusive

Earlier this month, the CEOs of hundreds of top US tech companies, including Google, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft, as well as universities and non-profits signed an open letter urging governors and education leaders to introduce computer science to be taught to kids from as young as five-years-old. The letter emphasised computer science as “a core subject, just like basic biology or algebra” and the importance of children not only learning digital skills but understanding how the technology they use every day works and is built.

Digital skills gap

The sentiment of the letter isn’t just felt in the US. Across the pond, British businesses are feeling the pinch from skill shortages, with the UK’s ever-widening digital skills gap costing the economy an astounding £6.3bn in lost GDP per year, largely due to a widespread lack of proper digital and computing skills in the workforce resulting in unfilled jobs. For the UK tech community, making computing a priority in education policy is equally a top priority.

Investing in computer science teaching in schools brings huge value to educators, pupils, businesses and the economy. But it’s about far more than just filling in-demand software developer roles – digital literacy is, today, a foundational skill for all young people.

But why is it so important, and how is the UK’s curriculum shaping up versus the US? 

Digitally native generations aren’t necessarily digitally literate 

People born this side of the millennium should be considered ‘digital natives’ due to the extent to which they have been exposed to technology since birth. However, digital exposure and digital literacy are not one and the same. Having practical software skills and understanding digital syntax are as important to digital literacy as understanding how to use social media and browse the internet safely. 

Technology today has enormous power and influence, suggesting what films you watch and what music you want to listen to through to what political views, news and information you see. Understanding how this tech is built, who builds it and how they use your information is vitally important to allow our young people to take a full part in the debates and decisions that will shape all of our lives.  

These issues are crucial to the long terms aims of computing education. It’s considerably more effective to build digitally capable employees from before they even enter the workplace. This eliminates the need to invest in training employees when they’re already in full time employment, where energy and funds to boost skills are limited.

The state of computer science education in the UK 

Unlike the US, the UK does have space already in the curriculum for computing science, which was introduced relatively recently in 2014. However, challenges remain, and levels of teaching differ significantly across England, Scotland and Wales.  

According to a report from the Royal Society, 30% of secondary school pupils attend a school where GCSE computer science isn’t available. While this year’s A-Level and GCSE results have shown uptake of the subject is growing, there’s still considerable work to be done to see computing on par with core subjects like maths and sciences. Not forgetting the diversity challenges – at just 15% of the total entries this year being female, computer science A-Level remains the most gender imbalanced subject.  

There are also substantial issues when it comes to the provision of computer science education and the support and training teachers have before teaching the subject in the curriculum. We conducted research earlier this year among UK primary school teachers and found many feel unprepared and unsupported. Over half (61%) of those teachers responsible for IT in their schools have no formal training or background in the subject. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter cited limited teacher knowledge and a lack of digital skills as a key challenge to teaching computing, while a further 3 in 5 blame lack of resources and the necessary devices and tools.  

The rigidity of the curriculum in England was also frequently criticised as a barrier to spending more time exploring new tools and creative thinking in lessons – which is part of the problem. We believe computing skills shouldn’t be limited to one lesson – computing should also be integrated across the curriculum and can add value to how children learn numerous other skills and topics. Not only would this encourage more students to enjoy digital skills, but it alsoreduces burden on teachers who feel they need to try and ‘fit’ computing in among literacy, maths and science lessons.

Digital education – better together

As demand for computing skills continues to soar, the business world and big tech will continue to make their voices heard, as they have done in the US. But getting computer science to be considered a core subject won’t be done overnight, and it’s imperative that change is informed by the whole community – from educators and pupils to charities and the corporate world.  

We’re already collaborating with some of the world’s biggest tech organisations like Arm and Microsoft to improve computer science education in the UK and across the globe. Their insights and expertise, combined with on-the-ground educator feedback, are the perfect combination to ensure the future of computing education works for the whole community.  

By Magda Wood, Chief of Learning, The Micro:bit Educational Foundation

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