Coding in the Classroom

A study of how computer education in the UK has come of age with the digital era

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How programming skills being taught in UK schools are in a class of their own

Computer education has had a remarkable glow-up in the last twenty something years. Hardware, lessons and IT expectations have come of age with the digital era. In 2014, the UK became one of the first countries in the world to make coding a mainstay of school life with the introduction of computer science as part of the national curriculum. Ever since there’s been an even greater focus on equipping students with the best digital literacy and programming skills for their future. 

“A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world” - Department of Education, 2014. 

Luckily for school pupils in primary and secondary schools today, the quality of computer education and STEM learning continues to rise. A review published in May 2022, recognised that computing can be a tricky subject to teach and set out standards to further enhance the quality of computing science lessons in English schools. Here we take a look at how coding in the classroom has evolved since our school days and celebrate the digital skills being developed from a young age. 

Back in Our Day

The 80’s brought us many wonderful things. Shell suits, the Sony Walkman, Ghostbusters, and the arrival of computers at school. Early machines that began to pop up included the Commodore PET and the BBC Micro. Information technology (IT) began to be taught in schools from 1984 supported by national funding, much to the delight of some of our team who were fascinated by tech from an early age.  

As the 80s rolled into the 90s, it was an exciting time with greater funding initiatives and investment in IT suites. A whole room of computers? We were in tech heaven. However, the IT lessons that were experienced were a tad on the basic side. There was no internet, no specialist IT teacher, and little to no opportunity to learn programming skills. 

Some of us recall in the mid 90’s when slow-booting Acorn Archimedes were scattered around the computer room and how to use a computer was high on the agenda, rather than exploring computational thinking. Floppy disks with elementary graphics and tests to complete, mastering Word Art on Windows 3.0 and sneaking in a few games of Solitaire were about all we managed to dabble with before the bell rang. Leaving the techies amongst us itching for extra computer time so we could experiment some more. Our Director, Andi even used to race early to school to help his maths teacher tinker with the BBC Micros (read more about Andi's computer school days here).

With little on offer at school in the 90s for budding software developers, most of us pursued programming in our own time or once we had moved onto further education. Luckily, for children today, their computer education is much more impressive. 

Digital Literacy Makes the Grade

As the digital age took hold towards the end of the 20th century, IT lessons began to gather momentum too. The power of technology to enable education became more widely recognised. Being able to confidently use a computer and software tools became a critical part of preparing children for the future. 

Nowadays, IT suites are equipped with state-of-the-art hardware, tablets and interactive whiteboards have made their way into classrooms, and broadband, firewalls and access to e-learning are a given. Gone are the days of waiting for our Encarta CD rom to load as homework is accessed via smart online platforms like Google Classroom and the web offers up the greatest research library instantly. During lockdown educational tech resources made teaching remotely possible. 

Computer lessons are not only a regular fixture but are of a high quality too thanks to the Department of Education recognising that students needed to be better equipped in computer science for working life.

In 2014, Computer Science became a part of the national curriculum with a greater focus placed on the importance of information technology and digital literacy to primary and secondary education. More than equipping people with competencies in computer administration, the curriculum was beginning to recognise the importance of reducing skills inequality and upskilling future generations with programming capabilities. Aiming to provide equal access and enhance computational thinking, problem solving and planning skills, the UK became one of the first countries in the world to make coding as regular a feature as Algebra and Shakespeare.

Computer Education Backed Up 

Community organisations have also helped to pave the way. In 2008 Computing at School, a membership association, was established which aimed to ensure that every child has a world-leading computing education by educating teachers to a higher level. To date, Computing at School has supported over 40,000 teachers, academics, and others passionate about computing education. 

Initiatives like this have been much needed to help to better equip teaching staff in the diverse range of digital skills and software programming languages. 

Following the introduction of Computing Science on the curriculum, the Department for Education’s objectives fell short as there was a lack of teachers who were trained in the subject. Only modest funding had been allocated for schools to reach the new targets which had been set. There are some critics who note that teaching real world programming languages requires the expertise of programmers.

In 2018, the government allocated £84 million to the National Centre for Computing Education to train teachers with the appropriate digital and programming skills. Offering certified Continuing Professional Development courses, resources and local meetups, the National Centre for Computing Education aims to upskill teachers in all levels of education. 

Great IT Expectations

STEM learning and digital literacy is high on the agenda in both primary and secondary education and is arguably considered as valuable as the traditional core subjects of English and Maths. But how is programming being taught? Starting in Key Stage 2, with designing and debugging programmes and learning through gadget play, children from the age of 7 upwards are getting access to the types of lessons some of us could only have dreamed of. From an early age, pupils in school are being taught about online privacy and how to protect themselves online.  

For pupils of 11-14 years in Key Stage 3 there is a focus on understanding key algorithms,  understanding simple Boolean logic and being able to use two or more programming languages to solve different problems. Students also have the opportunity to learn more about data structures and data analysis as well as the technicalities of the hardware and software components that make up computer systems. 

Students in Key Stage 4 who are working towards their GCSE qualification study computer science at a greater depth, developing their capability, creativity and analytical skills. Databases and SQL are introduced along with website development, wireframing and creating web pages using HTML and CSS. 

There are also some stellar online academies and not-for-profit organisations offering extra-curricular support to upskill coding literacy amongst children and young people. The Raspberry Pi Foundation, for example aims to enable young people to realise their full potential through the power of computer and digital technologies. They run the Code Club programme, which provides hands-on lessons for 9–13-year-olds to create games, animations, and web pages using Scratch, Python, or HTML/CSS. 

Educating A New Generation of Software Developers

Envy-aside, we are in awe of the incredible computer education and activities available to children and young people in school today. At Clever Software we are passionate about making software development accessible and love the importance that is now placed on equipping students with the right skills and knowledge to pursue careers in software development.

A generation of bright programmers is an exciting prospect. And for us old timers? Well, we never stop learning. Educating ourselves with new digital and programming skills is so important in the fast pace of the software development industry. We love that in our jobs every day is a school day. 

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Not Just Travel (NJT)

Our client's current internal reporting tool was in need of a series of complex developments to facilitate key administrative tasks. Our specialist software support developers made enhancements to make the system easier to manage internally and to give the client greater control of their software.

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