As schools grapple with coding revolution many may get left out

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

image source, PA

This morning the Prime Minister puts his weight behind a new drive to give children in schools across England a better set of technology skills.

He is announcing the formation of a National College for Digital Skills, a new GCSE in Computer Science and an investment in the recruitment of 2,500 new maths and physics teachers along with the retraining of 15,000 existing teachers. As he makes these announcements, he'll join 50 schoolchildren in an Hour of Code event being held in Downing Street.

All of this follows the arrival in September of a new curriculum in England bringing coding lessons to all children from the age of five. This revolutionary move was greeted with enthusiasm by those who'd campaigned for it, but with nervousness by many teachers who thought they might not have the necessary skills or resources.

And now I've come across research which shows that this drive to equip all children with computing knowhow could end up leaving many of them out.

Wanting to find out how this coding revolution was going in the first term, I asked teachers to get in touch on Twitter. "As a primary computing advisory teacher think it is quite overwhelming for many," said one "I spend much time demystifying." Another said: "General feeling is not enough time, or money for resources." "Those with a good understanding of computing are doing well, those without are struggling," said a third.

What surprised me is that while there appeared to be plenty of teething troubles for all, many thought the new curriculum was proving easier to introduce at primary than at secondary level. Then someone pointed me to research done by an academic at the Institute of Education which backed that up.

Adrian Mee had surveyed 162 secondary schools to find out what they were offering pupils in the way of computing teaching in Year 10, when they begin to study for GCSEs. The results showed that in many cases, only a minority were going to get a computing qualification - in 18% of the schools surveyed no pupils had been entered for GCSE Computing, and in a further 50% less than 20% had been enrolled.

Now what we have to remember is that Computing has always been a minority subject at GCSE, with most pupils entered instead for ICT. But that subject got a poor reputation for being mainly about learning routine office skills rather than computing, and it was effectively ditched a couple of years ago when the government announced the new curriculum.

The Institute of Education says that while some schools are still offering ICT and other digital media qualifications, in many cases these are being discontinued. When ICT was under fire, some teachers warned that the result would be that many heads would take the opportunity to ditch all computing qualifications and it seems that may indeed be happening.

Adrian Mee says his survey is just a snapshot but does indicate some trends. He thinks a shortage of specialist teachers may be one reason why schools are not doing more to promote computing. He thinks many schools, with limited resources and an eye on the exam league tables, will only push those pupils with good maths skills towards computing.

The worry is, he says, that we will see a polarisation "between a few children who will get a really solid grounding in computer science - and that is very positive for the country - and others who will get little or nothing at all, and that will be bad for industry."

Now these may be short-term worries. Children entering primary school now should arrive at the secondary level with plenty of digital skills, and the government will point to the new GCSE in Computer Science as an attractive option for both schools and pupils. But the generation embarking on GCSE courses right now could end up with even fewer digital skills than their predecessors.