Why the government’s computer science strategy is completely wrong

Gerald Haigh is not surprised that a government committee reckons millions of adults lack basic knowledge about computers. And he suspects things won’t get better until a 2014 curriculum change is looked at again

A recent report from the science and technology select committee says that millions of UK adults lack the basic digital skills required in almost every job. Blimey! Who would have thought it?

Forgive me if I veer towards irony, but it seems clear that what we have here is the best example of chickens coming home to roost since my dad’s Rhode Island Reds retreated in the face of that memorable winter of 1947. The chickens in this case are clucking the slogan, “Computer science rules! Every child a coder!” and they all set out to cross the road back in September 2014, when the national curriculum subject called ICT was replaced, under the heavy influence of the British Computer Society (BCS), by “computing”. The intention was to produce more school-leavers able to write computer code, a skill crucial to national growth. What impact the change might have on the general level of basic digital skills – also economically important and in serious need of attention – was always much less clear.

The sorry state of affairs reported by the select committee includes 12.6 million adults lacking basic computer skills, 5.8 million who have never been on the internet, 72 per cent of employers unwilling to interview candidates without basic IT skills, and billions a year in lost revenue. Much, probably most, of that is down to an inability to use devices and software productively, understand the internet, and keep safe online. The ability to write code is something else, a specialism within computer science. While it’s vital for technological innovation, most school-leavers and job seekers need that broader digital competence learned from good ICT teachers.

Professor Peter Twining, of the Open University, recognised this in February 2013 when he blogged about the final draft of the new curriculum: “I am dismayed… Most workers do not need to be able to program computers. They don’t even need to have a deep understanding of how computers work (though this can be helpful in some circumstances). However, all members of our society need to be ‘digitally competent’, something that appears to be a minor consideration in this computing programme of study.”

Twining’s anxiety was shared by the many teachers, academics and others who had persistently advised that the revised curriculum should not exclude core digital skills, and that with too few teachers qualified in computer science, ICT teachers would be diverted into struggling with it. Both of these caveats were underestimated or ignored by a government bent on creating a nation of computer programmers.

Twining’s blog, from which my quote is taken, covers in detail just how attempts to retain balance in the computing curriculum were blocked at Department for Education level. As a result we now have a subject called computing, which is, to all intents and purposes, computer science. It represents a narrowing of options, which is surely the opposite of what the government intended.

I discussed the select committee report’s findings with educational technology consultant Bob Harrison, a member of the advisory group UK Forum for Computing Education, who called it a “very sad and sorry situation, especially for ICT teachers and pupils who deserved better.

“It was entirely predictable, was predicted, and could and should have been avoided.”

In many respects, the report is a wake-up call, with numerous action points, and well worth reading in full. There is praise for schools that embed technology across the curriculum, and a corresponding criticism: “The government seems to treat computer science as a separate subject rather than a mechanism to enhance learning across other subject disciplines.”

The new curriculum has Gove’s ‘rigour’ written all over it

What I would say, and what the select committee may have avoided or missed, is
that this is surely deliberate, and has Michael Gove’s favourite word, “rigour”, written all over it. He always intended computing to be a strongly academic standalone subject.

So although the report is required reading, you may have to look between the lines to find any real acknowledgment of the failure of the national curriculum to address the issues that the committee highlights. I see in it little attempt to distinguish “digital literacy” from “computer science”, and to recognise that each needs its own kind of urgent attention.

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  1. G.M.Courtier

    Competence in digital literacy is as distinct from computer science as being able to clean your teeth is to performing a surgical operation. The relative needs for training are similar. Why isn’t touch typing taught as a variant to writing?

  2. Hamish Arnold

    I think this is more a problem with the way Computing is taught rather than the curriculum itself. There is actually ample provision for teaching digital literacy (indeed, it’s one of the pillars of the primary computing curriculum) and if you take a look at any of the main schemes of work for computing, you’ll find plenty a blocks that focus exclusively on ICT and digital literacy because these skills do need to be taught.

    Moreover, I’ve yet to come across a competent programmer who is incompetent when it comes to operating a computer. Computing at it’s core, focuses on problem solving – a key skill you need in order to work out how to use new or updated pieces of software. It is here that knowing general computing principles can help you understand what a piece of software is doing and where you might begin to look in order to achieve the desired result with the software concerned.

    Finally, just because there is less time devoted to ICT in the computing curriculum, this does not mean that it can’t be taught in other subjects. Indeed, in order to effectively learn a software package, you need to actually have a use for it. Creating a use in the form of an essay for word processing, or a website for a history project for instance gives the pupil a tangible reason to learn the software and the teacher a tangible reason to teach.

    TLDR: The computing curriculum isn’t the problem – the way it’s taught might be.

  3. Dale Smith

    I would only point out one thing, if there are millions of adults unable to use digital skills correctly, how were these affected by the 2014 computing curriculum. Surely most of them had gone through the GCSE, OCR Nationals, BTEC ICT curriculum. The digital skills crisis report was more concerned about high end technical skills rather than the use of MS Office packages. It is high end tech skills that are being outsourced or recruited from overseas due to the lack of available talent, I doubt very much companies would outsource the use of office packages.