Can primary school teachers close the digital skills gap?

Gareth Stockdale, chief executive at Micro:bit Educational Foundation, says the skills gap can be closed if more digital training is given to primary school teachers

The UK’s digital skills gap is widening, which is having a major impact on the economy, employment and the productivity of our industries. Unfilled job vacancies in the UK are costing the economy an astounding £6.3 billion per year in lost GDP, largely due to a widespread lack of proper digital and computing skills in the workforce.

Digital literacy is a foundational skill, not only for being able to fill this digital skills gap and creating more software engineers or developers but increasingly all careers and jobs have a technical element to them. The younger you can learn these skills, the better, and there’s a huge opportunity for primary schools to empower and inspire children with computing and technology from an earlier age. But with many teachers already struggling with larger classes, a broadening curriculum, and limited supplies and funding, how can we ensure they have the tools to take on the additional responsibility of building up our children’s digital literacy skills?

Why do primary school children need digital literacy?

While children born after the millennium are considered ‘digital natives’, this is very different to digital literacy. Having practical software skills and understanding digital syntax is as important to digital literacy as understanding how to use social media and browse the internet. There’s an urgent need to better build these foundational skills at primary school age to bridge the gap more effectively between primary and secondary education. If children have a stronger grasp of computing principles before entering secondary school, they’re far more likely to be inspired and motivated to continue enhancing their skills.

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. More understanding means more voices and viewpoints on the future role of technology.

Looking longer-term and considering the ‘digital skills gap’ again, it’s considerably more effective to build digitally savvy employees from before they even enter the workplace than needing to invest in training employees when they’re already in the working world and time, energy and funds to boost skills are limited.

Finally, the tech industry has a big diversity problem and to address that, it’s vital that children can see technology as a space for them from as young as possible. The micro:bit is designed to inspire more girls and those from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds with technology by allowing them to get hands-on with tech in a fun and meaningful way. Already used all over the world, the devices are a great example of how introductory coding can boost confidence at a young age and create an excitement for technology that can be carried forward throughout the rest of a child’s education and, later, career.

The state of digital education today

So, how does this map against the state of primary school digital skills learning today? We surveyed primary school teachers across the UK to get a better understanding of computing and digital skills across this age group, and what some of the pain points are. The findings revealed a huge disparity between teachers’ curriculums and desire to teach digital skills versus their experience, relevant training, and available resource.

Only 14% of surveyed teachers have a qualification or background in computing, and of those teachers responsible for IT in their schools, over half (61%) have no formal training or background in the subject.

Limited teacher knowledge and a lack of digital skills were cited by nearly a quarter as a key challenge to teaching computing at primary age, while a further 3 in 5 blame lack of resources and the necessary devices and tools. In England, many also cited the rigidity of the curriculum as a barrier to spending more time exploring new tools and creative thinking in lessons versus those in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Unlocking children’s digital literacy with coding

It’s imperative that primary school teachers feel better supported, equipped, and prepared to bring computing into their classrooms. Involving coding – and even the principles of digital syntax and phrasing- into lessons across any subject area is a proven way of helping create a foundation of digital skills for the children regardless of the subject they are learning.

micro:bits – pocket-sized coding devices – are one tool that’s already benefiting teachers and pupils alike, offering an easy first step for children into their digital skills education. The devices are designed to have a low floor and a high ceiling, meaning children have a positive first experience of coding and teachers can integrate them easily into lessons. It aims to remove the barriers for all to access computing.

We recently announced that, in partnership with Nominet and the Scottish Government, over 57,000 more devices will be shipped into primary schools across the UK this year. Teachers will also be receiving a whole stack of new resources to give them the training and confidence to work these into their lessons too, with minimal burden.

The issue of properly equipping teachers and addressing the digital skills shortage is not going to be fixed overnight. A long-term commitment to continuing to support teachers is key. But with the spotlight on improving our digital literacy rates getting brighter, there’s a phenomenal opportunity for us to empower primary school teachers to create this change and inspire our youngest learners to think that computing is for them.

Gareth Stockdale is chief executive at Micro:bit Educational Foundation.

Read more: Thousands of BBC micro:bit coding devices to be donated to UK primary schools

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