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26 February 2023

The crisis with Computing in Primary schools

ALLEN Tsui profile image
Written by

ALLEN Tsui | Primary School Teacher

Twitter’s @MrAHarrisonCS inspirational and thought provoking session at the #ILoveComputing23 Conference hosted by the Teach Computing London and Hinterland Hubs on the final Saturday of February reflected on the Ofsted Research review published in May 2022 which drew reference to the Royal Society’s 2017 report that “primary aged pupils typically have 1 hour a week of computing education”.  However in the informal TeachMeet gatherings that flowed throughout the Conference and in the after event social, how typical this hour is in practice falling to a critical point of potential fatal consequence.  I am not saying this as clickbait nor simply as an advocate of the subject that I have a working life of experience in.  It is from a point of genuine concern that the failure to secure the digital futures of everyone everywhere has catastrophic consequences of humanitarian and epidemic proportions.

So what’s the problem?  The issue is no longer one of subject knowledge of Primary practitioners although there remains much work to be done with raising the standard of teaching in Primary schools for all learners so that Computing is consistently taught to exceeding National Curriculum expectations for everyone, everywhere.  The problem has become one of timing and scheduling.  As a former Primary Class Teacher, I completely understand the pressures of having to work as a school to secure expected outcomes for everyone in every subject.  However, in an increasingly crowded and demanding Primary curriculum load, Computing from the experiences of those leading the subject in their schools is that IT is quite literally being side lined into oblivion.  This is already evidence in some Secondaries which do not even offer the subject as a discrete part of the KS3 timetable.

Some schools like the three form entry I have worked for since 2015 have responded to securing time for teaching Computing by appointing me to teach all classes from Nursery to Year 6 as part of the school week of non-contact release time for Class Teachers.  However even in my own school, it fails to meet the gold standard of an hour a week of Computing because to enable three classes in each year group to be taught each and every week means 45 minute sessions.  There is also concern too that arranging staffing with subject specialists along the Secondary model is deskilling for Primary practitioners.  I have therefore made it my personal, professional mission to address this by leading a National STEM Learning Centre Project Enthuse grant funded initiative “to increase confidence of teachers to deliver the primary computing curriculum” where this overarching statement of intent should or will include the predeterminer of all teachers.

Having Computing taught by subject specialists in large (three form entry or greater) Primary schools would on face value seem to be an economy of scale.  However, colleagues who work in larger Primaries report facing timetable pressures because there appears to remain an expectation that Primaries can only retain one subject specialist.  This notion is certainly being broken from my own experience as Music at the school I work for is staffed by three specialists who share the teaching commitments across two schools within the Multi Academy Trust that my school is part of.

But is staffing the answer?  Clearly, for the one form or even smaller Primaries, to employ specialists will never be an option.  Fortunately, social media has enabled those who are skilled in their subject specialisms to share their passions to ease the workload of others irrespective of distance.  The Teach Computing scheme of work which is freely available is a very comprehensive base of resources from which anybody can start teaching Computing.  To address the need of skilling teachers to be able to effectively use the resources, Teach Computing offer a very comprehensive professional development programme very generously funded through initiatives like Project Enthuse.

In aiming to achieve the gold standard of an hour of Computing education for both Primaries and Secondaries, opportunities to extend the school day must be a consideration, even if it is the bastion of controversy.  Twitter’s @MarkfromLondon made a thought-provoking point about how computer programming is taught in Primaries with the topic as it were being scheduled into a sequence of no more than twelve weeks per school year for those aged 5 to 11 (Year 1 to Year 6).  Any other part of the school curriculum that is taught over such an intensive time-frame might be thought of as preposterous since it risks having little or no long term impact on both learning and learners.  This is not to suggest that computer programming which has been hailed as one of the gemstones of the Computing Curriculum since 2014 be ‘de-emphasised’ from being taught.  The global experiences of 2020 reveal that what Twitter’s @baggiepr describes as “procedural knowledge” from learning computer programming is critical to ensure that the children we have the privilege and honour of working do not grow up into simply being passive consumers of technology but future content creators and engaged digital citizens.  It is perhaps incumbent on us as a community of teachers to ensure we design and deliver teaching with greater emphasis on quality of content over quantity of time to meet the needs of every learner everywhere. 


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Graham Hastings
22/05/2023 15:20

My simple view is that computing is just not a high enough priority for the majority of UK primary schools.

While Ofsted does not directly dictate priorities to individual schools, its inspections and reports are influential in shaping a school’s focus on particular areas such as computing. Schools are expected to use the feedback and recommendations from Ofsted as part of their self-evaluation processes and strategic planning to ensure continuous improvement. Ultimately, schools have autonomy in determining their priorities, but they are expected to align their practices with the broader standards and expectations set by Ofsted and the education system as a whole.

I have done 14 years before the mast as governor and board member of a primary trust. I have a good insight into why things happen and why they do not. The school’s priorities are largely determined by the Ofsted inspection framework and the management’s desire to attain a favourable inspection report. If the government is serious about improving the teaching of computing in primary schools then it must charge Ofsted with the task of identifying the schools that do it well and reward them. Conversely if a school is judged to be not doing well - or at all - then Ofsted should point the school in the direction of NCCE and set the school some teacher training targets.

Graham Hastings

Monica Kirkland
03/03/2023 18:23

I used to cover teachers ppa and teach ICT. The children moving up to high school always had great IT skills, they knew how to use all the basic office programmes and had a good overview of computing. These skills set them up at the time for the high school curriculum. I stepped back and reduced my hours concentrating on SEND but still using and teaching IT skills with these children.
Now, teachers deliver the Computing curriculum, despite having prepared curriculum content, it is poorly delivered and often left out if something more pressing is required to be completed. The children have little knowledge of using word, excel, etc. Some spend time on Scratch, but there is little progression. I can see the children who have an interest in computing flourish and look for guidance. But those who really are not interested should have more of a focus on basic skills.

Tim Watts
26/02/2023 08:46

I think that the issue of time to deliver any curriculum area is, and has been, a huge issue for at least a decade. The emphasis on the core subjects has marginalised the others and meant that many primary teachers have not had the time nor training in many foundation subjects to ensure tha their subject knowledge is strong. The increasing workload demanded of teachers has also limited their ability to ‘teach’ effectively. Curriculum delivery is further hindered by the budget crisis in schools and the rise in pupils needing one to one support. An extension of the school day is not an appropriate solution. What is needed is a reduction in curriculum content, more time given to teacher CPD, not in twilights though, and an appropriate amount of funding.