Why primary school teachers are so important for a digitally literate workforce

Comment by Gareth Stockdale, CEO at Micro:bit Educational Foundation, on bridging the digital skills gap

The impact the digital skills gap is having on the UK probably isn’t considered as much as it should be. In our hyper-digital world, a foundation of digital skills is now essential to participation in so many facets of daily life. The accelerated adoption of remote and hybrid working since the start of the pandemic has illustrated and accelerated the changing nature of jobs. This will continue to accelerate with most jobs requiring an increasing degree of digital knowledge and skills in the future.

The digital skills gap is continuing to widen, too. Unfilled jobs vacancies in the UK are costing the economy £6.3 billion per year in lost GDP, largely a result of a lack of sufficient technical and computing skills in the workforce.

So, how do we bridge the digital skills gap?

The first thing to recognise is that coding and digital creativity are foundational skills that apply to more than just software engineers and web developers. The majority of careers and jobs today and in the future are also affected by the digital skills shortage, skills that are needed for children to succeed in the future world of work.

The younger you learn these skills, the better. And primary schools offer a perfect environment in which children can be inspired and empowered to learn about computing and technology right from the very start of their education. But with primary schools and their teachers already struggling with funding, classroom sizes and limited supplies, how will they be able to deal with the additional task of preparing their students for our increasingly technological world?

Why primary school children are the perfect digital students

Today’s children are born into an age where they are exposed to technology every day, right from the start – often referred to as digital natives. They are adept at being able to use social media and browse the internet, but they also need to understand how these services they use are built and the concepts that underpin them. It is critical for today’s children to be able to understand and effectively use the technology available to them but we also to move them from being digital consumers to digital creators.

Technology today has a huge amount of influence over determining what political views, news, and information you are exposed to, so an understanding of 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 our lives. If more of our future workforce better understand technology, more voices and viewpoints will have a role in shaping the technology of the future.

There is an urgent need to build these foundational skills at primary school age for several reasons. Having a stronger grasp of computing principles before entering secondary school means students are more likely to have already been inspired and motivated to learn about technology, and to carry it through to higher education. Thinking about the digital skills gap again, it’s considerably easier to build digitally-educated employees 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.

There are considerable diversity benefits, too. By showing all children from a young age that technology is a space for them, all children – but especially girls and those from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds – will have an early starting confidence and excitement from using technology that can be carried forward throughout the rest of their education and, later, career. This is the fundamental aim of the Micro:bit Educational Foundation to broaden participation using the BBC micro:bit device

The obstacles facing today’s primary school teachers

While it’s clear primary school children would benefit hugely from an exciting and meaningful digital education, the current state of primary digital education in the UK has some way to go. There’s a great disparity between teachers’ curriculums and desire to teach digital skills versus their experience, relevant training, and available resources.

To better understand computing and digital skills across this age group, and what some of the pain points are, we recently surveyed primary school teachers from across the UK. Only 14% have any 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.

On top of this, nearly a quarter of those surveyed cited limited teacher knowledge and a lack of digital skills as a key challenge, while three in five blame a lack of resources – both time and the necessary devices and tools. Particularly in England, teachers outlined 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.

How eight-year-olds’ coding ensures that they have the right skills for their future careers

It’s crucial that primary school teachers feel better supported, equipped, and prepared to bring computing into their classrooms. One great way to help create a foundation of digital skills for primary children is involving coding. While lines of Java and C+ might seem far-fetched – and they are! – there are devices available that are instilling the principles of digital syntax and phrasing, and sharing the excitement creating programmes can bring, with children as young as primary school age.

BBC 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, but the possibilities go way beyond. 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 micro:bit 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 equipping teachers with the tools to digitally upskill our children and address the digital skills shortage is undeniably a long-term project. But by putting a spotlight on improving digital literacy rates and creating a long-term commitment to supporting primary school teachers, 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.

You might also like: UK primary school teachers ill-equipped to teach IT, says new research


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