New UK curriculum: Five-year-olds to learn programming and algorithms

July 22, 2013 at 1:21 am 7 comments

I haven’t read the new framework myself yet, but the press coverage suggests that this is really something noteworthy.  I do hope that there is some serious assessment going on with this new curriculum.  I’m curious about what happens when five year olds start programming.  How far can they get?  In Yasmin Kafai’s studies of Scratch and in Amy Bruckman’s studies of MOOSE Crossing, almost none of the younger students ever used conditionals or loops.  But those were small studies compared to a national curriculum.  How much transfers forward?  If you do an abstract activity (programming) so early, does it lead to concrete operational reasoning earlier?  Or does it get re-interpreted by the student when she reaches concrete operational?  And, of course, the biggest question right now is: how can they get enough teachers quickly enough?

The new curriculum will be mandatory from September 2014, and spans the breadth of all four ‘key stages’, from when a child first enters school at age five to when they end their GCSEs at 16. The initial draft of the curriculum was written by the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering in October 2012, before being handed back to the DfE for further tweaks.

By the end of key stage one, students will be expected to ‘create and debug simple programs’ as well as ‘use technology safely and respectfully’. They will also be taught to, ‘understand what algorithms are; how they are implemented as programs on digital devices; and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions’.

via Five-year-olds to learn programming and algorithms in major computing curriculum shake-up – IT News from

Not everyone is happy about the new curriculum.  Neil Brown has a nice post talking about some of the issues.  He kindly sent me a set of links to the debate there, and I found this discussion from a transcript of Parliament proceedings fascinating — these are all really good issues.

First, on professional development, the Minister made the point that some money was being made available for some of the professional development work. Does he feel that it will be sufficient? There is a serious issue about ongoing professional development throughout the system, starting at primary level, where updating computer skills will be part of a range of updated skills which all primary teachers will need to deliver the new curriculum. It is also an issue at secondary level, where it may not be easy but is possible to recruit specialist staff with up-to-date computing skills. However, if you are not careful, that knowledge and those skills can fall out of date very quickly.

Secondly, what more are the Government planning to do to attract new specialist computing staff to teach in schools? It is fairly obvious that there would be alternative, better paid jobs for high-class performers in computing. They may not necessarily rush into the teaching profession.

Thirdly, can the Minister confirm that the change in name does not represent a narrowing of the curriculum, and that pupils will be taught some of those broader skills such as internet use and safety, word processing and data processing, so that the subject will actually give people a range of knowledge and skills which the word “computing” does not necessarily encompass?

Fourthly, the teaching will be successful only if it is supported by sufficient funds to modernise IT facilities and to keep modernising them as technology changes. The noble Lord made reference to some low-cost initiatives in terms of facilities in schools. However, I have seen reference to 3D printers. That is fine, it is just one example, but 3D printers are very expensive. The fact is that, for children to have an up-to-date and relevant experience, you would need to keep providing not just low-cost but some quite expensive technological equipment in schools on an ongoing basis. Will sufficient funds be available to do that?

Finally, given that computing skills and the supporting equipment that would be needed are increasingly integral to the teaching of all subjects, not just computing, have the Government given sufficient thought to what computing skills should be taught within the confines of the computing curriculum and what computing skills need to be provided with all the other arts and science subjects that people will be studying, in all of which pupils will increasingly require computing skills to participate fully? Has that division of responsibilities been thought through? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

via Lords Hansard text for 8 Jul 201308 July 2013 (pt 0001).

We just had the ECEP Day at the Computer Science Teachers Assocation (CSTA) Conference on July 14, where I heard representatives from 16 states talk about their efforts to improve computing education.  Special interests, where do state legislators have to be involved, what does “Computing” mean anyway — all of the states reported pretty much the same issues, but each in a completely different context. The issues seem to be pretty much the same in the UK, too.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Donaldson  |  July 22, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Hello Mark the title of this post is a little bit misleading. Scotland is part of the UK and has a completely seperate education system of it’s own. This includes the world’s first independent professional teaching body to maintain standards, the original General Teaching Council, now GTCS, as well as our own school inspectors, in Education Scotland, and our own exam board, the SQA.

    The proposed programme of study for Computing would only apply to England although it might have an indirect influence in Scotland as the original ICT PoS unfortunately had; the previous primary/early secondary programme of study called 5-14 ICT had strong echo’s of the rest of the UK’s ICT PoS and was one of the contributing factors to combined business and computing courses existing in 1st and 2nd year in a lot of secondary schools. This mostly centred around tool use and skills development rather than anything that might recognisably be considered CS.

    We now have a set of ICT across learning and Computing Science experiences and outcomes to cover primary and early secondary level education which unfortunately, or fortunately, don’t specify very much at all in terms of particular concepts or skills. A large number of pupils don’t really get any formal exposure to cs activities or programming until starting secondary school unless the primary has someone with a particular interest and aptitude for Computing.

    The challenges we’re trying to face at the moment are the massive variation in time allocation for Computing Science in the first three years of secondary school (Home economics and Design and technology have a much stronger presence), lack of large scale CS specific CPD that focuses on pedagogy as well as technical aspects, and the loss of existing qualified Computing teachers (10% reduction in Full Time Equivalent compared to 2006) with continued falling demand from local authorities and supply from Initial Teacher Education providers. Fully qualified means that the trainee teacher meets specific requirements in terms of content knowledge and qualifications to be admitted into Computing Initial Teacher Education as set out by the GTCS.

    Fortunately the government has recently provided funding of £200,000 per year for at least the next two years to the BCS for a programme of CS specific professional learning. A lot of what we now have to do will relate to improving the experience and the perception of computer science amongst pupils, parents and the wider education community before we also fade from view.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  July 22, 2013 at 7:13 pm

      Thank you for the update on Scotland, Peter. That’s really useful and interesting.

      Sorry for the incorrect title. I’ve made this mistake once before (said something was “UK” when it was only “England”), so I tried to be careful this time. I read the various articles to try to discern if this was “UK” or “England.” This quote in the article suggested the title to me: “Secretary of state for education Michael Gove said the new curriculum would be crucial for the UK to compete on the world stage in IT.” That’s where I got the idea that it was all of the UK. Clearly, I was wrong. What should I be looking for in these kinds of news reports to figure out the scope of the announcement?

  • 3. Peter Donaldson  |  July 23, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Hi Mark,

    Any announcement made by education minister Michael Gove will only apply directly to England. Wales and Scotland both have education ministers in their devolved parliament’s so any decisions made by Gove or any other MP who’s the education secretary don’t automatically apply to all parts of the UK.

    I think the CSTA have a copy of an international comparison of cs education coordinated by Simon Peyton-Jones in their research or reports section. It provides a useful overview of English and Scottish CS education.

    In Scotland the MSP with primary responsibility for education is Michael (Mike) Russell.

  • 5. danieleric  |  July 25, 2013 at 8:06 am

    The point that some money was being made available for some of the professional development work.

  • […] UK to Incorporate Computer Science into All School Curriculums – The United Kingdom’s Department of Education has recently decided to implement a new curriculum into the public school systems which lets children as young as 5 years old learn basic computer […]

  • […] a new computer science curriculum rolling out in the UK for elementary school students (thanks to the Computing at Schools effort), and Microsoft is […]


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