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Prioritise digital literacy in your school to support the future workforce

The education committee described digital literacy in 2018 as being “crucial to the success of the fourth industrial revolution”.

I believe that complacency and misinformed attitudes towards digital skills within the curriculum could lead to a skills chasm from which young people would struggle to recover. A commonly held belief is that as young people have grown up in the midst of the technological revolution, they don’t require formalised digital literacy skills support. However, is this really the case? Based on my own teaching experience, understanding of the industry and the surrounding education policy, I would argue wholeheartedly against this theory.

Has the delivery of ICT improved as quickly as technology itself?

When I first became an ICT teacher in 2003, schools were trying to deliver ICT across the curriculum, which, for the most part, wasn’t successful due to the size of the task and lack of teaching resource. By 2006, schools were delivering discrete ICT, rather than within other subjects, as compulsory study to year groups in key stage 4. This came at great monetary cost due to the network support, license fees and the number of ICT staff that were required for qualification delivery. This led to very poor success rates at the time.

Following the 2015 reform to IT qualifications, there are no digital literacy qualifications that carry performance points, only computer science is available as a GCSE option.

Many schools make their curriculum choices at the behest of Department for Education performance tables which has provided little to no motivation to include ICT, especially if the school feels that the computer science GCSE is inaccessible to learners with a lower level of ability.

For most students, the reform has meant that after year nine, and in some cases after year eight, students receive no discrete ICT or computing teaching. Current policy encourages embedding digital skills development across the curriculum. This advice will summon a sense of déjà vu for any longstanding ICT teachers, as it is not unlike the guidance of 2003. This means that students aren’t leaving school with the assurance that they have the digital skills that are now required by most workplaces. For example, digital basics like how to organise a folder structure for efficient data storage or send a formal email with acceptable language. Many ICT teachers have left the profession and together with a lack of clear direction and viable options for teaching, we are facing a digital teaching crisis and a growing skills gap.

The Industry’s perspective on digital skills is quite simple. In 2016, the report titled ‘Digital Skills for the UK Economy’ by Ecory’s for the department of business and skills concluded: “From the perspective of industry, the view is that we are going into a digital depression of sorts. There is a chronic shortage in the workforce of those with relevant digital skills. Currently, 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs are suffering tech skill gaps”. Little has changed since 2016 and in 2019, the UK’s digital & tech trade body, BIMA, called on the government again to address the nation’s talent pipeline problem.

What might the future hold for digital literacy in education?

In the short term, any changes to the curriculum that industry desperately wants, are unlikely to be implemented at school level without a clear direction of travel. With the introduction of the digital T Levels as an option for post-16 learners, it would seem pertinent for skills development in schools to follow suit with the support it would need, to align with these priorities. For now, schools are without a cohesive strategy and the industry is in need of a workforce complete with a digital skill set. It goes without question that digital skills development needs to be prioritised within curriculum planning. I would encourage schools to take an honest and comprehensive look at digital literacy across their year groups and develop a strategy to support young people to enter the workplace complete with a full complement of skills that will help them get on in life.

You can find out more about ICT and digital skills bolt-on qualifications from NCFE which can support your learners to develop digital literacy on our website as well as our Level 1 and Level 2 Technical Awards in Interactive Media, which carry performance points. Contact to discuss your curriculum with one of our advisors.

Alan Urwin was Head of ICT and Computing at the Wyvern Academy for eight years before taking up his current position at Our Lady’s High School in London, where he has worked for the past five years. Alan has lent his experience to NCFE to describe why digital skills development is essential and how policy and reforms are changing to support the digital revolution for students whilst at school.

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