Five-year-olds to learn coding in school

News by Steve Gold

Unknown to many parents, as the kids go back to - or start - school this week, the national curriculum has changed to include elements of IT training that will affect children as young as five, or Year 1 pupils as schools prefer their charges to be known as.

The idea behind the changes is that, with computers being so pervasive in the classroom, children as young as five will be required learn how to program their machines.

Whilst it's unlikely that a five-year-old would understand machine code, many educational applications now include scripts - or even Java - to allow the software to be customised, and it is this area that the government is keen to get them started on.

The 2014 national IT curriculum states the changes seek to ensure that all pupils can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science.

The gameplan calls for Key Stage 1 pupils - five-to-seven-year-olds in parental terms - to:
Understand what algorithms are, how they are implemented as programs on digital devices, and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions,

Create and debug simple programs, and

Use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs

The potential major stumbling block - and one the teacher's unions have been quietly complaining about - is the degree to which Year 1, 2 and 3 teachers will require their own training in order to teach IT skills to their charges.

The government has brushed aside such concerns, claiming that separate IT/computing lessons - where Raspberry Pi computer units will be out in force - are the answer to bringing children quickly up to speed.   

As part of the changes, the old National ICT Curriculum has been renamed the Computing Curriculum, and the plan is to include three distinct areas of study - computer science, digital skills and IT - for all pupils on a mandatory basis.

According to David Emm, a senior security researcher with Kaspersky Lab, whilst it was drafting the Computer Curriculum, the government called on all interested parties - including IT experts such as himself - for feedback on the plans.

One area of concern raised, he says, was that e-security should not only be taught to kids in Key Stages 1 and 2 (ages seven to 11), as was initially suggested, but also to those in Key Stages 3 and 4 (ages 11 to 16 - and beyond).

Emm adds that he believes that, alongside teaching children computing skills, understanding security is extremely important for young people in particular, given their wide use of computing devices and their ever-growing use of the Internet.

Security, he explained, is a huge part of computing, with online safety a key factor. In the original drafts, security was left out of the plans for Key Stage 3 and 4, but obviously after the feedback they received, it has now been included. It is especially important when you consider that the way children use the Internet changes as they get older - there is a difference in how they use it at Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 4.

"For example, you teach maths at age five and this continues to age 16, constantly progressing in levels. Cyber security is the same - it needs to be a feature that moulds and changes throughout the education process," he explained.

Bob Tarzey, an analyst and director with Quocirca, the business and IT research house, was also in favour of the changes to the Computing Curriculum, which he says is a necessary educational step.

"Yes, we should teach kids about IT and that includes safe use. On a broader front than the often negative connotations that come with IT security, the value of IT should be taught and the extent to which we now rely on it, how it engenders international relations, human rights, support supply chains and so on," he said.

What about security education? 

Adrian Davis, EMEA managing director of (ISC)², was less welcoming about the new Computing Curriculum.

"When you look at the new curriculum, there really isn't much in it that teaches pupils how to use technology securely and this a major oversight. This is especially worrying when you look at the degree of computer literacy across the nation - for example, a survey by the NCA found that 40 per cent of adults say that they wouldn't install an antivirus programme their devices. This shows that there's no real depth of IT security knowledge in the population and that starts from the schools," he said.

"The trouble is that the curriculum teaches children one way how to do things: how to code, how to program etc., but it doesn't teach them how to do those things in secure way whilst respecting privacy This is a problem we know already exists in the world of software development and this huge gap in the curriculum will only exacerbate that," he added.

Davis went on to say that teachers, headmasters and education boards don't need to try to bridge the gap on their own, as there are a range of bodies and volunteers with lots of experience in security that can help, including the (ISC)²'s Safe and Secure Online scheme.

"But on the whole, it's disappointing that security is not a part of curriculum especially as the rest of the government considers cyber security to be a key national threat, and has spoken at length about how it must play a major part in boosting the UK economy," he noted.

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