Coding in primary: how schools can get em’ while they’re young 

I’ll start with an important disclaimer: I don’t know how to code. 

In primary school I was a voracious reader and a natural writer. When I reached secondary school I found a natural home in English, history and other humanities subjects. By the time I chose my A Level subjects (or the Australian equivalent), I firmly believed my affinity with the arts naturally meant I had none with STEM.  

So, I dropped science and maths, despite being good at both. One nameless family member felt they knew exactly why: “Say whatever you want, it’s because she’s a girl!” 

My experience is not an outlier – far from it. And it’s not only girls who are impacted: students from ethnic minorities are also less likely to study Computer Science at higher levels. This runs the risk of baking in the disadvantage they already face, as it leaves them less able to seize the opportunities of tomorrow.  

Our education system must equip students with the tools for success – and coding must be in their toolkit. England is fortunate to have Computer Science as a compulsory part of its curriculum, but more can be done to strengthen provision and encourage more students, particularly from backgrounds that are underrepresented in tech, to pursue study at higher levels. 

 

Coding in primary years 

The first trick is to get ‘em while they’re young. 

Studies in Europe and the US found most girls have a keen interest in STEM subjects at age 11, before it plummets in adolescence. 

Introducing students to coding at this early age captures them when they are most creative and most susceptible to new ideas. Showing them how to create with technology can break the stereotype that computer science is ‘too hard’, ‘dull’ or ‘for boys’. 

All kids (and a fair few adults, myself included) love playing games. This makes teaching through game design an incredibly engaging and effective way to get students coding. Building their own game – coming up with the idea, designing it, testing, adjusting and sharing the final product with their friends – allows students to immerse themselves in what they love while also giving them a working understanding of not only coding, but the entire product development process. 

Game design may sound intimidating, but there are programmes that make it easy for students to learn and teachers to teach. Scratch is popular with students under ten, while slightly older students can graduate to Construct 3 and begin learning JavaScript. 

 

Equipping non-specialist teachers 

Like most subjects in primary school, Computer Science is largely taught by the class teacher – which makes equipping them with the skills and confidence to introduce students to coding vital to success. This comes with its own challenges as even after the pandemic, not all teachers have the same level of confidence when it comes to technology. 

Fortunately, teaching through game design is just as effective with teachers as it is with students. Digital Schoolhouse is one organisation bridging this gap between industry and education, providing free computing workshops to staff at schools and colleges to equip them with the skills they need to teach Computer Science. Tellingly, they are backed by Nintendo – one tech giant well-placed to appreciate the need for a tech-skilled workforce. 

 

Representation matters 

Various studies have found stereotypes have a significant hand in the lack of interest in Computer Science. The lack of diversity in the profession has contributed to an overwhelming idea that computer scientists are white, male and – according to one study of eight and nine year olds – bald and wearing glasses. 

It’s impossible to overstate just how much representation matters. Ask anyone on the street to name three people in tech: I bet Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerburg get a mention. I bet Melanie Perkins, Whitney Wolfe Herd and Zhang Yiming don’t. While all are undoubtedly high-profile (Perkins created Canva, Herd founded Bumble and Yiming created TikTok), they are nowhere near as visible or celebrated as the white men in their field.  

This lack of visibility for anyone who isn’t white and male in tech has a subtle, but powerful effect on children who can’t envision themselves walking in those shoes. But getting more students to strap on their tech shoes is critically important for their own future and for the nation’s wider economic prosperity. 

There are myriad ways for teachers to embed representation in their classroom. Introducing pupils to case studies of diverse tech entrepreneurs will show them the different faces of success. Careers Week is a golden opportunity for students to hear from real-life tech professionals who can open their eyes to the world of possibilities that tech and coding skills can unlock. 

The primary years are also an opportune moment to start ‘rebranding’ computer science and banish the notion of ‘it’s for boys’. Coding isn’t just a science – it’s also an art form, requiring creativity and imagination. Showing students how coding can lead to a wide range of careers beyond IT, from fashion design to marine biology, will go a long way to pique the interest of girls in the room. 

 

Navigating the world we live in 

Why is coding so important, and why now? Well, the world is moving through the Digital Age and entering the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Each of us is a collection of millions of data points. We are churned through algorithms and processors that are doing far more than serving us tastier ads on our social media feeds. They are predicting our behaviour and have an increasing influence on the decisions made about us. 

Putting ethics aside, this is the world we live in. Students who leave school without a working knowledge of Computer Science will be ill-equipped to understand this world and make informed decisions within it. Or, to take a more mercenary view: even today the most in-demand skills cited by employers are programming and computer skills. Imagine what that demand will be in five or ten years. 

The education system must evolve too, if it is to do right by the students of today. Fortunately, the edtech sector has advanced at breakneck speed, offering educators powerful, easy-to-use tools to enhance the learning experience in any subject. Integrating edtech in the classroom provides more than time and efficiency gains for teachers – it also, indirectly, allows pupils to start developing the digital skills that will prove invaluable in their working life. 

It’s been more than a decade since I concluded my brain was not wired for STEM. I did end up earning my living through reading and writing – but even outside the tech sector, there is a world of exciting opportunities that coding skills would unlock in my communications career. As yet, they remain unreaped. 

For those of us who missed the boat – well, the research also found our declining interest in STEM hits rock bottom at 15, then skyrockets when we’re 30. Time perhaps to indulge in some lifelong learning? 

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