Digital literacy and capability in school-leavers

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

The Educational Enhancement team has published two blog posts recently which address digital literacy. Dan Axson wrote about the expectations on university faculty and Ty Knight wrote about the experience of our undergraduates. I will attempt to complete the trilogy this week by looking at the levels of digital literacy an 18-year-old leaving a school in England is likely to have.

When I first worked in EdTech towards the end of the noughties, a rather catchy and exciting term was emerging in our conversations: children born after 1990ish were  ‘Digital Natives’; they had spent the entirety of their lives in a digital world and were believed (did anyone really believe this?) to be as comfortable with electronics as my dear old grandad would have been with a yoyo. Of course we were blithely overlooking the fact that my grandad was not born able to use a yoyo and he had to be taught its art, much in the way he taught my brother (born after 1990) the very same. At a recent event held at the University of Sussex by ICT for Education, Tig Williams, a school teacher in Computing, explained very clearly: ‘There’s no such thing as a digital native; if you give a six-year-old an Excel spreadsheet they will not just start auto-formatting the cells.’

Tig went on in his interesting presentation to explain some facts about ICT in schools which shocked me, and I spent most of my working life in schools. Having carried out some further research, I ask if you knew the following:

  • It is mandatory for high schools in England to offer GCSE Computing and not doing so can cause them to fail an Ofsted inspection.
  • While computing must be taught to children aged 5-16, it is not necessary to choose it in ‘options*’.
  • Schools have such difficulty recruiting Computer Science teachers that many of them cannot offer GCSEs in the course.
  • According to a 2022 Government report, over 50% of teachers delivering the Computing course at secondary school do not have a higher qualification in the subject.
  • The shortage of resources and other factors can mean that a lot of younger children are taught shorter courses in Computing than the National Curriculum requires.
  • Schools with higher rates of economic hardship in the community are less likely to offer Computing as a GCSE subject.
  • In 2022, approximately 16% of GCSE students took exams in Computing.
  • Approximately 4/5 of students who take GCSE Computing are boys.

Clearly this is not the Brave New World we envisioned for 2023 when those BBC Basics were wheeled into the primary schools of the 1980s, but what does it mean for the school leavers who join us every September and whom we assume come with levels of digital literacy which do not reflect the reality?

It is important to note that the GCSE in Computing is far from the only indicator of digital literacy and that students who can code, program or hack are not necessarily going to find our apps and platforms easy. Indeed, the opposite can be true. It is also important to make it clear that while our Freshers may arrive with gadgets and devices that could outperform an early space rocket, that doesn’t mean they know how the tools actually work. I’m reminded of a job I had over ten years ago where I trained supermarket cashiers on how to use and support the self-scan machines. As you can imagine, a lot of my learners saw themselves as ‘not very technical’, products of a ‘different education’ and even ‘too old’ to learn. It was a common refrain that I was ‘wasting [my] time’ and that only ‘they [gesture to the Saturday kids] would understand’. In response I would ask the group if anyone had ever used a twin-tub washing machine; many had. I would select someone to explain to us the process and they would recount, word-for-word and step-by-step, the entire task. They would include moments when they had to use their judgement to change the water, the temperature, whatever, and they would do so with the tone of a true expert. We would then ask one of the teenagers to explain how the washing machine in their home worked: ‘You press the button’ would be the reply and thereby demonstrate that access to a technologically advanced bit of kit does not make the user advanced.

Our students have access to some of the most sophisticated tools ever created and their exposure to digital content is unparalleled. They are consumers and creators, but it is unfair to assume they are experts. If you are reading this and are one of the tutors here at Sussex, perhaps consider putting some time aside to make sure your students know how to find the resource you’re directing them to or how to use a digital resource they might be unfamiliar with. As always, if you’d like to explore ways to use digital technology in your teaching and would like some support in that, you can reach us at

*options = colloquial term for the subjects students choose to take for GCSE, also used to refer to the process of selecting these subjects.

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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