Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths : Learning by Doing

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Coding in school

If you have a child at primary school chances are that you are at least vaguely aware that ‘coding’ has been introduced to the curriculum in recent years but if you are still surprised when your child comes home talking about Algorithms or asking for your help with Scratch, here’s a brief round-up of what’s going on.

Why the changes?

Prior to the introduction of coding into the UK school curriculum in late 2014, computing lessons were focussed on learning how to use a mouse and keyboard with a pretty basic introduction to software packages like Microsoft Word. Whilst knowing how to use Word is undoubtedly useful, it hardly warrants hours of precious teaching time in schools.

The shake-up of computer studies in schools had been on the agenda for some time, driven largely by criticism from employers concerned at the low level of IT skills of young people joining the work force.

The UK perhaps led the way by including coding in its mandatory curriculum but coding has also been introduced in much the same way in Primary (or Elementary) schools in many other countries including US, Australia and Canada.

The new approach

The key aims of the new approach are:

  • to equip pupils with the skills they need for the world of work today. Skills that will be relevant whether or not they go on to become computing professionals.
  • to inspire more young people to pursue careers in computing (and science and engineering).
  • to help them develop the ability to think logically and gain problem solving skills that can be used in many walks of life.
  • to enable them to participate fully, and safely, in a society where computers play an increasingly important role.
  • To introduce coding at an early age so all children can become comfortable with the subject before stereotypes and gender issues become barriers.

What you can expect your child to be doing at school

Age 5-7 (Key Stage 1 in England)

Key Learning Objectives:
• understand what algorithms are and how they are implemented as programs on digital devices.
• create and debug simple programs.
• use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs.

[An algorithm is a precisely defined sequence of instructions for performing a specific task. They can be written in plain English without any need for computers.]

Typical classroom activities:

On the face of it, coding might seem a tough challenge for younger children but they pick up new skills, habits, and even languages far more quickly than most adults! And at this age many of the activities are carried out without actually using computers, so called ‘unplugged’ activities, which focus on an introduction to key skills such as thinking logically and making sure instructions are precise and in the right order.

They will be finding out how algorithms work by developing written instructions for tasks such as: Making a sandwich or Negotiating a route through a maze of boxes arranged on the classroom floor. This will often involve ‘role play’ with a child or the teacher attempting to follow the written instructions. In this way children are able to see ‘bugs’ where the instructions are wrong or not specific enough and then revise the algorithm. (Want to know more about algorithms? - see our Parent Guide)

Floor robot

In many schools programmable toys like floor robots are used to create simple programs. [Want to know more about Floor Robots? - see our Parent Guide]

Most programs don’t work as they should first time around so children will learn how to identify the errors in their algorithm or commands for a floor robot and how to correct them. Children will be encouraged to work together to develop the skills of being part of a team.

Age 7-11 (Key Stage 2 in England)

Key learning objectives

The objectives broadly extend the work started in earlier years ie:

  • Design write and debug programs to achieve specific goals. Including controlling physical systems (Physical systems are things that can be controlled by attaching them to a computer such as buzzers, lights and motors)
  • Solve problems by breaking them down into smaller parts (Decomposition)
  • Use the techniques of sequencing, selection and repetition in programs: work with variables and various forms of input and output
  • Use logical reasoning to explain how simple algorithms work and to detect and correct errors (debugging) in algorithms and programs.

Typical classroom activities

Often coding studies will be blended on a cross curricula basis as part of a project in another area of study such as maths, writing or humanities.

Children will be designing and writing simple programmes in block based programming languages such as Scratch. This will involve breaking the problem down into smaller parts. For example creating an animated story about a topic from their Humanities studies on the Romans would involve thinking about algorithms, drawing characters, recording sound effects and writing the code. Or perhaps a computer based quiz about the Romans which would involve controlling the input and output of data and the need to set up a variable to keep score.

Scratch is important because it is probably the most widely used programming tool in schools – not only in primary schools but also in the early years of secondary schools. (Want to know more about Scratch? see our Parent Guide)

By the time they are in the last year or two of Primary School, your child may be fluent enough in Scratch to move onto a text based language like Python. Instead of ‘dragging and dropping’ the coding blocks of Scratch, they will be writing lines of code.

They may also be carrying out projects using Micro:bits to control physical devices or to create simple computer games etc.


A specific example would be to create a model of Pelican traffic lights which need a button (input) lights (output) and maybe sound (output), and involve sequencing and repetition in the coding.

And with all these coding activities children will be identifying and correcting errors and bugs in their programs and often working in teams to complete a project.

How you can help

Want to know how you can help your child with coding? Take a look at the ideas and suggestions in our Parent Guide How you can help.


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