Resourcing primary computing

Aug 28, 2014

Miles Berry

Most folk involved in English schools will already be well aware that there are some significant changes planned for the national curriculum this September. After two years of ‘disapplication’ we are about to see the old ICT replaced by a new subject, computing. This includes a significant element of programming, alongside other aspects of computer science, as well as the critical digital literacy necessary for young people to address issues of safety, responsibility, privacy and security. The opening sentence of the new programme of study puts it well: ‘a high quality computing education equips pupils with computational thinking be creativity to understand and change the world’. Neither the baby nor the bath water of ICT has been thrown out: the creative projects that pupils undertook under the old curriculum still have a place in the new one.

What has changed is the focus – back in the old days, many a school saw ICT in terms of skills, as providing training in using a range of different software applications. Now, our focus moves to an educational one on which we are to provide students with the knowledge and understanding of not only how computers and their software work, but also how they can help understand and solve complex systems and problems.

You might think that a shift of this significance will mean that schools will have to find money in their budgets for a whole host of new equipment and software, but this is very far from the case. In fact, much of the new material in the curriculum can be taught without using any computers at all: work on understanding what algorithms are, how problems can be solved by decomposing them into smaller parts, how logical reasoning can be used to spot and correct errors, and even how the internet and search engines work can all be done ‘unplugged’, through class-based activities, physical resources and role play. The New Zeland website CS Unplugged has some great, free ideas for this sort of work.

In developing Rising Stars’ new Switched on Computing scheme for primary schools, our local authority partner (Havering) were very keen that we avoided any software or hardware that schools would have to pay extra for or which they weren’t already likely to have. With the exception of a few, relatively inexpensive apps for those schools looking to use iPads for computing, we’ve succeeded. Not only does this mean little if any additional outlay for schools, it also makes it far more practical for pupils to continue working on computing projects at home, and for teachers to find the time they need to experiment with software for themselves.

So, what sort of infrastructure, hardware and software might a school need to do justice to the new curriculum requirements?

Connectivity is king

The new curriculum broadens the scope for computing beyond the traditional Windows desktop computer of old, with an expectation that pupils in KS1 will be taught to ‘recognise common uses of information technology beyond school’, such as digital cameras, smartphones and tablets, and that at KS2 pupils should ‘select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices’, as well as learning about ‘computer networks, including the internet’. To do this well, and to best support learning and teaching with technology across the curriculum, a first class internet connection seems essential – ideally one in which the school can take responsibility for decisions over what sites are and are not permitted. With the potential of iPads, Android tablets and Chromebooks to provide 1:1 access to the web, robust wifi provision would also be high up my shopping list, and not just for the computing curriculum.


There’s nothing in the KS1 programming expectations that requires pupils to use technology more advanced than Bee Bots or Roamer Toos: floor turtles such as these provide a great way in to programming for younger children, as Ofsted acknowledged in their 2011 report on ICT. In KS2, the computing programme of study leaves open the option of either controlling or simulating physical systems, although the D&T curriculum includes the expectation that pupils ‘apply their understanding of computing to program, monitor and control their products’, so some control technology here would be great, and this is a very motivating context for programming for many. Lego’s Wedo kit, whilst not cheap, is very good and interfaces directly with Scratch for programming (see below). The more geeky could have much  fun with Arduino, although even I might be reluctant to try this with a class of thirty…

Whilst the Raspberry Pi provides a low-cost, no-frills platform for pupils (and their parents) to explore programming and other aspects of computer science, there’s probably not much need for them in your computer lab assuming you’ve got a set of laptop or desktop computers that you can connect to the web. That said, for learning about how computer networks work, they’ve much to offer, as your pupils have access to diagnostic commands like ping, traceroute and nslookup that most administrators block on Windows networks. We’ve a great half-term long unit investigating networks with these tools in Switched On Computing.

 I think it’s also worth having access to a web server, even if not on site, as not only does this provide further insight into how the internet works and provides multiple services, but it would also make it possible to host webpages and web sites developed by pupils, together with individual or collaborative blogs and wikis, although there are plenty of other ways for pupils to engage in these activities.

The programme of study expects pupils to work across a range of devices: whilst this can include their home computers and web servers, I do think some access to smartphones and tablets alongside laptops or desktops would be beneficial, particularly for those pupils who’ve not got access to such devices at home.


I don’t think there’s any need to rush out and buy lots of new software for the new curriculum. The multi-purpose software schools have been using for ICT is still just as relevant for much of computing – so Office, the 2Simple suite, Google Apps for Education and much else remains directly relevant. It’s still really important that pupils move on to secondary education being able to word process their work, create a presentation, and analyse data on in a spreadsheet. Tools such as these are relevant for programming too – making an interactive presentation provides some insights into sequencing and selection, and creating a spreadsheet model draws on much computational thinking and some basic functional programming.

 There’s also an expectation that pupils will be engaging in creative work across a range of digital media in the new curriculum. At KS1, pupils should ‘use technology purposefully to create, organise, store, manipulate and retrieve digital content’, and at KS2, they ‘design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals’. For Swithced On Computing, we’ve included units which take in digital photography, video recording, audio, music composition, animation and even 3D modelling. Free tools such as Pixlr, Movie Maker, Audacity, LMMS, Scratch and Sketchup make such things readily accessible for primary pupils, and provide some wonderful opportunities for creative expression.

For programming in KS1, there’s much to be said for working with floor turtles, but perhaps by the end of Year 2 pupils will be ready to move on to screen based programming. For schools that have gone down the iPad (or similar) route, there are some great game-like apps which provide a scaffolded introduction to coding: the Bee Bot app is lovely, as are things like Daisy the Dinosaur and Light-Bot. The free ScratchJr app offers a lot of scope for some creative programming, including animations and simple games. Another approach, which we’ve used for some units in Switched On, is to create custom blocks in Scratch for the sort of commands pupils will know from floor turtles, making the transition from floor to screen an easy one.

For programming in Key Stage 2, there are many choices, but we’ve focussed on MIT’s Scratch in Switched On, as it captures perfectly that sense of learning through exploration, experiment and construction which seems so effective at developing a deep practical understanding. This is available for free, either online without registration or as a download for Windows or the Mac. After a few years of Scratch programming, I don’t doubt that pupils would be ready to move on to another language, but I’d look at tools like App Inventor or Touch Develop rather than rushing to more traditional text-based languages such as Python or Javascript.

The above is a commissioned piece for ICT for Education magazine. I’ve posted it here with permission. © all rights reserved.