Digital Skills in the Covid-endemic World – What have we learnt and what needs to change?

John Sibbald – specialist digital leader in education discusses! Something I have been championing over the past ten years has been the subject of digital skills for all.  In January...
Written by Andrew Thewell, 14th February 2022

John Sibbald – specialist digital leader in education discusses!

Something I have been championing over the past ten years has been the subject of digital skills for all.  In January 2020 I published the Manchester City Council high school, digital audit.  Much of this work was based on initial hunches but a survey which went into 36 high schools and special schools in addition to deeper dive, interview days at twelve schools backed up what we have knew all along.  The Covid pandemic and subsequent shift to remote learning added to the evidence in this report.

What we now know:

  • With the move to a three-year KS4 many students receive little or no digital skills other than online safety after Year 8.  With the changes to the Ofsted inspection framework this will just move to after Year 9.
  • With the removal of coursework to a handful of qualifications in pot/bucket three many students are no longer provided with opportunities to apply digital skills learnt at KS3 to a new setting.
  • There is a mismatch between digital skills taught in schools and those skills needed in the workplace defined in the DCMS basic digital skills framework.  As schools continue to fail to provide for all students at KS4 then this will need addressing for adults post-19.
  • The digital qualifications on offer at KS4 need expanding to reflect the emerging tech industries.  Computer Science dominates in pot/bucket 2 with double the number of points to other digital quals in pot/bucket 3.  You could argue the teaching of ‘pure’ computer science at KS4 is like teaching medicine or architecture – this is not required until later down the line.  In Manchester progress scores in computer science are in decline for pupils on free school meals.  The digital skills gap is widening.
  • Digital industries need to engage more in the curriculum at KS4 providing real world examples of the roles and pathways available to students.
  • Those schools with a clear digital strategy fared far better in the move to online learning during lockdown.  School leaders and governors need support in clarifying their strategy, the curriculum intent and implementation.

Summary of Research Findings

1) Governors and leaders require support and guidance on developing an effective digital strategy including a curriculum vision and delivery for digital working skills and digital living skills.

2) Leaders need to clearly articulate their digital curriculum intent detailing how they will ensure all students develop their digital working and living skills at Key Stage 4.

3) Teachers expressed a concern regarding the lack of development of practical digital skills such as those outlined in the U.K. Government ‘Essential Digital Skills Framework’ in particular:

  • Online safety dominates but pupil’s wider understanding of digital living skills and their social and ethical implications are marginal especially at KS4.
  • Digital working skills including Internet research skills, the capacity to collect and interpret data, financial and budgetary planning, the use of email and problem solving are not strong features of the curriculum especially at KS4.

4) The dominant force shaping the Computing curriculum for pupils aged 11-14 is the GCSE examination in Computer Science although most pupils do not go on to take this qualification.  Many schools have not yet developed a mature, digital skills offer for all students at KS4.

5) Schools and teachers are not provided with relevant and timely digital, local labour market information signposting how this can support the delivery of curriculum content.

6) Sustainable curriculum links and support between schools and industry are not a regular feature of learning particularly for subject content that can be hard to teach or understand.

7) When introducing new technologies schools do not always consider best-practice research, skills training in the use of the technology and the development of pedagogy.

Conclusions and Policy Questions


1) How can Governors and leaders champion digital skills as a priority for the city?

2) How can they learn about the impact of digital investment in their schools?


1) Does a ‘broad and balanced’ digital curriculum imply that all pupils should be entitled to a curriculum which encompasses a wide range of digital competencies including digital working, living and specialist skills?  How does this issue intersect with the notion of ‘curriculum intent’ in the current inspection framework?

2) How confident is society that all pupils reaching 16 have the digital capability they will require for work, to support further learning and as digital citizens?  Should there be concern that a significant proportion of pupils receive no teaching in computing beyond the age of 14?

3) How can DfE sequence what are understood to be digital skills between the National Curriculum, EBacc and the Essential Digital Skills Framework for adults?


1) How can schools ensure access to digital pathways for all regardless of ability, gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background?  Would a more accessible qualification covering a wider range of digital competencies support the broadening of KS3 and lead to a stronger uptake of digital qualifications by girls?  How do schools support those students not studying a digital qualification at KS4 but wishing to take up a digital qualification at KS5?

2) How can schools be supported in developing a mature digital offer including a slim course?  How can we develop other specialisms across the curriculum e.g. 3D printing, additive manufacturing, animation etc?

3) How might digital competencies taught across the curriculum support the teaching computing in delivering a broad and balanced experience?  How could this learning be formally recognised?

4) Do schools apply the latest guidance and support from the DfE re: online safety and digital resilience?  Are digital living skills covered effectively and rigorously at KS3 and 4 including age-appropriate content?


1) How can relevant and timely CIEAG local labour market information be made available to schools and other agencies?  How can this be shared in a format that supports subject teachers in linking directly with subject content?

2) How can schools be supported in initiating and developing sustainable curriculum links with digital industries including SMEs?

CPD and Training

How can schools ensure school digital resourcing strategies include skills training AND pedagogy development AND best-practice research when introducing new technologies?


I’m delighted to be working with leaders from Great Academies in developing distributed, digital leadership at each school and across the trust.  We’ll be applying a digital excellence framework (developed following the Manchester audit) to help schools self-evaluate and consider the next steps in their digital development journey.  We’ll utilise EEF research evidence to create a shared digital strategy, action plan with quality-assured project planning that develops quality teaching in the application of digital technologies.

John in part of our Specialist Professional Network which supports school improvement across the Trust. View a full list of our leaders in education.