Education debate: Bishop of Oxford says digital technology learning should be in ethics as well as skills

On 8th December 2017 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Revd and Rt Hon Justin Welby, led a debate in the House of Lords, ‘That the House takes note of the role of education in building a flourishing and skilled society.’ The Bishop of Oxford, Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke in the debate and his speech is below. The Archbishop’s opening and closing speeches can be seen here.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, like other speakers, I am grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for his leadership in this debate and in much else.

I speak this afternoon from three perspectives: as the bishop of a diocese with more than 280 church schools, both primary and secondary, and that number is rising; as a member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on artificial intelligence, which has been a fascinating enterprise; and as a grandfather with three, as yet unsuspecting, grandsons who will enter the education system in the next year or so. The eldest is two and a half and the youngest is just three months. Those grandsons will grow up in a different world. They will probably never drive or own cars; they will interact with screens and machines from an early age, something which is already happening; they will need to know how to set boundaries around their online lives; and their working life and their leisure will be more different from mine than my own is from my grandfather’s.

As the noble Lords, Lord Baker and Lord Puttnam, said, the most reliable estimates indicate that between 20% and 40% of current jobs will simply no longer exist when those children leave school, disproportionately affecting current areas of deprivation. The life script of education followed by work followed by retirement, which has applied since Victorian times, simply will not apply any longer. Their school years are therefore essential, beginning next year, to helping them to prepare to live purposeful and productive lives not confined to paid employment and in the formation of their character and values in a digital world, as well as laying the groundwork for lifelong education and learning.

As the most reverend Primate and others have said, we are living through an unprecedented digital revolution, which will impact heavily. It will have extraordinary implications for the range of skills that today’s children ​and young people will require in every aspect of their lives. It is essential to set an ethical digital education at the very heart of the curriculum for the future. Knowledge and skills will not be enough—we are only beginning to glimpse the shifts required.

There has been a major reboot in the teaching of computer sciences in schools just in the last three years, which is wholly welcome but clearly just the beginning. I spoke with local secondary school teachers and a university head of department yesterday. They all believe that this is a real success story: the curriculum is more engaging and problem centred; the aspirations are higher; and there are many pockets of excellence, including, I am glad to say, in my own diocese.

However, the recent Royal Society report on completing education in schools, published just a few weeks ago, reveals that we have only just begun to set things right. Computing education, we read, is patchy and fragile. Its future development and sustainability depend on swift and co-ordinated action by Governments, industry and non-profit organisations. The Royal Society reports that a majority of teachers are teaching an unfamiliar subject without adequate support and upskilling. Teacher training and recruitment are uneven and behind their targets. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, about extending ethical computer and digital education to 16 at least, and with the noble Lord, Lord Rees, on the need to retain breadth all the way through our school and university system. I can still remember having to choose, aged 16, between mathematics and Greek for an A-level subject.

In the recent Budget, the Government indicated that major investment in the teaching of digital skills and computer science will be forthcoming. It is very considerable: £406 million for maths and technical education; £84 million to train 8,000 computer science teachers, trebling their number by the end of this Parliament; and a new centre for computing education. The Government’s new industrial strategy identifies four grand challenges, of which the first is to put the UK at the forefront of artificial intelligence and the data revolution. Education and skills are vital in meeting this goal. But this digital education must be set clearly in the context of ethics and values, and the ethics and values we are commending today must be at the heart of our digital education. The scope of PSHE must include the digital challenges children and young people are facing: how to set boundaries to preserve your identity; how to recognise signs of addiction; how to behave with wisdom in a digital world, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fall, reminded us; how to build human relationships alongside followers; and how to develop the inner force to counter, as the noble Lords, Lord Giddens and Lord Cormack, said, the very dark side of the digital world.

I ask the Minister to comment on the following three questions. What plans do the Government have for the teaching of ethics as part of the computer science curriculum in an integrated way? What plans do they have for the integration of digital questions into the broader character and values education offered in our schools? Have they given consideration to a Cabinet-level post of a Minister for digital development to offer leadership across government in such a critical sector? Such is the scale of the change required.