Sandra Leaton Gray

Why we need a new digital curriculum for schools

Sandra Leaton Gray Senior Lecturer in Education UCL Institute of Education Tuesday 21 March 2017

It’s never been a safer time to be a child, in statistical terms, yet the perception is often very different. One reason for this is that people aren’t always very clear about the function of childhood in modern society. Are children simply under-developed adults who need protection? Or are they uncivilised beings who need to be trained? Can they be trusted to have their own moral codes, or do adults need to impose them? Where do children’s privacy rights sit within all this? Andy Phippen and I have explored these questions in our book Invisibly Blighted: the digital erosion of childhood (UCL IOE Press, to be published 27th March 2017). In the book, we discuss the difficulties of navigating childhood in the modern digital age, based on our research with focus groups of children and young people across the country.

We found when talking to young people that digital issues are rarely articulated in a manner that they can fully understand and engage with. There is crisis management at best, and a general sense of panic about issues such as online grooming and sexting, but little tangible movement towards a proper social curriculum for the connected society.

Until schools and other educational settings adapt their curricula to take these societal changes into account, the danger is that many children will fail to develop the necessary skills to navigate the digital world properly as adults. In practical terms, Andy Phippen and I have argued for some time that we need a revised national (or indeed international) curriculum dealing more effectively with the role of technology within everyday life. This also has implications for the way schools and other organisations should interact with children in terms of technology. We see such a curriculum as being woven into existing subjects, going well beyond the current limited diet of online safety and computer coding, instead embracing topics such as:

  • privacy, information and education rights
  • management of time and space
  • the provision, maintenance and protection of digital infrastructure
  • the role of technology within relationships
  • digital criminology
  • digital citizenship
  • digital consumption
  • respect, consent and empathy with others
  • legislative protections
  • the role of media as information source and influencer
  • technology, wellbeing and mental health

These are all vitally important topics to address at this point in human history. We are moving towards fresh debates on artificial intelligence and robotics, and in years to come, new issues are likely to be raised, ranging from digital biology via implants to power supply and reliability issues, the impact of virtual reality upon the physical world and potentially even new forms of human reproduction. Penetration of digital issues into the everyday lives of children and their families is likely to continue to grow as a concern.

If we develop a generation with little awareness of digital moralities, or with little ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, or desirable and necessary functions, there is a likelihood that abuses by industry and governments will increase

We must encourage children to ask awkward and insightful questions about digital issues, otherwise we risk the next generation being one that has little understanding of how human rights sit alongside the use of technology. Just because something is technically possible, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be implemented. If we develop a generation with little awareness of digital moralities, or with little ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, or desirable and necessary functions, there is a likelihood that abuses by industry and governments will increase and erode the rights of the population as a whole. It is our role as citizens to guard against this.

This won’t be easy. A new digital curriculum needs to be supported by policy, practice and national coordination that acknowledges, rather than balks at, the challenges that arise from growing up in the 21st century. It also needs to be informed by an evidence base that understands complex and nuanced issues, rather than being driven from media pressure and gut reaction. Finally, we have to resource curriculum interventions that respect the needs and rights of the child as citizen rather than solely as consumer. We created the digital age, and the time has come for us to take full responsibility for doing so.


Sandra Leaton Gray is Senior Lecturer in Education at the UCL Institute of Education. She is a former teacher and specialist in the Sociology of Education, with a special interest in issues surrounding contemporary identity and technology, especially as they relate to children and young people. Sandra is also a member of the Privacy Expert Group of the Biometrics Institute, and a Senior Member of Wolfson College, Cambridge University. Sandra is the author, with Andy Phippen, of Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood (UCL IOE Press, to be published 27 March 2017), the monograph Teachers Under Siege (Trentham, 2006) and many articles and book chapters on the sociology of education, teacher professionalism, biometrics, technology and identity. She appears regularly on radio and TV discussing childhood and schooling, and was featured in Lord Puttnam’s documentary film on education, We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For (2009).