A female student and male student working together using micro:bit. STEM.

Wales to become one of the first countries in the world to give schools free access to Microsoft 365

Wales is helping nearly half a million young people improve their digital skills by becoming one of the first countries in the world to give all local authority schools free access to Microsoft 365.

The Welsh Government will pay for all 1,521 “maintained” schools to have access to programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, in a bid to boost the use of technology among pupils and reduce costs for families and headteachers.

As part of the £1.2 million investment, which is expected to benefit around 467,000 young people, all teachers and students will be able to download and install the latest version of Office 365 ProPlus on up to five personal devices. Pupils can then collaborate and continue learning at home using the same programs as they do in the classroom.

Kirsty Williams, Minister for Education, said: “I’m proud to say we’re one of the first countries in the world to take this progressive approach to providing schools with this software. Through our curriculum reforms we want all learners to have relevant high-level digital, literacy and numeracy skills, and access to these applications is an important step towards achieving that.

“This will reduce the burden on schools to pay for their own licensing fees and also ensure all our schools have the same level of access to the digital tools they need to progress these skills in our learners. This is vital as we aim to reduce the attainment gap and increase standards in our schools.”

The deal also includes Minecraft: Education Edition, which contains Code Builder. This version of the popular block-building game will allow teachers and students to learn coding using Tynker and Microsoft MakeCode, and supports the Welsh Government’s Cracking the Code plan to encourage coding in every part of the country.

Users will be able to securely access Office 365 ProPlus in Welsh or English via the government’s Hwb digital learning platform, which is available to all maintained schools and actively used by more than 85%.

Online versions of the software will continue to be available through Hwb for use in public spaces such as libraries.

Cindy Rose, Chief Executive of Microsoft UK, said: “The introduction of Office 365 will be transformational for both teachers and pupils, empowering them to collaborate more effectively, saving time and generating better learning outcomes. Equally, Office 365 provides students with valuable skills to help them obtain employment following school.

“Additionally, the accessibility tools built into Office 365 will mean all students gain the confidence to contribute to learning discussions. Similarly, with Minecraft: Education Edition, students will develop computational thinking skills in an immersive and classroom-friendly format that sparks creativity and innovation. This agreement ensures Wales retains its position as a world leader in digital education delivery.”

The Office deal comes just days after the Welsh Government announced that Flipgrid, the social and personal learning program used by millions of teachers in more than 180 countries, will also be available to schools in Wales via Hwb.

Flipgrid lets teachers see and hear from every pupil in their class by posting questions to online discussion boards, called grids. Students answer by creating short videos but can practice and perfect their response before posting, helping to increase confidence and improve public speaking.

The move to make Office 365 ProPlus and Flipgrid available to schools will support the Welsh Government’s Digital Competence Framework (DCF), which was launched in 2016 and aims to help people develop the skills that will help them thrive in an increasingly digital world.

According to the US Department of Labor, 65% of today’s students will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet, and more than 500,000 highly-skilled workers will be needed to fill digital roles by 2022 – three times the number of UK computer science students who graduated in the past 10 years. Just 5% of computer scientists are female, while people returning to work and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are also vastly underrepresented within the sector.

The DCF aims to tackle this issue by setting out the digital skills to be attained by students aged between three and 16, including communication, collaboration, creativity, data, problem solving and online behaviour.