Computing in schools - an update

Posted by Academy Admin on 17 July 2013
by Academy Admin

Just when it looked as though the teaching of computing in school would be cast aside, it will now be taught alongside physics, chemistry and biology. This success is down to the entire computing community working in collaboration with CAS and BCS, says Bill Mitchell, Director BCS Academy of Computing.

There are 25,000 schools in England, give or take a few, including 20,000 primary and 5,000 secondary. In just over a year’s time computing will become part of the statutory curriculum for all those schools. Teaching computer science within a rounded computing curriculum that includes digital literacy is now regarded as of paramount importance by the Department for Education (DfE).  

This is just short of miraculous.

Changing the curriculum is only one of several transformations happening in schools at the moment. DfE now counts computer science as the fourth science alongside physics, chemistry and biology in the EBacc performance measure for secondary schools (not to be confused with EBacc Certificate qualifications, which were going to replace GCSEs until they were cancelled in January 2013). 

Several hundred computer science teacher training places have been created since September 2012. The Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science has been started to provide a national CPD infrastructure for schools, with the help of over 70 universities including 18 from the Russell Group. 

This currently consists of over 600 schools and is being expanded over the next five years to offer help for all the 25,000 schools who will be teaching computing. 

The Computing At School group (CAS) has played a key role in much of what has happened. CAS exists to promote the teaching of computing and is part of the BCS Academy of Computing governance structure. Membership of CAS is around 5000 and they run about 60 regional teacher hubs around the UK. 

BCS and the Royal Academy of Engineering coordinated the development of the new computing curriculum on behalf of DfE, working in close collaboration with CAS. When announcing computer science would be the fourth science in the EBacc school performance measure Michael Gove explained he was following the recommendations of a BCS expert panel report, and that the new computer science GCSE would be added to the list of eligible qualifications provided BCS and the Royal Academy of Engineering agree they meet the appropriate criteria. 

CAS and BCS were members of the computer science expert group that were consulted on the appropriate subject knowledge requirements for new computing schoolteachers. 

The Institute and CAS in partnership, funded by the DfE, is now running a Computer Science Teaching Scholarship scheme to help attract some of the brightest and best into the teaching profession. BCS with CAS set up the Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science back in September 2012, with funding from DfE as well as Microsoft, Google, AQA, OCR and Intellect. 

Of course BCS is only successful by working with others, such as CAS, the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, Next Gen Skills, Naace, ITTE, CPHC, UKCRC and Intellect. Many employers have also been central to making all of these changes possible and have been tremendously supportive to BCS and CAS, including Microsoft, IBM, BT, Facebook, Google, HP, Toshiba, Ocado and Metaswitch Networks. 

Why are these changes to the school education system so miraculous?

Well back in January 2011 it was very clear to anyone listening to the DfE that they were very determined to remove the subject of information and communication technology (ICT) from the statutory national curriculum. 

It had a very bad reputation as a subject solely concerned with how to use software packages, in certain circles. It was clear it would no longer exist as a statutory subject. Worse from an ICT point of view, DfE also introduced around that time the EBacc performance measure for schools.   

The EBacc performance measure counts how many pupils achieve a grade C or above in specific subject categories (maths, English, science, languages, humanities). 

The DfE introduced the EBacc in an attempt to persuade schools to focus on subjects they believed were of paramount importance. Many schools did start to focus on EBacc subjects and give far less importance to subjects not included in the EBacc. 

The number of schools with pupils enrolled on EBacc subjects more than doubled over the 18 months from its introduction, which illustrates the profound influence of the EBacc on school behaviour. The EBacc performance measure does not include ICT. 

Those two seismic changes of deciding to remove ICT from the national curriculum and excluding it from the EBacc meant ICT was a doomed subject. Fortunately there was an alternative whose time had finally come: computer science.    

How did computer science come into favour when ICT was so poorly regarded?

Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google, famously declared he was ‘flabbergasted’ that UK schools did not teach how software is made in a speech he gave at the end of summer 2011. 

This was a wonderful intervention that proved to be the turning point. However, that speech was part of a singularly massive concerted effort by the entire computing community to introduce computing into the school curriculum. 

The most important aspect of the Schmidt speech is that as a consequence the doors to the DfE were suddenly open.

Within a few months of that speech two influential reports from Next Gen Skills and the Royal Society were being widely read in government circles. BCS and CAS helped with both of these. In addition a computer science curriculum for schools had been written by CAS with help from Microsoft Research, Google, Cambridge University and BCS, which was also receiving much attention at the DfE. This was significant because computer science was not thought of as a rigorous subject discipline in the way that physics or chemistry were by DfE until the CAS curriculum appeared.  

Because of the Schmidt speech BCS, working in partnership with CAS, has been able to successfully engage with DfE and help persuade them that computer science together with digital literacy really are essential for every pupil right from the age of five. Not only that, but that BCS and CAS are worth working with to support all 25,000 schools who will now be teaching computing as part of the national curriculum. 


by Simon Shaw (not verified)

Indeed BCS should be congratulated in playing such a significant role in renaming the ICT curriculum and ensuring that Computer Science forms the foundations of the new Computing curriculum. Computer Science has, of course, always been a rigorous subject discipline but not necessarily one that school leavers were prepared for having taken ICT qualifications - particularly applied ICT qualifications.
It is great to have the part of the Computing curriculum that is Computer Science recognised as a proper scientific disciple when taken as GCSE subject (noting that the GCSE specifications for Computer Science will need to extend and define with more rigour the contents of the KS4 PoS of the Computing curriculum.) ICT, particularly when seen as a set of functional skills and digital literacy to support academic subjects such as English, Maths and Science, was never destined to become an eBacc subject. This however does not reflect the underlying importance of these functional skills or what can be expressed and created using these skills. Other subjects such as Design Technology, Art, Music, etc. are not doomed by not being eBacc subjects, they still have their rightful place in any broad and balanced curriculum.
Some things about the curriculum have not changed - like the previous ICT curriculum there is no explicit mention of programming skills within KS4 of the PoS (this being the curriculum that should be taught to all pupils irrespective of whether they take a GCSE in Computer Science). This may have a negative impact on the educational pathways open to post-16 students whose schools are not able to offer Computing/Computer Science GCSE qualifications. Universities will have to decide whether specialist Computer Science courses are only open to those who have GCSE/A-level qualifications in Computer Science or whether they continue to take on students with less experience and bring them up to an appropriate level.
Where BCS will continue to make a difference is in reaching out to provide specialist support to the many schools and teachers who will need this.
There are still challenges to overcome - recently Michael Gove was reported as being surprised that Religious Education was not being taught in many schools as he'd assumed that as a compulsory part of the curriculum at KS4 it would be. We need to be vigilant about ensuring that the same fate does not await Computing for those that do not take Computer Science GCCSEs!

by Johnson Agbeko

wonderful intervention.

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