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The computing curriculum - two years on

ROUNDTABLE: Has the computing curriculum proven successful, and what can we do to ensure progress continues?

Posted by Hannah Oakman | August 21, 2016 | Business

Contributors

Simon Harbridge, CEO, Stone Group

Shaun Eason, Head of ICT at All Saints Secondary School, Dagenham

Sarah Leonard, Class Teacher/ICT subject leader at Masham CofE Primary School

Miles Berry, Principal Lecturer in Computing Education, University of Roehampton

Christopher Copeham, Year 6 Class Teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator Working at Whaplode Apple RTC, South Lincolnshire

It’s been almost two years since the computing curriculum was introduced to English primary and secondary schools. What have we learned about the sector since the curriculum’s introduction? 

Simon Harbridge: We saw a dramatic change when ICT was replaced with the Computing curriculum virtually overnight but not much has changed in the past two years and there remains very little support from the top down. Unfortunately, this has resulted in an ever-increasing disparity between schools that excel and those that fall behind with the new curriculum.

In reality, budget cuts in education means reducing IT spend while implementing a more sophisticated and costly curriculum with skilled teachers in short supply and demanding higher salaries. Added to this, there is a lack of adequate training and resources. Taking a teacher out of the classroom for training can cost as much as £600 per day and schools simply don’t have the budget. Considering these factors, it’s not surprising that we have yet to see great results from the new Computing curriculum. 

Shaun Eason: From a staff perspective, we’re starting to see more people entering teaching, with computing skills such as coding and programming. They haven’t been taught these at school, but have picked it up themselves in response to an increasing demand for skilled people to enter into jobs in this specialism. From a student perspective, we have pupils that are more talented than we (and they) first knew! They’re often coming to us with ideas. Many of our students are picking up computing very quickly and this has shown us how much interest and potential talent there is among young people for the sector.  

Sarah Leonard: I think that as I read the press more and keep up to date on teaching ideas, it is essential that children know how to use a computer safely, creatively and as a tool to learn – this is key. Once they have established this, a computer really does become an incredible tool. Previously, the curriculum had perhaps had more of a focus on using different packages, whereas now it does have more of a focus on some new technologies, words such as ‘algorithms’ have been injected – in parts it feels more innovative than previous curriculums. 

Having said that I think more needs to be explored about computing as a subject – the children need to understand how much of a part computing will play in their futures and indeed the origins and workings of the internet – if they truly understand it, then they will end up being able to use it to its full potential. We don’t teach the children to add up without them understanding the foundations before it. 

Miles Berry: It’s been great to see the capacity of teachers, schools and those who support them to respond to a challenge such as this. Much credit goes to the work of Computing At School in establishing a network of ‘master teachers’ and university-based regional centres to facilitate professional development and local communities of practice in computing education. There’s a real sense of the community working out its own model of effective pedagogy in this new subject, which is great to see. It’s also been wonderful to see how well pupils themselves have engaged with the new curriculum content – there’s some great digital making happening in, and beyond schools now. 

Christopher Copeman: Personally I have learnt just how tech-savvy our young people are. They have their own YouTube channels and most have an already considerably large digital footprint, including social media and other such platforms. 

I do think that the new computing curriculum has seen an expansion in resourcing and resource sharing. Things such as Raspberry Pi and The Micro:Bit are now being talked about a lot more in mainstream education and the move towards coding and programming on the whole has now picked up momentum a lot more.

Taking a teacher out of the classroom for training can cost as much as £600 per day and schools simply don't have the budget

Were there any challenges you didn't envisage?

Simon Harbridge: Not really, we could see the challenges coming. We would have preferred to see more gradual changes in the roll-out of any new curriculum. Decisions have been made and changes have happened too quickly, leaving schools and teachers struggling to adjust and meet the necessary requirements. 

We’re also slightly surprised to see what should be a vocational subject turned academic. Next year there are further planned changes to the curriculum and we will see 80% of the Computing course being made up of traditional paper-based exams, leaving only 20% for coursework where students are actually in front of a computer or device. As a result, we are seeing students that are academically able to problem-solve and know the theory but lack the practical skills to apply this learning. To put this in real terms, I might learn the theory of how to perform a triple heart bypass but does that mean I can actually do it in the operating theatre?

Shaun Eason: Upskilling our workforce was one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced. We knew this would be a challenge but we didn’t quite envisage the time and money that would be required to be successful. We’ve had to call on technical staff to help out other team members and this is something that needs to be ongoing; as the sector changes so rapidly, it’s a continuous challenge. As a school, we’ve also invested in online courses and training from local colleges. 

Sarah Leonard: I think coding was a challenge. I had to be able to ‘code’ before I could share it with the staff at the school. I also think that one of the main challenges is that technology seems to be changing weekly, almost daily/hourly – so for me, keeping on top of that is a challenge!

Miles Berry: I think many of us knew that professional development and teaching resources would both be a challenge, and whilst more could have been done, the initiatives we’ve seen have typically been well-grounded in classroom practice and largely effective.

More challenging has been establishing a place for computing in the curricula of individual schools, thanks to the relatively narrow spectrum of accountability measures schools feel they must prioritise. Many schools are doing excellent work in computing, but there are too many, at both primary and secondary level, where the new curriculum is paid lip service at best. 

Christopher Copeman: I think resourcing and training. I knew these would be issues but I didn’t know the extent to which they would demand attention. I had a colleague say to me, not long after I did some INSET on the new curriculum,“It’s alright telling everybody that they have to teach code in their classrooms but I barely know how to turn my laptop on let alone write computer code.”

Do you think our teachers have embraced change and have coped well? 

Shaun Eason: At All Saints, the teachers have definitely coped well with the introduction of computing to the curriculum. We saw the change coming and were prepared for its implementation. Our school is always evolving; we’re always making changes to improve the curriculum so we certainly welcomed this change and fully embraced it. It’s been a very positive thing for us. 

Sarah Leonard: I do, teachers are very used to new ideas coming in each year, I think initially there might have been a moment of slight nervousness but that was soon dashed. I think with most things it is a case of presenting it in bitesize pieces with top tips. Also I think that teachers fully understand how quickly technology is moving on!

Miles Berry: On the whole, yes! Although there are graduate computer scientists working in both primary and secondary schools, for many, the new curriculum required teachers to teach things they themselves had never studied. Despite little time or money for professional development, many teachers have risen to the challenge, and we’ve seen some great teacher-led CPD as well as engagement in online MOOCs such as Harvard’s excellent CS50x.

Christopher Copeman: I do yes. The computing curriculum represented perhaps the biggest change in practice of all the curriculum areas and I think that this has been embraced well. 

And what about the students, are they engaging with the new subject?

Simon Harbridge: Again, this is a mixed bag. We’re seeing fewer students opting for Computing compared to the former ICT curriculum. Many students find coding too hard. We’re also seeing a gender imbalance, with greater interest in Computing amongst boys. With ICT there was a more even gender balance in the classroom. 

Sarah Leonard: Yes, they love using the computers/iPads – in fact any opportunity is great. For us, a huge revolution has been using Professor Sugata Mitra’s SOLE approach. The children at the start of the year could access search engines but not efficiently. Now they know the key words to search and importantly how to make the internet work for them – it has become their new interactive teacher. The SOLE approach has also raised their confidence – they happily pick up an iPad to research and are so au fait with it now. Indeed if they were stuck with their ICT learning they would actually go to the internet to help now, they are getting every positive aspect out of the internet and all it has to offer!

Miles Berry: In the schools where computing is being treated seriously, yes! Entries for GCSE computing have risen significantly this year, and there are also rises in entries at A-level and to CS degree courses. More broadly, we’re seeing great interest amongst young people in digital making using a diverse range of tools and media. Whilst this interest isn’t confined to schools, teachers play an important role in kindling an interest and nurturing enthusiasms. 

Christopher Copeman: From my perspective I would say yes. We have ‘game-ified’ a lot of the computer science and coding side of the new curriculum and this has really motivated and enthused a lot of our children, and staff as well actually.

 

From what we’ve seen so far, what changes can we make going into the next academic year to ensure students get the most out of the computing curriculum? 

Simon Harbridge: The student experience should be central. Schools should stop buying technology without first thinking about what they are going to do with it. At Stone, we prompt questions about how technology will be embedded in teaching and learning rather than simply supplying devices and tablets. For us, it’s not just about ‘box ticking’ or ‘bums on seats’, it’s about truly embedding technology in the curriculum.

Shaun Eason: At GCSE level, pupils are expected to know two programming languages, which is tough, and I think that if we brought this down to just one, it would be more achievable. Other than that, I wouldn’t really change anything. Teachers need to keep an open dialogue and share their advice and ideas on online forums. 

Miles Berry: I think we need to make sure there’s a balance in what we do in the curriculum. As a whole, many schools could do more to ensure a proper balance between the undeniably important English and mathematics and the other subject of the national curriculum, including computing. Within computing, there’s a need to balance ‘coding’ with the other elements of computer science: for most, learning to code isn’t an end in itself, but it’s certainly a great way to develop what we call ‘computational thinking’. We also need to balance the computer science elements of the curriculum with the information technology and digital literacy strands – whilst it’s great that pupils are learning to code, they also need to be able to produce quality work in a range of media and think through the implications of digital technology for themselves and their society.

What could we be doing better?

Simon Harbridge: In order to deliver the desired results, it’s essential that teacher competence and confidence is improved by offering a standardised Computing curriculum with specific accountability, potentially via Ofsted, better resources and support. We believe that free training resources and course materials should also be made to teachers and schools. 

Sarah Leonard: I think we need to teach the children every element of computing – how does a computer work, how is an email sent, what happens to data, who controls the data? We need to teach the children to question technology, only then can they start to innovate.

Miles Berry: There’s so much great work happening in schools already, that the challenge now is about helping the schools who’ve not really engaged with computing to catch up with those who are leading the way. There’s certainly a place for stepping back and reviewing how effective our pedagogy is in computing, and much can be learnt from work with Logo in the ’70s and ’80s, as well as undergraduate CS teaching today. Other countries are looking to England with great interest in how we’re implementing CS education, but it’s worth our looking abroad to see what we can learn from elsewhere, perhaps particularly in robotics, early years computing education, textbooks and professional development.

Christopher Copeman: As I said previously, I would like to see more of a shift towards e-safety training looking at social media and addressing the wide range of access to different platforms that our young people now have. 

Previously, the curriculum perhaps had more of a focus on using different packages, whereas now it does have more of a focus on some new technologies, words such as algorithms have been injected - in part it feels more innovative than previous curriculums

Do you think the computing curriculum, and the way it is currently being delivered in our schools, will ultimately go on to plug the current digital skills crisis in the UK job market?

Simon Harbridge: Offering a more complex Computing curriculum over ICT will likely mean that kids are still missing the basic skills. In fact, the Computing curriculum may well water down ICT literacy in schools. For example, students are no longer learning how to use simple programs commonly used in the workplace. With regards to there still being fewer women in technical roles, any changes we are to make in the workplace start in schools and more emphasis should be placed on addressing the gender imbalance in Computing now. 

What we are seeing is that universities are being left to upskill school leavers, but are they really likely to be able to achieve this in three years when schools have had seven years? 

In response to this, we are seeing the emergence of new academies such as UTC South Durham, a state-funded technical school opening in September 2016 to provide 14- to 19-year-olds with the opportunity to gain a technical education. 

Shaun Eason: Yes, undoubtedly. So many children will be leaving school competent in coding and programming that the digital sector will really benefit. We even have pupils who are coding before they reach GCSE level, simply because they want to! 

When computing was introduced, there was excitement that we’d create entrepreneurs, but just because someone can program doesn’t mean they’ll be an entrepreneur. We need people with management skills to nurture those with computing talent. Who will do this? Do they need to come from a computing background too? This is something that I don’t think is properly being realised or addressed yet. 

Sarah Leonard:  I hope so but I think the curriculum needs to be adaptive and reactive – if you print something and set it in stone in the form of a curriculum it doesn’t allow the children to access some new incredible pieces of technology. Are we really going to all be JUST coding because the curriculum says so using one of many generic programs up and down the country? I hope not. We are creating driverless cars, reactive software – where will the future go? Who knows? But what I know is that you certainly can’t write an objective for it!

Miles Berry: Education produces benefits in the long term rather than straight away: computing education in schools will do little to plug a perceived current skills gap, but providing a deep understanding of the principles that underpin digital technology might do much to ensure the employees of the future can rapidly acquire the particular technology skills and competencies they’ll need when they enter the job market. 

Christopher Copeman: Ultimately no. I think the delivery of the curriculum is good but the content does not account for the ever-changing nature of the market/world that the current generation will grow up into. My opinion has always been that the new curriculum content for Computing jumped onto the ‘make an app and do some coding’ bandwagon far too much without giving any thought to teaching children transferrable skills that would aid their problem-solving and creativity when using technology. 

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