Top of the computer class: David Ames

The Fire Tech manager is the first expert in our series discussing the state of the computing curriculum, four years on from its launch

David Ames is Regional Manager at Fire Tech and a previous CAS Master Teacher, Regional Coordinator and Hub Leader

Almost four years since its implementation, do you feel like schools have adequate resources and skills to fully realise the computing curriculum?

It is now six years since the Department for Education announced the dis-application of ICT as a subject and approaching four since the new National Curriculum subject of Computing was introduced. Initially, it was hoped that the new curriculum that was to be introduced would encompass aspects of ICT and digital literacy alongside the far more rigorous subject of computer science, which would have allowed schools and existing teachers of the subject to adapt gradually, bringing in specialist teachers to cover those parts which they hadn’t taught before. Unfortunately, the DfE decided not to follow this route and instead decided that all students would need to learn computer science, with lip service being paid to the other aspects of the broader subject. As a result, this change led to the subject being taught by a large number of teachers with little or no background in the subject, with very little time (or funding) available for them to upskill themselves (as a former maths teacher, when the National Numeracy Strategy was introduced, I received five days of fully funded training, alongside a detailed support programme, for what was a much smaller change in content and approach).

The DfE provided small amounts of funding (in relative terms) to help teachers retrain, schemes such as the CAS Network of Excellence was a beneficiary of this, but at its height there were at most 400–500 Master Teachers, delivering CPD to teachers in their local areas. If each of those Master Teachers were able to deliver two hours of training to 20 teachers once a month, they would, at most, either deliver two hours per teacher to about 400 teachers in a year, or 20 hours to 20 teachers in a year. Training yourself as a teacher to deliver Computer Science will take a lot longer than 20 hours per year, even with a degree which was related. The teachers who have successfully managed to retrain themselves are those who have been able to dedicate significant chunks of their own time outside of the classroom to attending events, enrolling in relevant courses and studying during evenings and the weekend. If they were in a school which wasn’t supportive or they had other commitments, then it is unlikely that a teacher would be able to do this! If the SLT in a particular school did not have a vision for the future which encompassed Computing as a subject then it is highly unlikely that they would be able to deliver an effective, engaging and legally required Computing curriculum.

With the shifting digital landscape, do you feel any knowledge gaps are emerging that the curriculum does not fulfil?

There are many aspects of the old ICT curriculum which have not found a home in the new computing one. Aspects such as using office packages successfully (including databases), and using digital media tools to create images, video and audio have often fallen by the wayside, as have some of the more successful uses of various packages as tools to achieve specific outcomes. Very little work appears to be being done around the use of big data, data science and machine learning ideas in the school classroom, including the links which could be made to maths, geography and the various science subjects. AR/VR work is also very patchy as is work with physical computing. There also seems to be very little work done to make use of Web APIs in programming asks – there are lots of real-time data sources which could be made use of both as the content for programming tasks and the target of big data work, but unfortunately these are often blocked by over-draconian web-filtering policies.

What are the central staffing challenges around the computing curriculum?

A graduate with the ability to program or with other relevant skills, is very likely to be able to gain employment with a starting salary equivalent to a top-of-the-scale teacher at least, with salary progression from there upwards. The bursary which is available to encourage graduates onto ITT courses is deeply flawed in that there is no requirement to actually enter the profession at the end of the PGCE year; on every ITT course with which I have been involved, there are certain trainees who would appear to be in it just for the money. The ability to filter out some of these undesirable trainees has been further hampered by changes to recruitment made by the Government to make it harder to refuse to accept potential recruits onto the courses. Added to this there is the mess around the NEA which makes computing a less-desirable subject to teach, and the fact that many existing teachers of computing have a skillset which is also useful to industry and as a result are leaving the profession is becoming a major problem. If we couple this with school leadership teams moving away from offering computing in the short term, especially if they are failing to recruit teachers and there are difficulties in achieving the top grades for various reasons, then we are in danger of entering a vicious cycle where schools don’t offer computing, so they don’t need computing teachers, and thus there are too few jobs to sustain the supply of qualified teachers.

Do you feel the current exam-led coursework-supporting approach is the best weighting for this subject?

No. As a computer science person who likes programming, I feel that the (now defunct) NEAs (and the Controlled Assessments before them) placed the emphasis in the mark scheme on completely the wrong aspects of the tasks, making them unnecessarily bureaucratic. For example, if I had written a fantastic program which achieved all of the desired outcomes, and tested it effectively but didn’t jump through the hoops when it came to writing up what I had done, then I would be penalised quite a lot. Similarly, if I manage to complete half of the tasks, but didn’t fully complete a solution, but did a good job on that first 50% of the task, how should the teacher mark that? If I have completed the work to a high standard and done all write-ups, documentation, and explanations, it is not clear at all how that should be marked.

As a result of these problems, teachers who didn’t have enough subject knowledge or training, delivering and marking the NEA, overzealous restrictions on teachers discussing the NEAs and not enough support being provided by the DfE, it is unsurprising to me that the resulting disaster in terms of the NEA being withdrawn occurred. There still needs to be an aspect of programming, in my opinion, that should be assessed; otherwise, some schools will not teach it, but what that assessment should look like is still open to debate. I would argue in favour of something where students work with a larger program supplied by the Exam Board, that they then extend and answer questions about alongside some shorter tasks. Unfortunately I don’t think that current school infrastructure is up to hosting live exams on this scale online, simultaneously.

How do you feel the UK’s computing curriculum measures up against other countries’ efforts to digitise their emerging workforce?

Where computing is being taught well, we are at the cutting edge of the world, I feel, but unfortunately, that is patchy at best. What we have lost, however, are the lower level digital skills that ICT brought to the game, as many schools have ditched this aspect of the curriculum, partly as it no longer contributes directly to exam results and partly as a result of having to teach new content. I would say that as a subject our computing curriculum now has lots of depth in terms of computer science, but this has come at the cost of the breadth we previously had. The promise of the National Curriculum is still there, although adding broader aspects of ICT into it would help to equip students more thoroughly for the modern world. Unfortunately, the implementation of the GCSE has been counterproductive in that it has had an incredibly detrimental effect on the perception and enjoyment of the subject. If the problems around the GCSE could be fixed, and the content of the subject broadened out once more, then I feel that we could potentially have a world-beating curriculum, but not until this point.

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