Software is the likely answer to better computing education in primary schools, says college head

The chief executive of Ada College, Mark Smith, says edtech is among the solutions to the shortage of qualified computing teachers in England

The chief executive of Ada College has said that software “may ultimately be the best way” to improve the standard of computing teaching in English primary schools.

Mark Smith – the leader and co-founder of Ada, the National College for Digital Skills – said that policymakers needed urgently to address the numbers taking GCSEs and A-levels in computing by improving early years education.

Smith made the remarks while addressing delegates at a Westminster Forum event on computing in England’s schools.

The Ada-founder said that, although the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) has made significant efforts to upskill primary school teachers in recent years, “it’s not a subject that’s easy to get up to speed with if you’ve never really learned it before”. He suggested computing edtech software may be the best way to improve early-year education, which is crucial to building a skills pipeline to GCSEs and A-levels.

“I wonder if, while we can try and upskill existing teachers, ultimately it’s going to be software initiatives, AI-driven initiatives, that may ultimately be the best way to help young people learn it while they’re at primary school,” he said.

Smith said it was vital policymakers address the recruitment shortfall of computing teachers. He argued salaries stymied progress: “Unless you are very socially minded and willing to take a substantial pay cut, why would you want to go and become a computer science teacher?”

On 19 July, the government announced a 5% pay rise for teachers in England, rising to 8.9% for starting salaries. There are bursaries worth £24,000 for computing teachers

Setting out the scale of the problem, Smith quoted figures showing the numbers studying computing education have dropped 28% at key stage 3, 54% at key stage 4 and 43% at key stage 5 since the removal of ICT from the curriculum.

A 2019 report on computing education by Roehampton University suggests there were nine minutes of non-GCSE computing taught per week per student in England. Smith said half of the schools in England do not offer the computing GCSE, “which means almost 50% of young people in England do not have the opportunity to study computer science beyond key stage three”.

“Ultimately,” said Smith, “a long-term vision supported by sustained investment is needed to address the issues.”

The new T-levels had “proved popular in their initial pilot stages”, he said optimistically, and digital apprenticeships at levels 3 to 6 had grown faster than any other apprenticeship subject area. The retendering of the NCCE, due to launch again in April 2023, said Smith, “provides a real opportunity for us to think about how that programme can really transform the quality of computing education”. The first iteration had “made a solid start” and the second iteration has “large amounts of money behind it and some very specific and clearly articulated purposes”.

Primary objectives for the relaunched NCCE should be gender imbalances in computing education and involving industry in education development and delivery.

Reflecting on the underrepresentation of girls in computing courses at levels 3 and 4, Smith suggested girls – who statistically achieve better grades at school – “had more options”, and did not opt for computing because of its reputation as a “difficult” subject with “variable” teaching quality. University admissions processes often offer courses based on grades, which some suggest disincentivises students from choosing subjects with fewer top grades.

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