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The drivers for the computing curriculum

Simon Humphreys from the subject association Computing at School talks about the new Computing curriculum.
Computing at School started back in 2008 when we were looking at schools, education, and particularly then the move of children going on to A Levels and undergraduate admissions for computer science courses and realising there’s a problem, that the numbers were falling through the floor, and we thought, There must be something that we can do, and identify what perhaps has to do with that computer science isn’t being taught as a discrete discipline in schools. In the early days, CAS recognised that there was a problem with what was being taught in schools or perhaps, more specifically, the way in which it was being taught in schools.
There’s been an ICT subject on the curriculum, and many schools in both primary and secondary schools were delivering ICT. That generally focuses much on– or more perhaps– on how to use the technology, rather than how the technology worked or to understand what was going on in the background of that. In the primary curriculum, there was always computer science there. It was versed as a control or sequencing of instructions, but by and large it wasn’t taught as well as it perhaps could’ve been.
It wasn’t given the attention that it might have needed, and I think sometimes there was an issue that the members of staff who were responsible for delivering the curriculum didn’t quite understand that bit as well as the digital literacy, or the information technology that they were covering so well. And several years ago, the universities were crying out saying, our admissions numbers are falling through the floor. What can we do? And the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing did a survey and realised, well, over the last decade, after about 2010, numbers of students applying for higher education had fallen by 50% at just the same time that industry will say, we’ve got vacancies.
We need more students coming out of universities with the skill set that we need in terms of development and understanding the systems and being able to work in our industries. They weren’t able to find students from UK universities to fill those vacancies. And it all seemed a bit weird at a time as well when digital devices and computers and telecommunications was beginning to explode. The internet was beginning to explode. Everyone was carrying around such devices. The children’s schools were engaged with those devices, and parents would be complaining to us as teachers.
I can’t get him off his Xbox or his PlayStation, or he’s always latched into the computer, yet the students were not wanting to go on to study this as a subject. Schools will have enormous challenges as they begin to implement the new curriculum starting from September 2014. There’s no doubt in my mind and many others that you look at the teachers who’ve been teaching ICT and doing an incredible job, actually. But for many of them, IT, ICT, Computer Science has not been their first choice of discipline. They’ve moved into it from other subjects. So there’s interesting statistics that was done with them as part of The Royal Society report, “Shut down or restart?”
that came out two or three years ago looking at post-A-Level qualifications amongst teachers in IT and then comparing that with maybe math or science or music and realising it’s somewhere around 34%, 35% of teachers in secondary schools had a post-A-Level qualification. Well, that leaves kind of 66%, 70% of teachers who didn’t have it. And so they’ve been doing a remarkable job. As we move into increasing the level of computer science into the curriculum, well, that statistic won’t have gone away. And to a certain extent, it’s worsened because they might have had IT qualifications, but they certainly won’t have had computer science qualifications.
I think really interestingly that, as a teacher, if I was asked to suddenly maybe cover a physics lesson, I had had physics lessons when I was at school. So I would have had some awareness of, well, I sort of know what goes on in a physics lesson. But for the 100% of teachers out there– or more or less 100%– we didn’t have computer science lessons at school. So what does actually go on in computer science lesson? What is the pedagogy? What are the teaching styles? What are the content? What’s the subject knowledge? I’ve got no point of reference.
So there are enormous challenges that will confront the teachers, and what computing schools have been working on is kind of setting up partnerships and setting up networks, working with universities– such as University of East Anglia– in trying to engage with the computer science professionals in those universities, the education professionals in those universities to say, Look. We need to work together on this. There are teachers out there who need our collective support. You have a role to play here in supporting those teachers by providing training, providing resources, such as this online teaching resource that we’re developing at UEA.
And in addition, trying to network together, teachers in their locality, so they can share ideas, share resources, provide qualification opportunities, professional development opportunities, where teachers can learn from each other in harness with the universities. And gradually, over a period of time starting from September 2014– I don’t think any teacher should regard that as an endpoint for their professional development. That’s the starting point. But from that point, we begin to help and support teachers as they begin to embrace the new curriculum.
In the new programme of study for the national curriculum to be implemented in September 2014, there are three core strands– computer science, information technology, and digital literacy. Now, it is possible to extrapolate out and divide out the various bulletpoints in the programme of study that teachers can read and say, Oh, that looks more computer science, or, That looks more IT, or, That looks more digital literacy. And that is certainly possible.
I’m not entirely convinced whether that would be a good methodology for implementing in the classroom in that the teacher thought, Oh, today, I’m going to be doing a digital literacy lesson, or, Today, I’m going to be doing a computer science lesson, but look at a much more holistic view of the subject on a particular topic. So you might be looking at search engines and how search engines work or doing a search. Well, you can bring in aspects of e-safety– of keeping yourself safe online. You could be looking at the use of technology and the use of keywords and the use of best ways of framing your keywords that you’re using to search to get the best results.
But then you could begin to go more into the computer science end– Well, how is the sorting coming up on that search results page? What is this page ranking algorithm? Well, what, actually, is an algorithm? And so you can begin to take looking at topics that one might cover the whole breadth of use of technology, but then adding into there ways in which that technology is actually working so that within any one lesson you may be covering aspects of digital literacy.
How children are going to be using the computers and keeping themselves safe online, and the right choice of technology that is appropriate for the particular task they wanted to solve, the information technology about the way in which they’re using particular applications or systems in order to solve real-world problems, but then also begin to touch on the computer science bits and the algorithms and the way in which data is being used and being presented, to actually see, well, that’s the computer science bit. It’s not just magic.
For example, within the search results, This is how those results are being sorted. This is what sorting is. This one has got fundamental algorithms, which is just a kind of posh word for a sequence of instructions in order to solve a particular problem. It’s a way in which that algorithm is being used in the back-end in the software to actually generate that result to make the results more meaningful to the student.

In this short film, Simon talks about how Computing at School (CAS) evolved as a grass roots organisation to help teachers improve the quality and quantity of computing taught in schools. He goes on to talk about the evolution of the computing curriculum which started in September 2014, giving a valuable insight into the context for the change from ICT to Computing.

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