Computer science in English schools: the debate rages on

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World cup England

World cup England (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

In recent months a new consensus has emerged about teaching ICT (information and communications technology) in England’s schools: namely that it has been sent up a blind alley where kids are taught little more than how to manipulate Microsoft’s “Office” products.

That recognition is a good thing, though the way in which the government were finally roused into action – by a speech from a Google bigwig – was not so edifying. If the previous Labour government had a distressing and disappointing attitude of worshipping the ground Bill Gates trod upon, the Conservative wing of the coalition seems mesmerised by Google (not least because of some very strong personal and financial ties between Google and leading Conservatives).

But recognising there is a problem and fixing it are two very different things. The proposals from the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, seen contradictory at best: on the one hand he’s said we need a new curriculum, on the other he’s seemingly refused to do anything to establish one. The revelation last week that he’s axed the bit of his department that might create such a curriculum did not inspire confidence.

But the pressure for change is still mounting. In tomorrow’s Observer John Naughton, author of the celebrated A Brief History of the Future: Origins of the Internet – launches his manifesto for ICT (as it’s a manifesto I have copied it in full, but you should really also read his article here):

1. We welcome the clear signs that the government is alert to the deficiencies in the teaching of information and communications technology (ICT) in the national curriculum, and the indications you and your ministerial colleagues have made that it will be withdrawn and reviewed. We welcome your willingness to institute a public consultation on this matter and the various responses you have already made to submissions from a wide spectrum of interested parties.

2. However, we are concerned that the various rationales currently being offered for radical overhaul of the ICT curriculum are short-sighted and limited. They give too much emphasis to the special pleading of particular institutions and industries (universities and software companies, for example), or frame the need for better teaching in purely economic terms as being good for “UK plc”. These are significant reasons, but they are not the most important justification, which is that in a world shaped and dependent on networking technology, an understanding of computing is essential for informed citizenship.

3. We believe every child should have the opportunity to learn computer science, from primary school up to and including further education. We teach elementary physics to every child, not primarily to train physicists but because each of them lives in a world governed by physical systems. In the same way, every child should learn some computer science from an early age because they live in a world in which computation is ubiquitous. A crucial minority will go on to become the engineers and entrepreneurs who drive the digital economy, so there is a complementary economic motivation for transforming the curriculum.

4. Our emphasis on computer science implies a recognition that this is a serious academic discipline in its own right and not (as many people mistakenly believe) merely acquiring skills in the use of constantly outdated information appliances and shrink-wrapped software. Your BETT speech makes this point clearly, but the message has not yet been received by many headteachers.

5. We welcome your declaration that the Department for Education will henceforth not attempt to “micro-manage” curricula from Whitehall but instead will encourage universities and other institutions to develop high-quality qualifications and curricula in this area.

6. We believe the proper role of government in this context is to frame high-level policy goals in such a way that a wide variety of providers and concerned institutions are incentivised to do what is in the long-term interests of our children and the society they will inherit. An excellent precedent for this has in fact been set by your department in the preface to the National Plan for Music Education, which states: “High-quality music education enables lifelong participation in, and enjoyment of, music, as well as underpinning excellence and professionalism for those who choose not to pursue a career in music. Children from all backgrounds and every part of the UK should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument; to make music with others; to learn to sing; and to have the opportunity to progress to the next level of excellence.” Substituting “computing” for “music” in this declaration would provide a good illustration of what we have in mind as a goal for transforming the teaching of computing in schools. Without clear leadership of this sort, there is a danger schools will see the withdrawal of the programme of study for ICT in England as a reason for their school to withdraw from the subject in favour of English baccalaureate subjects.

7. Like you, we are encouraged by the astonishing level of public interest in the Raspberry Pi project, which can bring affordable, programmable computers within the reach of every child. But understanding how an individual machine works is only part of the story. We are rapidly moving from a world where the PC was the computer to one where “the network is the computer”. The evolution of “cloud computing” means that the world wide web is morphing into the “world wide computer” and the teaching of computer science needs to take that on board.

8. In considering how the transformation of the curriculum can be achieved, we urge you to harness a resource that has hitherto been relatively under-utilised – school governors. It would be very helpful if you could put the government’s weight behind the strategic information pack on Teaching Computer Science in Schools prepared by the Computing at School group, which has been sent to every head teacher of a state-maintained secondary school in England to ensure that this document is shared with the governors of these schools.

9. We recognise that a key obstacle to achieving the necessary transformation of the computing curriculum is the shortage of skilled and enthusiastic teachers. The government has already recognised an analogous problem with regard to mathematics teachers and we recommend similar initiatives be undertaken with respect to computer science. We need to a) encourage more qualified professionals to become ICT teachers and b) offer a national programme of continuing professional development (CPD) to enhance the teachers’ skills. It is unreasonable to expect a national CPD programme to appear out of thin air from “the community”: your department must have a role in resourcing it.

10. We recognise that teaching of computer science will inevitably start from a very low base in most UK schools. To incentivise them to adopt a rigorous discipline, computer science GCSEs must be added to the English baccalaureate. Without such incentives, take-up of a new subject whose GCSE grades will be more maths-like than ICT-like will be low. Like it or not, headteachers are driven by the measures that you create.

11. In summary, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prepare our children to play a full part in the world they will inherit. Doing so will yield economic and social benefits – and ensure they will be on the right side of the “program or be programmed” choice that faces every citizen in a networked world.

 

3 thoughts on “Computer science in English schools: the debate rages on

  1. 9b) In the interest of our future, we believe that core curriculum [not simply C.S.] should inspire problem solving and origination skills. It is by inspiration that innovation can blossom. We recognize that by failing to truly challenge our students, we sacrifice many forms of economic and societal amplification. If we fail to so inspire our children to think critically, we will have done all for naught. By this token, if our teachers are incapable of passing on such inspiration–we will have done more harm than good, as we have done in the past.

  2. Pingback: On programming computers | The Wallaces

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