Three steps forward, but one step back?

The new English ICT/computer science curriculum promises to be a huge step forward and, in my experience, a chance to teach children something for which their enthusiasm promises to be close to unlimited.

One thing puzzles me, though. Speaking about it today the education secretary, Michael Gove – who deserves some praise for listening to the arguments of the professionals on this issue emphasised that, from the age of 11 children will be taught “at least two” programming languages.


Go to university where, generally, they are training you to be a professional programmer, and they still only teach you one at a time. Why do we expect children at 11 to learn at least two?

Schooling, heritability and IQ

In recent recent weeks, in the UK, there has been renewed interest in the question of heritability and educational performance, after Dominic Cummings, the outgoing advisor to Michael Gove, the education secretary, claimed that some sort of left wing conspiracy in the educational establishment – “the blob” as Cummings calls it – were resisting the facts of science over the issue.

Tory house journal The Spectator joined in the debate, publishing a piece by psychology lecturer Kathryn Asbury which talks of a “genetically sensitive school”. I don’t know about you but that sounds like nothing good to me.

So it is a pleasure to read the counter blast by Steven Rose, professor emeritus of biology at the Open University, in this week’s New Scientist.

To quote just two paragraphs of Rose’s article…

Psychometricians have by and large settled on a figure of 50 per cent for heritability based on what is now seen as a simplistic calculation that variance in a given environment for a trait – such as IQ – equals the sum of genetic and environmental contributions, plus a small component for the interaction of these two inputs. Robert Plomin, Gove’s behavioural genetics advisor and a prominent spokesman for this long psychometric tradition, puts it higher, at around 70 per cent, the figure cited by Cummings.

However, the calculation is almost meaningless. It depends on there being a uniform environment – fine if you are studying crop or milk yields, where you can control the environment and for which the measure was originally derived, but pretty useless when human environments vary so much. Thus some studies give a heritability estimate of 70 per cent for children in middle class families, but less than 10 per cent for those from poor families, where the environment is presumably less stable. And it is a changing environment, rather than changing genes, which must account for the increase in average IQ scores across the developed world by 15 points over the past century, to the puzzlement of the determinists.

‘O’ levels versus GCSEs

I have 11 ‘O’ and 2 ‘Advanced Ordinary’ (AO) GCEs to my name, so I reckon I was in the upper decile of that exam system before it was replaced by the GCSE.

GCE Certificate - History Ordinary
GCE Certificate – History Ordinary (Photo credit: Leo Reynolds)

But I have no love for it and the proposal that it or something like it should be brought back is populist pose-striking.

The argument seems to be that a GCSE course is modular and involves coursework it is less rigorous than an exam-only qualification (like the ‘O’ level).

Presumably all holders of masters degrees and doctorates should now regard their qualifications – based on rigour-lacking ‘coursework’ – as worthless?

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has his bachelor’s degree from Oxford – where one simply buys a master’s degree: so perhaps he’s mistaken that ‘qualification’, if he has it, for a real one?

Exam-only qualifications are poor preparation for university in any case, where all degrees are modular and re-sits (another supposed crime of the GCSE) are common.

The hidden agenda here, though, seems to be to replace a standards-based qualification – ie where the GCSE measures if one has reached a certain proficiency in a subject – with a normative based one – in other words only a fixed percentage being able to pass or reach a given grade. In that sense this would be a worse option than the ‘O’ level, where one’s proficiency was being measured.

Most people are worried – rightly – that the move may be a cover to reintroduce the two-tier exam system that the GCSE replaced. Then lesser mortals were set the CSE exam which, despite its top grade being an equivalent to the GCE, marked them out as ‘failures’ regardless of their results. Bringing that or anything like it back would be hugely regressive: but I do not think even Gove is that stupid given the massive negative reaction when he floated just such an idea. But justified relief at this should not be allowed to obscure the other nasties in the package.

Computer science in English schools: the debate rages on

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.


Two cheers for Gove?

English: Michael Gove speaking at the Conserva...
Image via Wikipedia

Michael Gove is to make a speech today in which he is going to lambast the existing ICT curriculum in English schools and promise a revolutionary new start.

Sounds like a good thing, and certainly he appears to have identified the cretinous nature of the current curriculum and its chaining to Microsoft’s proprietary software. So far, so good.

But is he going to replace it with anything better? The gushing nature of much of the speech is worrying as it suggests someone just reading out a script rather than any deeper level of engagement: “we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for smartphones.”

But I think we should be generous to him – only a few weeks ago he appeared to reveal his true lack of interest and enthusiasm for science and mathematics when he defined higher learning almost exclusively in terms of the arts and humanities: he has a lot of catching up to do in a field he plainly knows little or nothing about (as his odd comments about Alan Turing in the speech suggest – would love it if someone asked him why he appears to rate Turing’s contribution as more fundamental than that of Alonzo Church).

What worries me is this bit: “By withdrawing the programme of study, we’re giving schools and teachers freedom over what and how to teach; revolutionising ICT as we know it.”

For me that just signals that many pupils are going to be taught nothing (no change from the position recently revealed by OFSTED) but that the government will have shifted the blame on to the schools.

Where are the teachers of formal logic going to come from? Who is going to teach kids Java, C# or Objective-C to make these smart phone apps? Schools already struggle to find maths and science teachers and nothing this government is doing, beyond overseeing a general increase in graduate unemployment, is likely to encourage graduates in these fields to look to teaching as a career. Teachers’ pay is being frozen and their pension rights eroded after all.

Well, maybe I am being a bit too hasty: Gove loves nothing better than a good headline and so the rhetoric about letting everybody do their own thing may be just that – rhetoric. But if I am right, and this is just the government admitting there is a problem but walking away from trying to solve it then it will only make things worse.

Stephen Twigg hits the nail on the head

Stephen Twigg
Image via Wikipedia

I try to keep openly political things off here, but this response to the OFSTED report on computing in schools is so good it deserves more publicity:

Stephen Twigg MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, responding to the report from Ofsted on ICT in schools today said:

“Today’s Ofsted report on ICT in schools shows that our computer teaching is simply not up to standard. For too many pupils, computer teaching can be little more than a glorified typing course.

“The fact that the overall effectiveness of ICT teaching is only satisfactory or poor in nearly two thirds of all secondary schools in England is not good enough. We need far more rigour in ICT teaching, with higher quality training, higher standards and continual assessment of what pupils are being taught.

“The Government must look at this evidence and feed it into the review of the National Curriculum. I have written to Michael Gove to offer Labour’s support for the curriculum review so that we can attempt to build a cross party consensus.

“Pupils need to have an opportunity to understand the mechanisms and coding behind computer programmes. Learning how to type on a wordprocessor, enter data into a worksheet or design a powerpoint presentation is not sufficient.

“If the UK is to maintain its competitiveness and educate a new generation of Alan Turings we need to develop the programming skills, as well as the understanding of the links between computing, maths and science.

Notes to Editors
The report, available here: contains a number of worrying findings including:
* A fifth of ICT achievement is inadequate, despite the subject being a compulsory part of the national curriculum;
* Many teachers have “limited” knowledge of programming; and there are weaknesses in more demanding aspects of ICT such as control and data handling
* Pupils’ use of ICT in other subjects was only occasionally tracked or recorded. For those students in Key Stage 4 who were not receiving specialist ICT teaching there was no systematic record of their learning in ICT and no means for teachers or pupils to know whether they had gaps in their knowledge.
* High flyers are often neglected and the students do the same tasks over and over again; The ICT curriculum and qualification routes provided by nearly half of the secondary schools surveyed were not meeting the needs of all students, especially at Key Stage 4. In these schools a single vocational examination course was taken by all students, limiting challenge to the more able, or ICT was offered as an option to some students with others not receiving the full National Curriculum. As a result, in 30 of the 74 schools visited nearly half of the students reach the age of 16 without a sound foundation for further study or training in ICT and related subjects.
* Very few examples were seen of secondary schools engaging with local IT businesses to bring the subject alive for their students. This was a particular issue for girls, many of whom need a fuller understanding of ICT-related career and education options to inform their subject choices at 14 and 16 years of age.

The tyranny of the arts graduates continues

Michael Gove speaking at the Conservative Part...
Image via Wikipedia

I imagine in Michael Gove‘s world, this has been a good week. The UK’s secretary of state for education has been in the news a lot this week, and that seems to be the key metric for him – after all his qualifications for the job essentially seem to be that he was once a journalist (and a militant and active trade unionist – a friend who worked with him at the BBC once told me he was deployed to ensure that “the Tories all came out” during disputes at the Corporation in 1994.)

The two equal pinnacles of Mr Gove’s week would appear to be his writing a preface (!) to the Bible that he is sending to all schools (he doesn’t seem to understand that Catholic schools – of which there are rather a lot – will not use the text he is sending them, never mind the questions of what the state-maintained Jewish and Muslim schools will think) and a speech he gave to Cambridge University earlier in the week where he waxed lyrical about high literature but seemed to have nothing or next-to-nothing to say about engineering, maths and science.

Matt Pearson puts it so much better than I ever could:

Gove rarely talks of skills which can be used in the modern economy, he does not mention collaboration and teamwork, communication skills and the ability to use a range of technologies to get a job done. He does not talk of creativity and entrepreneurship, of engaging with the information society and introducing young people to the rigours of engineering or computer programming. Presumably as his own education did not cover these elements, and Jane Austen wrote very little in JavaScript, these disciplines have not entered his purview.