Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools

Yesterday, the Royal Society published Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools; it follows on from the publication of Nesta’s Next Gen. report last year and Michael Gove’s speech at Bett this week.

This report is the outcome of a project initiated in August 2010 by the Royal Society, with support from the Royal Academy of Engineering, and is published 30 years to the month after the launch of the BBC Micro. It was prompted by a high degree of concern, expressed by school teachers, academics and other members of the computing community (including learned societies, professional bodies, universities, and industry), about the design, delivery and provision of ICT and computing education in UK schools. The project, led by Professor Steve Furber (see interview) and an advisory group, has been informed by evidence gathered from individuals and organisations with an interest in computing.

The outcomes of the report are clear: the current delivery of computing education in many UK schools is highly unsatisfactory. Although existing curricula for ICT are broad and allow scope for teachers to inspire pupils and help them develop interests in Computing, many pupils are not inspired by what they are taught and gain nothing beyond basic digital literacy skills.

The headline recommendations from the report are as follows (see full report):

  • Recommendation 1: The term ICT as a brand should be reviewed and the possibility considered of disaggregating this into clearly defined areas such as digital literacy, Information Technology and Computer Science. There is an analogy here with how English is structured at school, with reading and writing (basic literacy), English Language (how the language works) and English Literature (how it is used). The term `ICT’ should no longer be used as it has attracted too many negative connotations.
  • Recommendation 2: The government should set targets for the number of Computer Science and Information Technology specialist teachers, and monitor recruitment against these targets in order to allow all schools to deliver a rigorous curriculum. This should include providing training bursaries to attract suitably qualified graduates into teaching — for which industry funding could be sought. Education Scotland should ensure that the declared entitlement of all learners to third-level outcomes in Computing Science is implemented in all schools for all learners using appropriately qualified teachers.
  • Recommendation 3: Government departments with responsibility for Education in the UK should seek industry support to extend existing funding in this area, and should ensure that there is coordination of CPD provision for Computer Science and Information Technology teachers that deepens subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy. Government should set a minimum level of provision for subject-specific CPD for Computing teachers, should seek support from business and industry to make that provision, and should ensure that the provision is well coordinated and deepens subject knowledge and subject specific pedagogy.
  • Recommendation 4: School infrastructure service providers, working with others, should prepare a set of off-the-shelf strategies for balancing network security against the need to enable good teaching and learning in Computer Science and Information Technology, and should encourage schools to discuss and adopt them with their service providers. Such a “Guide to Best Practice” should be used by schools and local authorities as part of any tendering process for outsourced service provision.
  • Recommendation 5: Suitable technical resources should be available in all schools to support the teaching of Computer Science and Information technology. These could include pupil-friendly programming environments such as Scratch, educational microcontroller kits such as PICAXE and Arduino, and robot kits such as Lego MindStorms.
  • Recommendation 6: The Department for Education should remedy the current situation, where good schools are dis-incentivised from teaching Computer Science, by reforming and rebranding the current ICT curriculum in England. Schemes of work should be established for ages 5-14 across the range of Computing aspects, e.g. digital literacy (the analogue to being able to read and write), Information Technology, and Computer Science. These should be constructed to be implementable in a variety of ways, including a cross-curricular approach for digital literacy at primary and early secondary school. Schools may prefer not to impose a timetable or separately staff these elements at this age, but the existence of separately defined learning experiences will ensure that each strand is always properly developed — unlike at present. A timetable distinction should then be in place from the age of 14, allowing pupils to make a well-informed choice to study for recognised qualifications in Information Technology and/or Computer Science. Given the lack of specialist teachers, we recommend that only the teaching of digital literacy is made statutory at this point. However, the long-term aim should be to move to a situation where there are sufficient specialist teachers to enable all young people to study Information Technology and Computer Science at school. Accordingly, the Government should put in place an action plan to achieve this. The schools inspectorates should monitor the implementation of this change to ensure that the problems of the current curriculum are not replicated.
  • Recommendation 7: In order to redress the imbalance between academic and vocational qualifications in this area — and to ensure that all qualifications are of value to those who take them — the departments for education across the UK should encourage Awarding Organisations to review their current provision and develop Key Stage 4 (KS4) qualifications in Computer Science in consultation with the UK Forum, universities and employers. Awarding Organisations across the UK should review and revise the titles and content of all new and existing qualifications in this area to match the disaggregation described above (e.g. Computer Science, Information Technology and digital literacy).
  • Recommendation 8: The UK Forum should advise Awarding Organisations on appropriate assessment methods for qualifications in digital literacy, Information Technology and Computer Science.
  • Recommendation 9: The UK Forum should put in place a framework to support non-formal learning in Computer Science and to support teachers. Considerations include after-school clubs, school speakers and mentoring for teachers in developing their subject knowledge. Bodies such as STEMNET will have a role to play in implementing this. To inform the focus of investment in non-formal learning in Computing, the UK Forum should also look at establishing a rigorous evidence base for the effectiveness and value of various Computer Science E&E activities. Affordability will also be a relevant consideration.
  • Recommendation 10: Awarding Organisations should consult with the UK Forum and HE departments to develop rigorous Level 3 academic qualifications in Computer Science.
  • Recommendation 11: The Computing community should establish a lasting UK Forum for joint working and coordination between the many Computing bodies, in order to progress the recommendations within this report. The Forum should provide regular progress reports on the implementation of the recommendations.

In summary: the UK has a proud history of contributions to Computing and especially to the discipline of Computer Science, but current terminology, curricula and qualifications are holding us back from being a nation of technology creators. Whilst a lot has been achieved in establishing a digitally literate population, our aspirations should not stop there. There are many barriers to progress, and a joined up approach is required. This report sets out a positive way forward for the community.

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