Computer Science makes it to the EBacc

Jan 30, 2013

Miles Berry

I think there are many of us delighted by the announcement, timed to coincide with the start of BETT 2013, that computer science joins the other sciences as part of the list for the English Baccalaureate.

I’ve no doubt that computer science is just as much a serious academic discipline as physics, chemistry and biology, albeit a somewhat younger one. Just as these subjects provide their students with unique insights into the nature of reality and particular ways of thinking about the world, so does computer science. The computational thinking that many of us see as lying at the heart the discipline, and providing the clearest justification for a place on the school curriculum, is akin to but distinct from mathematical intuition and the scientific method as providing a set of ideas, tools, processes for tackling problems and developing new knowledge and understanding.

More pragmatically, I think this means that ICT teachers are more likely to keep their jobs. Head teachers faced with league tables based on EBacc results won’t be quite so eager to reduce the teaching time and resourcing for subjects on this list – we’ve plenty of anecdotal evidence of increasing numbers studying the EBacc subjects, the motivation for which is likely to come from school leadership at least as much as student and parental demand, and thus I think there’s at least some grounds to hope that there’ll be more students encouraged to take CS at GCSE, as part of a rounded academic education. Of course, not all who teach current ICT GCSEs will find the switch to teaching CS that easy, but I’d hope that they might relish the challenge of learning something outside their comfort zone, and that CAS and friends will have in place some high quality CPD to support them in acquiring new subject knowledge and, perhaps, subject pedagogy.

I think there are many bright pupils who’d relish the challenge of a rigorous CS course alongside two other science GCSE – physics and CS as a combination would appeal to many who like to figure things out for themselves, and would be a natural choice for gamers, or those interested in a career in the games industry, and adding in chemistry or biology will have powerful synergies. A rounded scientific education is likely to require a grasp of all four sciences these days, given a) how much of the cutting edge is at the intersection of domains and b) the crucial role that programming (not merely IT skills) has in so much scientific research now.

Although the link between take-up of a subject at school and applications for initial teacher training is one with some latency, I think there’s also hope here that recruitment to CS/ICT PGCE courses may pick up from its current, unsurprisingly, low levels.

Having CS on the EBacc list is not, though, unproblematic.

One of the problems with the whole EBacc concept is the focus on academic subjects, amongst which CS undoubtedy should be classed. There’s more to life than academic study, and the focus on the academic EBacc can all too easily reduce the attention paid to vocational education and training. This is an issue for programming and other bits of IT. Whilst there’s a clear, strong case for teaching pupils the theory and principles of computation, there’s also a strong argument for getting them coding, for getting them to make things in the digital domain. Whilst computing is a science, programming is much more akin to craft, as we see with things like the software craftsmanship movement, agile methods and the day-in day-out work of software engineers which seems quite some way from the discipline of academic computer science, and hence perhaps why IT was first found on the national curriculum in the same ring binder as D&T. So yes, let’s have some rigorous GCSEs in computer science, but let’s also have some challenging, worthwhile qualifications for 16 year olds in programming, systems administration and network engineering.

Another potential issue is the exams. If Mr Gove has his way and EBacc subjects are examined by EBCs rather than GCSEs, and if these all have to be paper based, three hour exams, I can’t help wondering if this might not be the best way to examine a candidate’s knowledge and understanding of computer science. Might not a portfolio of coursework, or some live, interactive coding and debugging be a useful thing to assess for a subject like this? I’m sure you could examine CS on paper, as a final exam, but I think there’s more to knowing computer science than knowing about computer science.

My other niggle is whether this actually makes a difference in schools when it comes to GCSE option blocks – yes, there’ll be some (plenty?) of students who’d like to do (say) physics, chemistry and CS, but if their school hasn’t (yet) (been) converted to an academy, they have to study biology too up to the age of sixteen, because it’s part of the National Curriculum; that doesn’t mean they have to take a GCSE/EBC in biology, but it’s not, strictly speaking, legal for the school not to teach them the bit that’s there on the KS4 curriculum. On the other hand, Mr Gove’s has said that they’ll have to study ICT too in KS4, so perhaps that’s not quite such an issue, although the BCS/RAEng submission for the programme of study kept this content very, very light.

These concerns apart, on the whole, I’m really glad that Mr Gove kept his word from a year ago – having CS on the EBacc is likely to result in more children having the chance to study it, and being encouraged to do so.