Compuitng in English Schools

Aug 31, 2016

Miles Berry

It has been two years since England introduced computer science (CS) into its national curriculum. Now seems a good time to reflect on some of the challenges we’ve experienced in implementing the vision of an entitlement for all students to learn the principles of CS and get some practical experience of writing code.

The move from our old information and communication technology (ICT) curriculum to the new computing curriculum has happened in an era of small government. Whilst statutory regulation entitles all pupils to be taught computing, central and local governments have stepped back from the details of implementation in schools. There’s been a challenge to persuade school leaders to give computing the time and resources it needs, and rationales around understanding the foundations of digital technology, long term employability, or wider economic benefit only go so far. What does help is being able to make a cross-curricular case for computing’s importance, as well as access to high value qualifications that count in schools’ league tables.

The English computing curriculum was developed quickly and implemented overnight, without any phasing into the existing environment. The standards we’d written for students 11–14 years of age built upon the standards for those age 5–11 years, but come September 1, 2014, all students 11–14 years of age were to be taught according to the new, age-appropriate standards, despite few having learned any CS when at primary school. Secondary teachers have worked hard to establish the necessary foundations, but it was hard for students to meet the ambitions for CS at this level without the assumed prior experience.

Two years on, the situation has changed, and secondary schools are having to rethink introductory courses to take into account the programming experience that their new pupils already have. It’s a similar story at the other end of secondary education— university CS courses now need to build upon prior experience rather than assume none.

I think we’ve been effective in communicating the message that CS is a new subject on our curriculum. We’ve perhaps been less effective in getting across the message that the other strands of computing—information technology and digital literacy (understood as the applications and implications of computing)—remain as important as ever. Even within CS, it’s been a challenge to strike the right balance between thinking and doing. Many have been eager to embrace coding, but sometimes at a superficial level, which seems to do little to develop any deep understanding of CS principles. Others have emphasized the importance of computational thinking and unplugged approaches, but sometimes at the expense of actually writing code.

Almost uniquely, the entitlement to CS meant that many teachers now had to teach a subject they themselves had never been taught. Early on, Computing At School (CAS) decided that the immediate focus for professional development had to be on teachers’ subject knowledge. National projects like Barefoot Computing, QuickStart Computing, Tenderfoot Computing, CAS TV, and the British Computer Society (BCS) certificate in CS teaching, as well as CAS’s network of university-based regional centers, local hubs, and “master” teachers have done much to support teachers in filling this gap. And many CS teachers have gone on to deepen their CS knowledge through independent study or events such as Raspberry Pi’s Picademy.

While there’s much that can be learned from the early days of Logo programming in schools and from undergraduate CS education, England implemented a CS curriculum without much clarity over how to teach CS to children. It’s been fascinating to see how teachers have evolved models of effective practice for themselves, with a broad consensus building over shared pedagogic principles, such as the need for planning to come before coding, the importance of reading and editing code, the impact of making, the power of pair programming (and peer instruction), the links between debugging and resilience, and the need to promote a genuinely inclusive approach to computing education.

England hit the ground running with implementing CS education for all, but we’ve not yet overcome some of the early challenges—this remains a work in progress. It’s been an exciting journey so far, but it is crucial that now we step back and evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t.

Originally published in CSTA Voice 12:4  © all rights reserved.