Naace calls for maximum response to Royal Society subject survey on computing

Naace, the membership organisation for technology professionals working in education, is urging its teacher members to respond to the survey on the computing curriculum being organised by the Royal Society (RS).

But the survey is unlikely to address the emerging problem for government — that this reform is likely to produce fewer students achieving technology-related general qualifications (GCSE and A-levels) in England’s schools. That is exactly the opposite of what was called for by the lobbyists and reformers — and girls are being further disadvantaged.

The figures for general qualifications are available on the Joint Council for Qualifications website. This year, 2016, ICT is still a more popular exam subject than Computing, now examined as computer science by all exam boards, at both GCSE (71200 ICT, 60521 Computing) and A-level (6379 ICT, 5710 Computing). This is despite the heavy promotion of computer science and the undermining and eventual removal of ICT.

Computer scientists will be pleased with the growth of computer science but the crunch is about to come with the disappearance of the the ICT qualification as it is very unlikely that many of those 77,570 students will switch over to computer science. There were also tens of thousands of entrants for tech-related qualifications like business and communications which have been quietly dropped by exam boards. Worse, the GCSE totals seem to have already peaked. The sum of ICT and computer science GCSE entrants in 2015 was 132,927. This has recorded a small decline this year to 131,721.

Boy-girl ratio for A-level computer science is roughly 10-1

Worse still for an industry with a shortage of women employees, girls are further disadvantaged by the insistence on computer science at GCSE and A-level — in 2016 there were 42,322 boys and 28,878 girls for GCSE ICT, 48,219 boys and 12,302 girls for GCSE computer science, 4,216 boys and 2,143 girls for ICT A-level and 5,174 boys and 536 girls for A-level computer science. ICT has been dramatically more inclusive for girls — the boy-to-girl ratio for GCSE computer science is roughly 4 to 1 while at A-level it's an astonishing 10 to 1.

These observations are backed up by the detailed analysis of computing general exam data for 2015 just published by Peter Kemp, Billy Wong and Miles Berry of the University of Roehampton: The Roehampton Annual Computing Education Report. Some of its insights are extremely worrying, for example computing's small class sizes (A-level 4-7) raise questions about its sustainability. Two local authorities don't even offer the course.

The Royal Society's online survey (15 pages for primary teachers, 19 for secondary), which closes in just seven days (on Friday, December 23), has been instigated by computer scientists at the RS to measure the impact of the computing curriculum two years after it's introduction. It will be backed up by case studies of best practice. However, there is little sense of urgency — the report back isn't due until May.

The RS computing support group includes the same people — from BCS the Chartered Institute for IT — who are responsible for the current form of the computing curriculum. Along with Naace they were advising schools minister Nick Gibb MP when he axed the ICT GCSE and A-level qualifications. There are reports of a last-ditch attempt to create new IT exams but these, bizarrely, were even more technical than computer science.

'Crucial that a wide range of teaching staff and school leaders respond'

Dave SmithDave Smith, former chair of Naace: ‘It’s crucial that a wide range of teaching staff and school leaders respond’Dave Smith: Wide-ranging response is 'crucial'Naace's position on the RS survey is diplomatic. “This is a positive move," said Dave Smith, Naace fellow and former chair. "It’s crucial that a wide range of teaching staff and school leaders respond to this in order to share their insights into what is working well and what needs further development."

However, the survey is generally ill starred. It depends on a strong response from a wide range of teachers — not just the computer science teachers of the Computing at School network who are the most active and motivated. Of course their views would then be filtered by the very people who have caused the current situation. A truly independent inquiry would have been the preferred instrument. And no one is running a consultation on the views of students.

Despite the general welcome for computer science in schools and the grassroots activities it has stimulated for coding and suchlike, computing has suffered because it has become synonymous with computer science. The computing curriculum is overly weighted to computer science (the only general examinations available for it) which is simply too difficult for those technology-oriented students who are not interested in taking coding (computer programming) beyond a general understanding. And ICT, a popular and broad subject, was only axed by the minister to force children down the computing route to push up the numbers.

Perhaps the most important factor has been the shortage of teachers available for computer science. The Computing at School network is a remarkable grass-roots organisation but it was created for computer science rather than computing. And the BCS, which sponsors it, has performed poorly in recruiting its network of "master teachers" for which it was given large sums of money by the Department for Education (DfE).

The DfE itself has been unable to recruit enough computing teachers. Its most recent Initial Teacher Training census reveals that recruitment for computing only reached 68 per cent of its target. It was the lowest performing subject, even worse than "non-EBACC subjects".

Anecdotal feedback from schools indicates many of them dropping computer science because of the difficulty in getting students to sign up for the GCSE. And the situation isn't helped by the general confusion between "computing" and "computer science", where both terms are used to describe the same subject. This is especially evident in the RS computing project's publications. Its own press release for the survey says its purpose is "to learn more about how computer science is being taught in schools". It adds, "The findings of the research will help inform the development of support for computer science teachers in schools and colleges in the UK."

Curiously, the survey also seeks feedback from teachers in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, areas unaffected by the problems created by England's computing curriculum. The ambitions of the RS/BCS computer scientists that England's 'ICT' was 'outsourced' to by then education secretary Michael Gove MP clearly extend beyond England.

Naace advises teachers to use survey's 'free text opportunities'

Consultants at Pye Tait have been commissioned by the Royal Society to focus on “Understanding computer education in UK schools and colleges”. Early indications from Naace members responding to the survey, said Dave Smith, "have pointed to some concerns such as a possible confusion with the compulsory status of the subject at KS4 and questions that emphasise the computer science content of the broader subject computing. However, members of the community are encouraging liberal use of free text entry opportunities, capturing their responses as they are entered, and are emphasising the need for as many teachers as possible to respond."

Kay SawbridgeKay Sawbridge: ‘schools already dropping computer science’Kay Sawbridge: ‘schools drop computer science’Pye Tait is seeking responses from heads of department from each school along with classroom teachers. How do they view this? Kay Sawbridge is faculty leader for computing and ICT at Caroline Chisholm School in Northamptonshire. As department head it took her around an hour to fill in the survey as she had to access sources like pupil premium data.

Her problem was not so much the survey itself but the lack of opportunity to express what needs to be said, and concerns about who it would go to and whether enough classroom teachers know about it (particularly in primary schools). "It was long-winded but because I wanted to have my say I carried on with it," she said. "A lot of people would give up halfway through. It's user-unfriendly."

Her worries have little space for expression in the survey. Although teaching computer science at GCSE level holds no fear for her ("I wouldn't touch A-level with a barge pole"), she recognises that the unnecessary foregrounding of computer science has made it too difficult for all but the brightest, most committed students to reach their expected grades. As a result, many schools have already dropped it. Her own survey of teachers on Google Docs recorded some of the negative effects of the abolition of ICT which has exacerbated the problem by killing a popular route to a recognised qualification for those students who don't gel with computer science (probably the majority). The folly of killing off ICT GCSE and A-level has already been widely recognised (see Computing magazine's "Scrapping ICT GCSE 'was a mistake' finds education and IT skills report"). And employers have made it clear they want employees with wide ICT skills rather than programming.

Kay Sawbridge warns: "Everything is much harder and they are expecting all students to be able to take this qualification [computer science] but they are cancelling out the middle and bottom bands of students totally because they won’t be able to achieve what the schools require of them. I know there are schools already dropping computer science as a subject because it’s too hard, which is ridiculous."

This is an observation echoed across the country. One midlands teacher who did not want to be named said, "We've dropped it and moved on. As simple as that. A waste of time for our students."

Put together with the lack of national leadership for technology for learning, and changing trends in schools, secondary schools now face other problems. Kay Sawbridge reports that many children coming from primary schools are initially stumped when it comes to simple computing tasks like moving a file to a different folder. These students don't know how to use a keyboard and mouse because all they have used previously are tablet computers like the iPad. Anecdotal evidence supports her assertions as does the feedback her queries prompted from other teachers on Facebook.

Kay Sawbridge fears that when all these elements come together schools in England could well be producing a computer-illiterate generation apart from the minority who take up computer science. So what feedback is needed for policymakers? "They need to know exactly which areas of computing people are struggling with which they don’t ask in any detail. Which means they are never going to be able to fix the shortage in teacher skills because schools will not be able to give teachers the time off to learn things like programming as CPD is mostly done in teachers' own time."

"And people like those at BCS are making a fortune out of all this through ECDL and expensive training courses for teachers yet they were one of the main advisers in the decisions made which led to GCSE and A-level ICT being scrapped. Competencies in using IT software are increasingly becoming a key area of skills needed for businesses. That's not going to happen now schools are dropping those very skills taught in ICT qualifications. Vocational ICT will not suffice."

'The catastrophic loss of ICT as an examinable subject'

Drew Buddy
Drew Buddie: 'diminished chances'

Naace now has its own representative on the RS computing advisory group. Computing teacher and former Naace chair Drew Buddie is also worried about the curriculum offerings for students. "Undoubtedly the RS's previous report 'Shutdown or Restart', which Naace was not a part of, had a massive impact on schools across England," he said, "with many schools embracing the changes and offering exciting opportunities for students to learn about broader aspects of computing than ICT had formerly afforded.

"However, in the past couple of years I have noticed that schools in increasing numbers have removed computer science as an examinable course for students. When this is coupled with the catastrophic loss of ICT as an examinable subject this has greatly diminished the chances of a significant number of students, for whom computer science is inappropriate, from being able to pursue an examinable, computer-related course.

"As a teacher member of the RS advisory group this gives me cause for concern and so I am pleased that this follow-up report is being undertaken. This report is an attempt to assess the current state of play of computing (in all its guises) in schools in the UK and it is vital that we receive responses from as many schools as possible and not just those who have fully engaged with the changes over the past couple of years."

Professor Peter Twining (pictured below), whose EdFutures 'bliki' chronicled the painful development of ICT into computing, is an Open University professor of education (Futures) and was involved in the first stage of the new curriculum before the computer scientists took full control. He commented, "It is very difficult to design good questionnaires, so I am reluctant to criticise this one, but I have to admit I did laugh at the question about how many HOURS per week of computing education each pupil will receive in each year group in primary schools – minutes might have been a more appropriate measure!

Peter Twining
Peter Twining: 'Computing will not deliver what we need... people who understand how technology impacts on their lives'

"Given what we know about the inaccuracy of self-reported survey data on ICT use in schools follow-up case studies are a good idea – not to ‘showcase best practice’ (because there is no such thing – what is ‘best’ for you may not be ‘best’ for me) but to get a richer feel for the effectiveness of the teaching of Computing in our school and more in-depth understanding of the factors that hinder or facilitate it."

Earlier this year he succinctly expressed the wider view of the critics when he told a Westminster Education Forum: "We have people talking about edtech and then they actually talk about computing [the subject], which is not the same as use of technology across the curriculum... We have people saying how great the computing curriculum is...

You haven’t solved the problem; you’ve made it worse'

"For me, computing as a subject, no matter how good the curriculum was or how well it’s delivered, is not going to deliver what we need in this country which is people who understand how technology impacts on their lives, how it impacts on history and geography and being a sports personality and being a politician and whatever else it is you do. You get that through embedding it across the curriculum.

"And so I really worry, because I heard Nicky [Morgan, then education secretary] talking about we’ve solved the problem, we’ve got computing into the curriculum. You haven’t solved the problem; you’ve made it worse. Because you’ve actually undermined the embedding of technology across the curriculum. You’ve focused in on computer science, which most of us don’t need..."

Bob HarrisonThere are those who, while acknowledging the need for a curriculum review, are more critical. Former principal and school and college governor Bob Harrison (pictured right), was a member of the UK Forum for Computer Education (UKFCE) – now disbanded – and was involved in the struggle to make computing a broad subject without its skewed focus on computer science. He commented: "All of us who work in this sector would love to get our hands on accurate and representative feedback on the progress of the computing curriculum — how teachers are coping with it and whether students are getting the appropriate opportunities. But I am afraid that this survey will not provide it.

"The survey design and process are fundamentally flawed, even if the relevant teachers ever find out about it never mind complete all the online pages. It’s what happens when people who fail to fully engage with educators — in this case computer scientists — get their hands on the curriculum and don’t have the requisite understanding of learning and teaching."

He felt that the teachers who would be most likely to respond to the survey would be those more confident and motivated. The survey needs to identify the weak points so that action can be recommended to the DfE. “The main drivers of the new computing curriculum were Michael Gove MP, Liz Truss MP and Dominic Cummings," he added. "But they are long gone and now it is ICT teachers and our children who are having to struggle with the changes”

Because of division at the heart of this relatively new subject it continues to be difficult to separate the lobbying, and its rhetoric, from the classroom reality. Recently BT launched its Ipsos/Mori report, Tech Literacy: A new cornerstone of primary school education, based on the views of 400 teachers across the UK using its Barefoot Computing primary school resources.

75% of teachers want to equip kids for digital but only 12% think they can

Barefoot slide”Barefoot” has been very successful and has undoubtedly been a great support for teachers and learners, but even here the element of cheerleading becomes misleading. One “now and then” presentation slide about the computer curriculum shows, on the left, a statistic that only 33 per cent of teachers in England were confident with the curriculum while the “after” on the right showed that 81 per cent of GB teachers were now confident.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the one on the left, just for England, was recorded before the curriculum was even introduced while the one on the right was for a sample of 400 teachers across the UK. Not so well publicised from the report was the slide that showed that 75 per cent of teachers felt it was their role to equip children for a digital world while only 23 per cent of them felt prepared to equip them.

There's no shortage of promotional material telling people about the positives of computing generated by those with a vested interested, and plenty of resources, but there is no getting away from the issue of routes to success. And the top priority ought to be helping children achieve the kinds of qualifications that both they and employers feel best help them.

While the big exam boards have “snapped guides” to government imperatives, it’s worth teachers and schools looking elsewhere for more flexible and appropriate solutions (ironically, independent schools can opt for the popular IGCSE ICT denied to English state schools). For example the TLM awarding body offers a GCSE equivalent “Open Systems and Enterprise” award (with league table points) made up of up to 80 different elements that children might want to follow. In line with the vision of its founder, the late Ian Lynch, this is a ‘paperless’ service and evidence of children’s work can be submitted digitally and quickly. There are even website and handheld assessment options available.

Paul TaylorAs TLM’s principal examiner Paul Taylor (pictured right) explains: “Schools, teachers and children need flexible, appropriate and responsive partners for qualifications. The children need qualifications that will get them the jobs that are widely available in ICT, and the teachers need to be able to offer elements such as game design that engage and inspire. We offer a range of qualifications and systems which free teachers from administrative burdens so that they can do what they are trained to do: teach. This means that they can cover more material and students can get the support they need. We also offer true moderation and exams on-demand. We give detailed feedback to make sure coursework is satisfactory and that students are ready for their exam.”

The big problem with ditching ICT is that general qualifications are seen as the route to further academkic study and employment in a way that vocational qualifications are not. After the reforms have gone through the computer scientists have had their way and made great gains, financiallty too, but at a terrible cost to those students who want to work with technology but will not take computer science (the majority as the Roehmapton report makes clear). Not only is this contrary to the purpose of the reforms — to boost Britain's digital skills — but it's a clear injustice to a very large number of students. One that policiymakers and politicians should rectify. 

Teacher Kay Sawbridge concludes, "There's an argument that ICT can be taught through other subjects – yes it can be, but not properly We teach skills for web design (a shortage area in employment), creative skills such as audio, video and image editing, taking into account target audience and purpose, planning and evaluation. Where will they learn essential skills that are expected for further education, university and employment? We are not preparing them for work and it's a crying shame."

More information

Joint Council for Qualifications website  
A full analysis of computing general exam data for 2015 has just been published in The Roehampton Annual Computing Education Report by Peter Kemp, Billy Wong and Miles Berry at University of Roehampton  
Government report "Digital Skills for the UK Economy"  



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