What is the difference between computing and computer science? It's the problem at the heart of a subject in crisis

The computing curriculum being followed by schools in England is in serious trouble and requires urgent Government intervention. That's the key finding from a report – “After the Reboot: The State of Computing Education in UK Schools and Colleges” – based on a survey commissioned by the people partly responsible for the debacle, the Royal Society, along with its collaborators the BCS - The Chartered Institute of IT and the Royal Academy of Engineering  

The report was launched last week at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester along with a call for a further £60 million of funding, presumably to go to the same organisations behind the current 'force-feeding' of computer science to children at the expense of the wider skills and digital literacy called for industry and the Royal Society's previous report "Shut down or restart".

"After the reboot" fails to get to grips with this central problem which is already leading to a fall in the number of young people gaining general certificates (GCSEs) in technology-related subjects. That's because they are only offered one — computer science — since schools minister Nick Gibb deliberately killed off the ICT GCSE to force schools and children along only one route (see "Teachers urged to sound Computing alarm").

Largely uncritical media reception

The report has had a largely uncritical media reception, particularly by the BBC (which produced its own Micro:bit device for schools) which has also reflected the unfathomable conflation of computing and computer science as if they were the same thing (see "Government urged to act over computer science GCSEs"). In fact the findings in the survey, commissioned from Pye Tait, are largely rosy, and at variance with the report's urgent call for action. This is what it feeds back from primary school teachers: "65% rated their favourability towards the new computing curriculum with a score of at least 8 out of 10". Secondary? "75% of surveyed teachers rated their understanding of computational thinking with a score of at least 8 out of 10".

That's because much of the consulting was done via the Computing at School network, identified by the report as a successful model on which to build further government support. But nowhere does the report make it clear that this network, run by BCS, exists only to support the teaching of computer science, and not the wider subject of computing.

Those not appreciating the difference should bear in mind the words of the doyenne of US computer scientists Jeannette M. Wing, now corporate vice-president of research with Microsoft. She expressed the problem succinctly in her lecture on "Computational Thinking and Thinking About Computing" back in 2009: “Computer scientists have no clue about how children learn. They have no clue about how to teach K12 students. So they are the last people to ask to help. But they are the ones that have to understand what the concepts are.” In other words, they should be supporting the curriculum rather than leading it.

In fact, the "After the reboot" report reflects the Royal Society's assumption that it, along with the BCS and RAE, is a 'caretaker' of computing for the whole UK. Curiously, it refers to approaches to the subject in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland when the real problem lies with schools in England. The attempt to formalise this leadership, through UKForCe (the UK Forum for Computing Education), set up by the RAE, came to nothing when the new organisation was disbanded earlier this year because of lack of interest. 

Many educators perplexed and angry

However, the uncritical media reception is not shared by eduicators, many of whom are are perplexed and angry. Open University professor of education Peter Twining, who was was excluded from the subject's original drafting group because of his trenchant criticism (chronicled in his EdFutures bliki), described the new report as "farcical". In its 111 pages there were only 21 references to digital literacy, and six of them were in references to the original "Shut down or restart" report. 

There were obvious things that could be criticised, he said, like methodology, sampling and validity of the data, and the call for even more research when it identifies thousands of reports between 2005 and 2014, but the project "smacks of self interest". "But for me the real thing in this report is that we are having the wrong debate again. It’s focusing on computer science and marginalising the teaching of digital literacy which is what has happened the whole way through... So we’re having this debate about computer science, and because of that we are not having the discussions we need to have about digital literacy in the curriculum or the wider question of what we really need from schools in the 21st century and how we are going to achieve that."

He concluded, "We could have produced this report without doing any research - it's broadly what we told them might happen... Guess what? the BCS and RAE think computer science is a good thing — but this report is supposed to be about computing and it’s not; it’s about computer science predominantly. Digital literacy, which the Royal Society said was the equivalent of reading and writing, gets barely a mention."

New recruits have 'limited knowledge of digital skills'

Computer scientist Dawn Hewitson is senior lecturer in computing education and course leader in PGCE information technology and computing at Edge Hill University, Lancashire (see "Computing crisis threat to heritage"). She said: "While the BCS has made enormous inroads into working with teachers and proliferating computer science as a subject area, we are now experiencing a backlash where we have an emerging trend of new recruits to the profession who have limited knowledge of digital skills and find it difficult to undertake information presentation tasks and have limited knowledge of packages used in the classroom to present information. This is still an important and valuable part of the curriculum.

"There are still large groups of teachers who are not confident with computer science as a subject area and there is work to be undertaken with examining bodies. It is interesting to note the number of Q grades issued to teachers by examining bodies. Teachers in limited timescales, are delivering condensed versions of the curriculum and this practice is being called into question by awarding bodies.

Successes 'a direct result of goodwill of the teaching workforce'

"In mathematics it is acceptable for pupils to achieve the same results when solving a problem, but in computing it appears that this is not the case. Practices such as withdrawing examined work midway through the traditional cycle of delivery are also causing significant stress to teachers. For teachers in schools, it can almost seem like 'mission impossible'. There are tremendous successes to celebrate, but these successes have come as a direct result of goodwill of the teaching workforce, and with teachers who are in environments which support acknowledgement of personal weaknesses.

"What I would also have liked to have seen addressed in the report is the delivery model used in schools. Where the importance of the subject area continues to be an area of concern. Performance measures surrounding English and mathematics in schools are perpetuating practices where the encouragement of taking pupils out of the subject to complete work to boost performance in other 'core' subjects, thus reducing the time teachers have to engage with pupils in the subject. Additionally, schools are limited in their exposure to the cash injections into the subject area. Budget cuts to schools and austerity measures, are creating problems for teachers getting out of school to attend the range of CPD events supported by industry, even with generous bursaries attached to them.

"There is tremendous work being undertaken by a number of communities within computing, but restricted work practices are such that teachers are not able to engage with this provision.  They are expected, after a busy day in school, to attend evening sessions and Saturday sessions in order to remain employable. Teachers need time during their working day to be able to develop their skills — it is recognised in most timetables the need for planning and preparation — but currently this is only two to three hours per week. Teachers in this subject need more time and greater support.  

"The attrition rate of practising teachers continues to also be a cause for concern, with performance management techniques based on examination results within a subject still developing. I would welcome this £60 million cash injection into teachers and schools, and I hope that this will make a difference, but horizons need to be broadened, and teachers in schools need more support."

'Avoidable and predictable'

Educator and consultant Bob Harrison, who led the teacher panel for computing pointed out: "This was avoidable and predictable, and was indeed predicted. This crisis is a direct result of the opaque collusion between politicians, their special advisers (spads), senior DfE officials and the British Computer Society's Bill Mitchell and Simon Peyton-Jones and their unwillingness to listen to experienced teachers and educators.

"This collusion ensured that the vested interests of the BCS were served to the detriment of pupils, teachers and even the CAS volunteers. There was never an open tender process for the millions of pounds issued by the DfE, and the result of all this is that we now have a curriculum subject, computing, that is not fit for purpose.

"There has been a complete failure to understand the scale of the challenge faced by teachers, and the need for respected and accessible GCSE, A-level and vocational options for our young people. In fact our young people are now paying the price for this curriculum hijack. They are being force-fed computer science rather than the broader subject of computing which is in danger of becoming a tainted brand.

"The suggestion that more public money should be shovelled into the coffers of those responsible for this mess is offensive. We need this to be shut down and restarted with fresh leadership."

'Disconnect between evangelistic zeal and the experience of schools'

Mark Chambers, who was chief executive of the professional body for education ICT professionals during the creation of computing as a subject, still follows the developments with interest and was present at the launch of the report in Manchester.

One thing that concerned him was the revelation by Professor Steve Furber that conversations regarding funding and CPD were “already underway”. He asked. “Why aren’t these in the public domain with all being given an equitable opportunity to take part in the discussion and become part of a wider range of provision than that which has currently proved inadequate?"

During the discussion section he was struck by the combination of "lots of enthusiasm and some naivety". “There appeared to be a disconnect," he said, "between the evangelistic zeal and the experience of schools struggling to recruit new staff, wrestling with upskilling existing staff, dealing with stressed students and teachers and allowing their investment in technology to lapse – a huge percentage of the Equipment in schools is five years old or older."

He also picked up on the frequent references to the BCS and associates "working with others" in the recommendations. However, this felt like "an afterthought" as experiences hitherto in the computing curriculum did not bear this out. Inclusion was needed.

'£60 million figure not plucked out of thin air'

It would be a mistake to underestimate the political influence and lobbying powers of the people in the organisations behind "After the reboot", so you can be sure that the £60 million figure has not been plucked out of thin air — it will already have been discussed with civil servants and politicians. But what is required here is a completely fresh look at the issues by educators, not the same old views of the same old people with the same old agenda, computer science. Yes, this report does touch on some of the problems, including the lack of meaningful GCSEs other than computer science, but they don't get the clarity and priority they require. And that is because the report is not truly independent.

Self interest is normally myopic and "After the reboot" is no exception. It's all about computer science rather than computing, and that's what caused the problems in the first place. It's extraordinary to read about concerns about gender imbalance from the very people whose actions have closed off GCSE 'tech' qualifications to thousands of girls (and boys too). That they should be rewarded by a further £60 million funding would be incredible to anyone outside the cabal that has controlled this subject so far. These computer scientists has been marked by its inability to work with people other than those sharing a love of their subject.

Right now, civil servants are canvassing those involved in technology for learning, and the industry, about what is required for and ICT strategy, something they used to be aware of before the Coalition Government and the Conservatives took charge. One of their immediate goals is to work out what education minister Justine Greening MP can say in her keynote at the BETT 2017 technology show in January, including announcements. Funding was always a feature of BETT ministerial speeches before the days of Michael Gove MP. It's likely to become a feature again, but for the wrong reasons.

The technology in education cheerleaders are always talking about people coming from all over the world to find out what's happening with technology in English schools with their new computing curriculum. They need to wake up and understand that what these people are now asking is — where did it go wrong? They won't find that out in "After the reboot".

As Professor Peter Twining observes: "The issue is about two things. The first is that there is nothing surprising in the report — we told them these things were going to happen — and the second is it’s the wrong discussion and it’s detracting from the discussion we ought to be having about digital literacy and the real purpose of education. What do we really want from education and how are we going to get that? You can have as many computer science teachers as you like but schools would still not be delivering the things we really need." 

“After the Reboot: The State of Computing Education in UK Schools and Colleges” 


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