Getting to grips with the computing curriculum

With new GCSEs being introduced and a large percentage of teachers concerned over their computing knowledge, the BCS Academy’s Niel McLean looks at the progress being made and what’s next for the subject.

Computing is still a relatively new subject in schools. While some teachers have taught computing for some years, it was the introduction of computing within the national curriculum in September 2014 that secured the place of computing and computer science as essential components of the education of all young people. So what has been achieved in that time, what is still to do, and what support is available to schools? Before answering those questions, it is worth reflecting on why computing is so important that all young people should, in the words of the national curriculum, be equipped ‘to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world’.

The global movement to get young people coding has significantly raised awareness, but, important as writing computer programs is, computing is far more than that. The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work and how to put this knowledge to use through programming. Building on this knowledge and understanding, pupils are equipped to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of content. Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use information and communication technology to express themselves, collaborate, develop and share their ideas – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.

Like any worthwhile subject, computing also contributes to young people’s intellectual development. It teaches them to think computationally about problems, issues and opportunities and to apply this to wider problems in broader contexts. The positive experience of creating working solutions to real challenges also helps develop young people’s personal qualities, increasing their sense of self-worth, resilience and agency. It contributes to their wider understanding of the world, where all aspects of human activity are being shaped by the application of computational thinking, and, of course, it increases their future employability as technology transforms the workplace. Whatever the great intentions of the national curriculum, statutory documents do not teach young people, teachers do, and the schools that do best are those where teachers feel confident and enthusiastic about computing. A number of initiatives are in place to help teachers develop that confidence by increasing their subject knowledge and understanding ways of teaching computing that work.

Computing At School
For most teachers, the first port of call for information and support is Computing At School (CAS). This ever-growing professional network is free to join for all those interested in teaching, promoting and supporting computing teaching. It offers leadership, support and training and is supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, Microsoft, Google, Ensoft and the UK Committee of Heads and Professors of Computer Science.

It is a grass roots organisation, whose energy, creativity, and leadership comes from its members. Members run over 190 local CAS hubs where computing teachers meet together, talk, exchange ideas and share resources. Last year over 390 CAS Hub meetings were held. These were attended by over 5,500 teachers. With over 22,000 members, the CAS website provides access to over 3,500 resources, and members participate in animated online discussions with over 75,000 discussion posts.

QuickStart Computing has been developed as a CPD toolkit to help deliver inspiring computing lessons in primary and secondary schools. The resources can be downloaded from the website and printed packs can be picked up from a number of schools throughout England. CAS continues to develop innovative ways of supporting and inspiring computing teachers. With support from Google, CAS has launched CAS TV, a YouTube channel with short videos aimed at teachers.

The Network of Excellence in Computer Science
With support from the Department for Education (DfE), BCS and CAS have developed the Network of Excellence to provide direct support and CPD for teachers. CAS Master Teachers form the heart of the network, recognising that teachers particularly value support and CPD from others who face the same challenges that they do. Teachers clearly value the support that the CAS Master Teachers provide, with over 99 per cent of those teachers benefiting from CPD, reporting that the CPD provided was high quality, implementable and would have an impact in the classroom.

The CAS Master Teachers are in turn supported by 10 regional centres. These CAS regional centres are hosted in a number of universities, which were selected on a competitive basis which took into account their ability to perform as an effective focal point for their region, combining depth of subject knowledge with the ability to support pedagogical development. Relevant activities already being run and their recent history of teacher support with respect to computing and computer science also featured strongly in the selection criteria, such that the institutions chosen could ramp up activity quickly and had the potential to deliver value over and above basic the contractual commitments.

Each centre is now responsible for working with the CAS Master Teachers in their area to promote and support relevant teacher engagement and CPD activities, with the ultimate aim of establishing effective and enduring local communities of practice involving CAS Master Teachers, lead schools and local hubs. The CAS Regional Centres are also helping CAS Master Teachers further extend their subject knowledge, so they can better support other teachers in their communities and are promoting best ‘on-the-ground’ practice.

Over 95 per cent of CAS Master Teachers feel proud to be in the role, and last Autumn the Network of Excellence delivered over 14,200 teacher hours of CPD to over 4,100 teachers. This is set to grow further over the next two years, with the recruitment of additional CAS Master Teachers. Teachers who received Master Teacher-led CPD from the Network of excellence reported that their confidence in teaching computing had increased with half of them identifying improvements in their pupils’ learning within 10 weeks of a CPD session.

Barefoot Computing
The Barefoot Computing Project, which was originally funded by the DfE, offers free workshops and downloadable teaching resources to help primary school teachers in England deliver the computer science elements of the new computing curriculum. The project was set up by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, and supported by CAS, the Raspberry Pi Foundation and BT.

School-based workshops are delivered by specially trained local volunteers who come from varied professional IT backgrounds, and the resources build teachers confidence while providing valuable subject knowledge. The project has been incredibly well received, with over 26,000 registered users and over 90,000 downloads, and its success led to BT extending funding to allow more teachers to benefit from the free workshops and resources.

What next?
A huge amount of progress has been made, however, the challenge is still significant. 75 per cent of computing teachers having concerns over their lack of subject and pedagogical knowledge, new GCSEs are being introduced, and all this is taking place against a backdrop of significant change in schools. Through its work with CAS and Barefoot, BCS has identified a number of priorities for the next couple of years.

Firstly, the teacher to teacher support approach works, and it is important that the Network of Excellence continues to grow with more CAS Master Teachers and hubs. The funding from DfE and the support of the CAS Regional Centres will prove critical in making this happen.

Secondly, after the initial support to get them up and running and to build confidence, computing teachers need formal recognition of the knowledge and skills they have developed. CAS now offers a unique accreditation for teachers of computing, accredited by BCS. The qualification is evidence-based and recognises that every teacher is working in a different context. Over time this will become the bench mark for a career as a computing teacher.

Thirdly, there will be a continued need for teaching resources, especially ones that allow teachers to create a complete curriculum rather than just supporting one off lessons.

Finally, head teachers have a significant role to play, and there is a need to raise their awareness of the importance of computing and what they can do in their strategic leadership role to ensure its success. With support from Microsoft, BCS and CAS will be developing a campaign to reach this crucial group. Change in schools is complex. The scale of education demands continued support to ensure that any change is firmly established within schools and benefits all young people, wherever they are in the country and whatever their background. Introducing a new national curriculum subject is no exception, but the potential gains for young people, wider society and the economy make it a challenge well worth addressing.

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