On 25 November I joined a group of teachers, industry leaders, academics and politicians in a Guardian roundtable discussion on the future of Computer Science teaching in schools. The aim was to look at the government’s ambitious agenda to have primary and secondary schools teaching Computer Science (ComSci) from September 2014, and to understand the challenges of delivering the new curriculum. In addition to the newspaper’s own write up of that event, a few points are worth emphasising.
Let’s start with the positive news: the battle of ideas has well and truly been won. There is absolute consensus that the push for replacing ICT (learning how to use common software packages) with Computer Science (understanding coding and how computers actually work) is both commendable and overdue. Industry has been calling for such a change for years as companies from the largest tech firms to the smallest start-ups find themselves in desperate need of skilled IT talent. Universities have wanted to address the alarming decline in applicants for their own ComSci courses. Many school teachers have long wished for a course that had academic rigour, rather than ICT’s all-too-often uninspiring attempt to demonstrate the already intuitive functionality of some software.
The remaining important arguments are therefore over direction and implementation. Start with direction: what exactly are we aiming to achieve with the new course? I believe the change of curriculum should be grasped as an opportunity for Britain to differentiate itself in the mêlée of global competition. The world has plenty of programmers who can write decent code; what we should be aiming for is to nurture a generation of coders who can also think creatively, communicate clearly, and have business acumen. Small start-ups need their programmer(s) to have the skills to join in with the all-important pitch to potential investors. Big tech firms need programmers who have the initiative to challenge ideas and develop better solutions, rather than slavishly implement code. And let’s remember that this is not just about creating more programmers. We also need business people who get technology, and who understand its potential, its complexities and limitations. High profile examples of large-scale IT failures in both the private and public sectors point to the need for better communication between business and IT departments. In short, the aim of the curriculum should be to break down the false division between geeks and creatives: Britain needs a workforce with competence in both.
What about implementation? The government’s approach to date has been very light-touch, following the principle that schools do best when they have freedom to innovate. The challenge for Computer Science is that many of the teachers who will be expected to deliver the curriculum have little or no background in programming. In April 2013 the Education Minister, Elizabeth Truss, announced £2million of funding to recruit 400 “master teachers” over the next two years. The idea is that each master teacher will pass on their skills and subject knowledge to 40 schools – covering 16,000 primary and secondary schools. Short of a superhuman effort, these numbers are simply too few, and with too short a timeframe to be able to solve the skills gap. A handful of hours’ training here and there will be inadequate to enable teachers to design and deliver an entirely new course to multiple age groups from September.
Throwing more money at the problem is unlikely to pay dividends: the main issue is simply the lack of people with the right qualifications who could deliver staff training. Attempts to attract more master teachers from industry would only end up depriving yet more UK businesses of the talent they need. In short, we are a victim of the very problem we are trying to solve. In the early stages of the next academic year it will therefore be vital to manage expectations: with parents, students, the media and politicians. Some schools will inevitably be teaching the course like a modern foreign languages teacher who has only learned French from a phrasebook; it will take time for them to achieve fluency. There is also the question of time allocation: many schools are likely just to swap the lessons previously given for ICT to Computer Science. The former was typically given just a tiny fraction of the timetable, whereas teaching ComSci as a robust science will need greater teaching allocation. Again, it will take time to adjust. Politicians must therefore be patient and supportive if positive results are not achieved overnight. We’re in this for the long-haul.
It is likewise clear that industry wants to play its part, as it must. The major challenge is how best to connect schools that badly need assistance, with companies who can offer expert resources or staff. Left unaddressed, we risk ending up with a two-tier experience for schools. Those fortunate enough to be situated near tech hubs like London, Reading, Oxford and Cambridge will have little problem calling on local industry expertise. The many others who are located beyond the reach of such resources may well struggle. Yet this should hardly be an issue: technology is, after all, about making distance irrelevant. In the first instance, we need a single online hub where schools can find a list of industry professionals willing to offer their time and assistance, according to their areas of specialism. This could be done effectively by an organisation such as the excellent Computing At School (CAS) which already has numerous links with industry, schools and universities. Industry has been helping by providing a wide array of teaching resources, but again it would assist teachers to have a single source from which to access them, and help with aligning the available tools and materials to the aspects of the curriculum they will need to cover.
The return of Computer Science into the school curriculum has huge potential for Britain – and there is much at stake. Done well, it could enable new industries to flourish, existing ones to expand and develop, and help ensure that all organisations have the know-how to use technology to succeed in the global digital economy. There is currently a huge amount of goodwill and enthusiasm to put these changes into effect, but they could easily be lost. It is fine for government to be hands off on the detail, but with such an ambitious timetable for implementation, it must now do everything it can to support industry and schools in realising this vital opportunity.