Benedict Church discusses the importance of computing as a subject for students.
“I think some teachers saw it as a burden...” a friend who used to work in a primary school told me about the computing lessons that were held. In 2014 computing was added to the curriculum across all four key stages. The Education Secretary at the time, Michael Gove, described it as having the 'skills they need to succeed in the 21st century’.
ICT or ‘Computing’ after a rebrand (Gove described the prior curriculum as ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant’) is now enshrined in law to be taught as part of the syllabus. But with no SATs in computing, and the GCSE optional, it still remains a subject that faces difficulties.
On the surface the curriculum has the criteria in which children need to succeed, for example it states how Key Stage 1 pupils should be taught how to ‘create and debug simple programs’ and Key Stage 2 how to ‘work with variables and various forms of input and output’.
A bullet point is not a clear conducive set of lesson plans however, and the combination of teachers learning the skills for the first time themselves and a lack of guidance has led to a gulf in, particularly primary, computing education. The same friend recalled how on one occasion a supply teacher when confronted with the material of the computing lesson begged their TA to teach it for them.
Funding lies at the heart of this problem. The 2017 budget allocated £84 million specifically to up-skilling teachers with a commitment to ensure fully a qualified computing teacher in every secondary school; a similar guarantee was not made to primary schools.
Small strides have been made; computing was added as part of the science requirement to the EBACC for instance. However, a report in the same year from the Royal Society reported that only 11% of students take the GCSE. The Royal Society cites this as partially down to how both teachers and students view it as a ‘difficult option’. This forces computing into a niche that is further segmented by a gender gap. In 2019 over four times as many male students took GCSE computing than their female counterparts (https://www.jcq.org.uk/examination-results/?post-year=2019&post-location=). It only gets worse with age, UCAS 2018 data showing that females make up less than 1 in 5 places in computer science related courses (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/what-study). The later education addresses this gender gap, the further it grows.
Making computer science a core subject from the age of 5 will not outright solve these problems but will give the status of the subject to make sure funding is given. It also exposes children to computing at the same time as a group, rather than simply at a secondary level when stereotypes may already be entrenched.
A study into primary school computing education by Dr. Laura Larke stated “with no additional funds from the DfE to support teachers’ training or the acquisition of technological resources...were left to figure it out on their own.” This leads to situations where teaching staffs beg their TAs to take lessons and as Larke describes, pupils struggling to operate laptop trackpads to place ‘code blocks’ in the correct position.
These difficulties are not the fault of the student or the teacher. It’s the fault of a government curriculum, that whilst understands the necessity of teaching computing in primary education, fails to allocate funds to make it happen.
The precursor Royal Society report in 2012 titled ‘Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools’ had a core recommendation to ensure ‘technical resources should be available in all schools to support the teaching of computer’.
One of the achievements of the last Labour government was to ensure that all children did not leave education without the ability to read, write and understand basic math and science. If we are to truly ‘Level Up’ we need to make sure Computing is treated similarly.
Benedict Churchus currently works in the software sector. He is particularly interested in data, computing education policy and using political mapping tools for local campaigning.
He tweets at @BenChurchus.
Gove speech on computing curriculum https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/michael-gove-speaks-about-computing-and-education-technology
Gove at the BETT Show calling ICT boring https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/michael-gove-speech-at-the-bett-show-2012
Royal Society Report 2017 - After the reboot: computing education in UK schools
Agentic neglect: Teachers as gatekeepers of England’s national computing curriculum Laura R. Larke
Government EBACC requirements https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/english-baccalaureate-ebacc/english-baccalaureate-ebacc
Royal Society 2012 report: Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools