Last year saw a seismic shift in the ICT national curriculum as it was morphed into computing at the behest of education minister Elizabeth Truss following lobbying from, and then co-operation with, the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Despite the criticism of the wider ICT education community, the broader IT industry and a curious drafting process and public consultation where concerns were expressed about the in-balance between the three core elements of ICT – digital literacy, information technology, and computer science – teachers are now faced with what is virtually a new subject, the core of which is essentially computer science.
But all that is water under the bridge now as teachers have returned to school and are planning their annual education technology binge (known as the Bett Show) later this month.
As the countdown to implementation in September continues, they will be more concerned with how they and their colleagues can ensure they have the subject knowledge, confidence and capability to teach what is essentially a new subject at all key stages.
Headteachers and heads of ICT will be reminded at Bett that they also have another challenge in addition to the new national curriculum – the constant challenge of ensuring that teachers of all subjects can make the most effective use of the ever-changing technologies coming on to the market to enhance and improve teaching and learning.
Martin Bean, the vice-chancellor of the Open University, described this challenge at a recent conference as “the growing crisis of relevance facing our schools and colleges”.
He was of course alluding to the gap between the daily lives of our children, young people and adult learners who are immersed in the daily use of digital technology and the pot luck of whether that same technology will be being effectively used in the school, college, university or training provider of their choice (if they have a choice!).
There is plenty of help and support available for teachers to deliver the new computing national curriculum, but has the use of technology across the curriculum (known as technology-enhanced learning or TEL) largely been sidelined by the focus on computing?
For the head of ICT, it will be a case of competing priorities and scarce resources. Traditionally the head of ICT has had responsibility for the teaching/assessment of the national curriculum subject, the use of ICT in other subjects across the curriculum, management of technical/technician support, and a leading role in the procurement and replacement of equipment.
The delivery and assessment of the national curriculum is a legal requirement in state schools (unless it is an academy, free school, studio school or university technical college). Whereas the use of technology in English, geography, science and so on is a decision related to the teaching and learning strategies of the subject, and surely that responsibility lies with the lead for that particular subject and is steered by the vision, leadership, culture and strategies for teaching, learning and assessment.
Computing – help and support
For those teachers, especially in the primary phase but at secondary level too, who are anxious about the subject knowledge required to be ready for September 2014 and the new computing curriculum, there is plenty of help available.
The British Computer Society (BCS) has received more than £3 million in grants to extend its volunteer network of “Computing at Schools” and has begun to recruit up to 400 “master teachers” who, once trained, will be released from their own schools so others can buy them in to deliver computing CPD.
The subject knowledge and understanding of primary teachers has been a cause for concern and this is an area that could obviously have a knock-on effect on the challenges facing secondary schools as pupils move through the system.
To support primary colleagues, the Department for Education (DfE) has announced a number of initiatives to support schools. These include three-day training courses with a contribution to supply cover costs and a recently launched “barefoot computing” initiative which will also provide additional learning opportunities for teachers.
Elsewhere, the DfE has also funded generous bursaries of up to £25,000 for new teachers entering teacher education programmes in computing. Details of all these initiatives can be found on the Computing at Schools website (see further information).
A resource by teachers for teachers
One of the most successful initiatives to support the introduction of the new computing curriculum has come from teachers themselves. A Google site (see further information) “created by teachers for teachers” has resources, links, skills audits and CPD opportunities and continues to provide welcome advice and support for teachers at all key stages (despite the DfE withdrawing funding).
More than 30 teachers and teacher educators freely give their time and share their expertise on the site to help other teachers to deliver the new curriculum
As Sian Bloor, a teacher of ICT in Trafford, said: “I wouldn’t have known how to start teaching the new computing curriculum without the resources and links on the site.”
Another network of support comes from Naace, which provides advice, support, programmes and conferences for the whole of the new computing curriculum. Its events are particularly welcome as they include a focus on IT and digital literacy, not just the computer science element.
Paul Hynes, deputy head of George Spencer High School in Nottingham – a leading Teaching School for ICT and computing, said at a recent conference: “The £100 membership fee for Naace is probably the best £100 the school has ever spent.”
New curriculum review body
The reform of the ICT curriculum was long overdue. Partly because of the pace of technological change but also because it had not been refreshed since the early 2000s.
It is vital that this kind of delay does not happen again and a new body, the UK Forum for Computing Education, has been established by the Royal Academy of Engineering to help prevent this.
One of its jobs is to keep the new computing curriculum programmes of study under constant review to ensure they remain relevant to the needs of pupils and the wider IT industry.
To be known by the acronym UKForCE, it says its aim is to “bring together representatives from across the communities of education, computer science, digital media, IT, engineering and telecommunications”.
The press information announcing the venture also said that UKForCE “will be independent of government and awarding organisations and will work towards improving computing education across all education sectors of the UK”.
Chair of the new organisation, Chris Mairs, who is also the chief scientist at Metaswitch Networks, added: “The new computing curriculum, which comes into effect in September 2014, is a most welcome step-change in computing education.
“There are many amazing initiatives springing up to build upon this bold move, both inside and outside the classroom.
“UKForCE will be the connective tissue between all these initiatives, central government and other relevant bodies. With a coherent voice and government commitment, our children will be the world’s most savvy digital citizens and a tremendous asset to the UK economy.
“As well as providing a springboard for great software engineers and computing specialists, effective delivery of the new curriculum can literally improve the life chances of an entire generation. UKForCE will help make this happen.”
Support in place?
The support mechanisms seem to be in place so teachers can begin to plan for the new computing curriculum, but many teachers will still need a lot of help and encouragement and it will be a few years before the impact of the new curriculum can be evaluated.
Key questions include: what will the critical success factors be and how will we know whether the change has been successful?
This is such an enormous change to the curriculum and there are some who are concerned about the balance between the three key elements mentioned earlier and the perceived over-emphasis on computer science.
Hopefully this will be the top item on the agenda of the new UK Forum for Computing Education at its first meeting in 2014. As for the use of technology across the curriculum, well that is another story altogether!
Further information Technology-enhanced learning
Bob Harrison is a school and college governor, chair of the teacher-led computing expert group and the Teaching Schools technology advisory board. He is also education advisor for Toshiba Information Systems and writes for SecEd in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter @bobharrisonset.