Designing computer science


Geoff Coombe discusses the new vision for the teaching of computer science in schools and argues why academic knowledge and practical skills must combine to equip students for the future.

Technology continues to change the way we live, work and interact with each other: 10 years ago, people did not use SmartPhones or tablets, or keep in touch via Facebook and consumers did not buy films in Blu-Ray format. 

These technologies and terms are now commonplace and a part of everyday life – SmartPhone penetration is now more than 50 per cent in the UK – and are built on an ever-growing, innovative computing and technology industry.

However, until recently, this was not necessarily reflected in the way ICT and computing is taught in schools. Many teachers and students realised that, in fact, the ICT curriculum was starting to look a little dated. The question was: how should a new curriculum look?

Earlier this year, education secretary Michael Gove drew attention to the issues around the teaching of computing in schools in his speech at the BETT ICT show. He remarked that “schools, teachers and industry leaders have all told us that the current curriculum is too off-putting, too demotivating, too dull”.

He continued: “Submissions to the national curriculum review from organisations including the British Computer Society, Computing at School, e-Skills UK, Naace and the Royal Society, all called the current national curriculum for ICT unsatisfactory. They’re worried that it doesn’t stretch pupils enough or allow enough opportunities for innovation and experimentation – and they’re telling me the curriculum has to change radically.”

I find myself agreeing with Mr Gove. I believe that the teaching of computer science in schools must reflect the way in which technology is used in the outside world, and above all must “stretch” pupils.

It is now imperative that students are provided with the opportunity to study for computer science qualifications that are rigorous, provide opportunities for student innovation, and prepare students for a future in computing, whether this is through employment in the UK’s diverse technology industry or through further academic study at university. 

The study and understanding of programming – rather than simply how to use software – is essential to this vision.

Even if students do not necessarily go on to study or work in computing at a later stage, an understanding of programming and computing principles supports further study and careers in other fields such as statistics, mathematics, the creative industries and the sciences – for example, many scientists use programming to build scientific models and tests. 

For this reason, I believe that a computer science syllabus should be designed in such a way that it provides both a solid academic grounding and the practical skills that will support student innovation. 

The syllabus should cover key computing concepts and the fundamentals of programming; while at the same time providing students with the skills and facilities to create applications, for example using mobile and web technologies, as well as computer games. 

Students must not just emerge from schools with a sound understanding of computer science, they must be able to put their knowledge into practice. We must foster a creativity that goes beyond clip-art and animated presentations; a creativity that will go on to fuel the rapidly expanding technology industry in the UK.

I believe that the key to ensuring the syllabus achieves this balance is by enlisting the help of third parties, in particular the universities at which students will go on to study computer science, and stakeholders from the computing and technology industry. 

At AQA, we are working with Microsoft with the aim of ensuring that our GCSE in computer science will equip students with the skills and knowledge expected by employers in this sector. We have aligned its syllabus with the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) developer qualification, part of an industry standard.

According to a recent study by e-Skills, the UK IT industry needs to see 550,000 new entrants to its workforce in the next five years to support the growth of the IT market. Putting programming and practical skills at the heart of the computer science curriculum is essential if we are to meet this demand. 

By equipping students with the ability to apply their computing knowledge, I hope we will see not only a surge of interest in the study of computer science, but also a flood of new programming enthusiasts who will, in the future, drive growth and innovation in the UK technology industry – and maintain the UK’s position as a leader in this field.

  • Geoff Coombe is director of general qualifications development at AQA.



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