Can new £84m NCCE solve our computer education woes?

Written by: Bob Harrison | Published:
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It has been almost impossible to get an IT qualification approved passed the DfE in 2018 for KS4 ...

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The National Centre for Computer Education may not solve the challenges of teacher shortages and low GCSE uptake because it treats the symptoms and not the disease, says Bob Harrison

The Department for Education (DfE) has finally announced the members of the consortium to be awarded
£84 million to create an online National Centre for Computer Education (NCCE) for England’s schools and colleges.

They are BCS (the Chartered Institute for IT), the National STEM Centre at York University, and the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

The centre will offer four elements: free resources, online training, a network of local hubs, face-to-face training. It will soon begin work with schools, aimed at improving teaching and driving up participation in computer science at GCSE and A level.

It will operate virtually through a network of 40 school-led computing hubs to provide “an intensive training programme for secondary teachers without a post A level qualification in computer science”.

This initiative is long overdue (having already missed four cohorts of students). However, there are important questions to address. Will the NCCE:

  • Address the overarching problem – a broad computing curriculum that is only assessed by narrow GCSE/A level computer science exams (off-putting to many)?
  • Succeed in attracting, recruiting and training/up-skilling enough teachers?
  • Bring back the students who have already voted with their feet (driving down the numbers taking technology-related national certificate exams to the lowest ever)?
  • Create enough appropriately skilled people (which the digital technology industries say they need) not to mention digitally literate citizens?

Narrow options

The NCCE does not have a brief to broaden the range of GCSE and A level options for computing students. Students still face only one main assessment route for computing, that of computer science. This has already proved disastrous as the statistics show. Candidates for GCSE and A level computer science may have gone up marginally, but how could they not have given such a low starting point and the disappearance of thousands of ICT students?

While computing entries at GCSE have risen slowly to 65,000 in 2017 (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), ICT entries have plummeted from 103,000 to 69,000 between 2015 and 2017. ICT is to be phased out from this summer.

A simple solution could have been to create a suitable computing GCSE and A level that reflected the breadth of the subject while putting computer science in its rightful place with the other sciences.

The failure to do this reflects politicians’ consistent rejection of partnering with educators (such as Naace) in favour of handing the subject to vested industry interests like the BCS.

One former civil servant who has been involved in this work said: “Before (Michael) Gove made his announcement about computer science, we told him that there would need to be a national investment in teacher training and hardware. This initiative is six years too late. Meanwhile ICT, which gave pupils a basic understanding about using IT for a variety of applications, is now dead.”

Professor Stephen Heppell, a doyen of learning with technology, is also unconvinced: “The new NCCE, with a prodigious amount of funding, should once again be that catalyst to inspire the ingenuity and divergent thinking of a generation, and I wish them all luck.

“But if it only focuses on the exam-based secondary computer science, then it will just produce coding slaves for the clever ideas of mega-tech corporations elsewhere in the world. Code-literacy matters, but what you do with that literacy matters way more.”

Teacher shortages

The numbers entering initial teacher education have failed to reach their targets for three years now, despite £25,000 bursaries. It is unclear how the new NCCE programmes will be rolled out or what impact they will have. Immediately teachers can enrol on some existing Future Learn online courses, presumably in their own time. And will the “hubs” be something new or simply the existing CaS (Computing at School) hubs?

The only good news about the NCCE so far is that it now includes more of the “maker” community and brings in more teacher education with the National STEM Centre, which has a good reputation.

However, the main focus still appears to be computer science. No wonder that computing has become synonymous with computer science, a good thing for computer scientists but not for students. Can’t BCS recognise its own failings and broaden its views?

It appears that the educators who the teaching community recognise as experts in learning with technology are still being side-stepped by the politicians and computer scientists.

Dawn Hewitson, course leader for computer science education at Edge Hill University, said: “I have yet to see the impact of the original initiative, which is surprising when you consider that I currently run the largest cohort of computer science trainee teachers in Europe. My views or opinions have not been canvassed and I find this disappointing and can only assume it is a further perpetuation of the lack of interest in the views of those people at the ‘coal face’ in education, particularly when those people are women.”

A subject under threat

Paul Haigh, headteacher of King Ecgbert School, a Teaching School in Sheffield, said: “I suppose if you are going to bring a brand new subject into the curriculum, demand everyone learns it knowing that the teachers in primary have no experience of delivering it and the teachers in secondary don’t even exist yet, then to have a national strategic plan for support is a really good idea.

“But you’d think that it would have been set up perhaps two years before the first lessons were taught and built up to teachers being ready.

“Could this, six years too late, be seen as an admission that the strategy that was used was a failure? I’m hearing about schools where uptake of GCSE and A level computing is so low, and funding cuts so deep, that schools are cutting it.

“Add to that the debacle over a practical and screen-based subject being assessed entirely by pen and paper exam at GCSE, making a mockery of the assessment validity, and it does make some question the credibility of the entire subject.”

The Royal Society’s reports Shut Down or Restart (2012) and After the Reboot (2017) recommended a “10-fold increase” in funding for teachers of computing.

One of the members of the Royal Society’s Computing Education Project Advisory Group, Andrew Buddie, a former chair of Naace who teaches in north London, is happy about the NCCE in that it has brought in Raspberry Pi and the National STEM Centre. However, he is worried about the outcomes.

He said: “I am concerned that this award is a slap in the face to all the other smaller organisations and individuals, the bedrock of our community, who have provided tireless support and training for teachers. As a consequence of this decision, many of these organisations and individuals are going to find their very existence at risk and this cannot be a good thing.

“I am also concerned that the emphasis, yet again, seems to be on the provision of examination-level training, and, speaking for myself, this was not in my mind when I said that more funding was needed.”

Like others, Mr Buddie worries about the conflation of computer science with computing, and is “perturbed that the BCS has such a noticeable role in the process given that its ECDL qualification was one of the root causes of why ICT as a subject was so ill thought of by students, teachers and employers”.

That teachers should feel so despondent about computing is extremely worrying. But even worse is the lack of student voice.

The majority of young people want the broad skillsets required by technology companies (as shown in Nesta’s 2011 Next Gen report) and are turned off when presented with exams in computer science as the only assessment. The NCCE can do absolutely nothing about that as it treats the symptoms and not the real ailment.

  • Bob Harrison ( worked for 40 years as a teacher, leader and governor. He chaired the ICT teacher-led DfE expert group supporting implementation of the computing curriculum.

Further information

It has been almost impossible to get an IT qualification approved passed the DfE in 2018 for KS4 performance tables. We were finally successful with our Digital Information Technologies (DIT) BTEC Tech Award, but getting there was terribly painful. Awarding Organisations need to be given some autonomy to be able to develop what their sector R&D intel tells them is best suited for the education system, and let the people vote with their feet.

I fear we might now be coming to a similar challenge with the upcoming T Levels where the content, assessment and structure of these qualifications is so rigorous that educators are unlikely to meet the targets or deliver them successfully. We need to support the schools and colleges in CPD and capacity building.

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Thanks for the comments Jeremy,David and all make valid points about the challenges ahead.....The heart of the issue is the unbalanced national curriculum which has too much emphasis on computer science knowledge at the expense of IT,Digital literacy and skills.
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This article and the comments to date are the most substantive set of observations I have encountered for years.
A sustained focus on the problem reveals to me that the scarce resources need to be surrounded with support of every kind rather than presented with new direction and new targets. This simply amounts to increased challenge and more obstacles.
30 years in technology; 14 in Education service.
Good luck to us all.

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Great article, I wish Bob was in charge of cracking heads together at the NCCE! I think we are at a critical point in IT/computing education and in my opinion putting the BCS at the controls is a mistake, they are the cause of a lot of the problems we have now, not the solution. We need a wide range of IT courses at KS4 as CS is only suitable for a small number of students..
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Much to agree with here, especially the welcome to the tripartite nature of the consortium, giving a breadth that was previously missing.
But despite being a larger commitment than the previous laughably-under resourced initiative, it still almost feels set up to fail, with absurd targets, and enormously-challenging shortfalls in both those to be trained and those to do the training. There are some excellent folk - but are there enough of them?
And the major stumbling block remains unmentioned above. As long as Nick Gibb holds office, and continues to block ALL attempts (even from the industry, and they did try) to put alongside Computer Science a more balanced Computing qualification that meets the aspirations of children, parents, teachers and the industry itself, I cannot help but feel the real problem will remain unaddressed.
Having a politician with a dogmatic and stubborn adherence to 'knowledge-based', when what schools, industry and country are screaming out for is a cohort of digitally-literate students with SKILLS that enable them to work across the rich range of roles in the digital economy is a colossal problem. The problem with an accountancy background, Nick Gibb may understand the cost of everything, but the values here remains a mystery to him. Oh, for a minister that has a grasp on the digital world.... sadly the digitally-literate are off in other Govt depts, whilst Gibb pursues the second decade of his blinkered and ill-informed obsession.

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