The chaotic swing of the computer science pendulum...

Written by: Dave Gibbs | Published:
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Is the computer science revolution stalling? With concern over the qualifications landscape, GCSE uptake and teacher expertise, Dave Gibbs looks at how far we have come since 2012

Hang one pendulum from another and the resulting swing is chaotic. As computing and ICT swing back and forth, coupled to the to-and-fro of academic and technical qualifications, teachers are understandably feeling a little motion sick.

In the years up to 2012, ICT was booming. Huge numbers of students gained handfuls of GCSE-equivalent qualifications. ICT was a route for all students, including those struggling elsewhere, to find success. As the A grades came rolling in, however, there were portents.

The unravelling of ICT began in earnest when, in 2012, the then education secretary Michael Gove announced that the current curriculum could not prepare students to work at the very forefront of technological change.

Conjuring images of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, he stood alongside leaders from technology corporations and called time on the national curriculum for ICT.

Instead students would, by 16, “have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for SmartPhones” – academic rigour was in.

It’s fair to say that views differed on the way forward. Naace, the educational technology association, responded firmly to the curriculum review. A majority of members felt that the curriculum change was not a positive one, that the balance between computer science, digital literacy and IT was inappropriate and that the name should remain as ICT.

Conversely, Computing at School (CAS) responded that the subject needed restarting as a “rigorous, knowledge-based subject discipline” and that “the confusion created by a single label damages both digital literacy and computing”. Teachers also held a range of views – some relished the new rigour and challenge, while others were less keen.

All change

The new curriculum for computing launched to a fanfare in 2014. Computational thinking was placed at its heart. It introduced new and alarming terms such as algorithm, recursion, debugging and abstraction. These were met with bewilderment by some teachers of ICT, many of whom had migrated from diverse areas of the curriculum.

Some had come to teaching ICT because of their competence and enthusiasm for using technology, and now found themselves neck-deep in a scientific discipline. And the repeated messages meeting their ears told them to adapt, quickly.

So, how did the teacher workforce respond? Those who accepted the challenge did so with determination. Huge amounts of professional development have been undertaken, largely in teachers’ own time.

To keep up with the growth in computer science, teachers have strived to develop their pedagogical subject knowledge. For many this is a continuing journey. I see teachers returning through our doors who are resilient and keen to develop – astounding progress has been made.

The discontinuation of ICT GCSE caused further shocks. It became clear that an unchanged key stage 4 offer was not an option for most schools. Collective groans could be heard across the country as, once more, a pressing need to adapt was felt.

Deepening impact

As the pendulum swung firmly to computer science, teachers understandably focused the lower-secondary curriculum on the new attainment targets. Some excellent teaching and learning was abandoned, with programming increasingly favoured over digital creativity.

While primary schools stressed the importance of online safety, many secondary computing departments bowed out, just as the technical aspects became more critical, handing over to PSHE.

The eventual removal of ICT user qualifications from school accountability tables largely killed off what remained of software skills training. The baby was thrown out with the bathwater, and wholesale change was adopted in schools in surprisingly short timescales.

In 2016, the descent of ICT GCSE entries was matched in number by the ascent of GCSE computer science. These figures tell only half the story, and merit a closer look.

  • Big regional variations have emerged, as evidenced by the 2015 take-up of GCSE and A level computer science.
  • Students in the South East were 50 per cent more likely than those in the North East to be entered for GCSE.
  • Half of academy convertors offered the qualification but only around a third of sponsor-led academies did so.
  • Pupil Premium students were under-represented in GCSE computing and, unlike the more equitable ICT GCSE cohort, a quarter of classes contained no girls. At A level this figure rose to nearly two-thirds of classes being male-only.
  • Despite boys being more than three times as likely to take GCSE computer science, girls continued to be more likely to gain the highest grades.
  • Overall the number of entries dropped hugely from ICT to computer science (remaining lower than, for example, drama).

(Figures for 2017 were published as this article went to press and showed that the sharp growth in computer science entries at GCSE has levelled out somewhat, now standing at 69,350, up 6,000 or so from 2016. Meanwhile, 2017 ICT entries have dropped to 61,500 from 74,750 in 2016.)

Losing girls

The computer science gender gap is nothing new, and has been much reported across higher education for 40 years. Despite the increasing profiles of leading women in computing such as Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace, limited impact has been seen. In common with other STEM subjects, careers in computing are often seen as “jobs for men”.

The ASPIRES project by Kings College London, for example, notes how girls, while interested in science, don’t see it as something they could do in their future. This is played out in other groups, including minority ethnic and working class students.

Engineering has a marginally more positive perception among year 9 students, although the gender differences at GCSE are just as pronounced.

Engineering approaches are not common in computing lessons however, despite indicators that this is a useful mindset for problem-solving in the subject.

Other research shows girls lack aspirations to become potential creators of digital technology, in careers such as programming. There is little evidence, however, that girls are uninterested in using technology as a vital part of their work and non-work lives.

Changing outcomes

Changes to GCSEs make it difficult to compare computer science and ICT outcomes directly. Clear patterns seem to be emerging, however, amplified by the position of computer science in the “EBacc bucket” of Progress and Attainment 8 measures. As teachers strive to improve their teaching of the new subject it is held up alongside established subjects such as science, with tried-and-tested pedagogy and higher numbers of specialist teachers.

While many headteachers are ready to support computing departments during the transition, others won’t or can’t take the risk. As the top results prove hard to get, and recruitment to GCSE classes struggles, some computing departments are being pared back. Headteachers ask where all the GCSE passes went, harking back to the days when ICT could be depended upon to bring in buckets full.

So, the pressure builds for the pendulum to swing back to ICT as schools recognise the need to cater for large swathes of the cohort who perceive computer science as too conceptual and of little interest.

Qualification options

Meanwhile the buffet of assorted technical IT qualifications has shrunk to a much smaller menu. Other options such as creative media, open systems and control technologies are available in allied subjects. Teachers are digging up skill-sets that have lain dormant since the rise of computing as departments consider their options.

Uncertainty remains. Schools were shocked to see live qualifications such as ECDL being shelved during the school year as the consolidation continued. Just as they responded to the need to expand their offer, heads of department have felt the walls closing in.

Each announcement of the accredited league table qualifications has been watched with urgency as the list of qualifications settles down to something more predictable. It is hoped that this situation can stabilise and that qualifications can be approved for a period of years, allowing teachers to invest energy into planning and upskilling. Patience and understanding is required by leadership as computing lead teachers plot a route forward through the troubled seas, despite the map being drawn mid-journey.

In it together

As always the community of computing teachers proves to be a reliable and supportive source of peer support. As conversations across the country turn questions to answers many are putting great faith in the advice provided by other teachers with experience or insight into qualification options. And it will be those experienced teachers who will be best placed to push the subject forward – by supporting colleagues through CPD, by sharing their resources and ideas, and by helping schools to make informed choices as they once again open up computing-related study to all.

  • Dave Gibbs is a STEM, computing and technology specialist at STEM Learning.

Further information

  • STEM Learning runs the National STEM Learning Centre in York and provides professional development, resources, bursaries and tools to teachers, technicians and teaching assistants across the country. Visit www.stem.org.uk/what-we-do
  • STEM Learning also manages the national STEM Clubs and the STEM Ambassadors programmes: www.stemclubs.net and www.stemnet.org.uk/ambassadors/


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