Computing at School

We are at a watershed in the history of Computer Science in the UK!

The serendipitous convergence of several initiatives to promote the study and practice of the subject lends us an incredible opportunity, to establish Computer Science as a proper school subject, on a par with Maths or Physics. This opportunity has been grasped with enthusiasm by many teachers in schools, with generous support from the professional community, and now government approval for the agenda. CPHC is working with the British Computer Society Academy and with the Computing at School working group to promote this activity.

However, one of the biggest challenges is train our school teachers in Computer Science; many are eager to teach the subject, but know themselves to be under-qualified. While the Government has vocally supported the cause, they are not providing resources for a national programme of CPD. The whole initiative needs to be scaled-out with what we already have. This should not be so hard as it sounds since a) excellent groundwork has already been done giving exemplars of syllabus and practice in schools; b) many departments in the HE sector already have outreach activities which can be adapted to this cause; c) as computer science departments we have a strong interest in engaging with schools that are (at last) teaching our subject. As local catchment seems to be playing a more important role in recruitment, this is an additional benefit of engaging with local schools. There are several ways in which we can help:

1. Helping teachers teach teachers
You can run CPD courses, perhaps as part of your PhD transferable skills programme, or with the %age of allowable cost and time of RAs CPD activities. As little as three afternoon sessions once per year, for teachers from up to ten local schools, could have a dramatic impact. Some might be taught by local Advanced Skills (CS Master or other STEM skills teachers), and run with your local added-in materials,. Of course, you may already have similar activities that can be incorporated. The components that HE can most obviously offer are practical examples of teaching programming, computational and algorithmic thinking, or even basic logic and binary arithmetic – there is copious material already available. Pedagogic skills the teachers would add in would include lesson planning and the like.

2. Evolving pre-requisites
A goal is to equip a much larger fraction of people applying to study CS and CS related degrees with core CS skills. To create “pull” it would be good if more Universities were to recognize the new syllabus, and move towards marking explicit positive statements about the GCSE (initially) and perhaps later on, the A-level, as Imperial College and University Cambridge Colleges are doing (for example). This would help to create a virtuous cycle where schools (and pupils and parents) would recognize the value of the new syllabus and later, qualifications, and eventually the fraction of the entry class in HE requiring “from scratch” CS education would fall dramatically, allowing degrees to align more with other STEM subjects in level by 3rd (and 4th) years. For (vailid) historical reasons, our admissions policies either ignore or actively discount school education in computing. If we leave these implied negative messages in place, we risk cutting the sinews of desire in teachers and pupils.

3. Subject knowledge enhancement courses for would-be teachers
The government recognises that CS teachers need subject knowledge expertise. A PGCE is not the place to get that subject knowledge, because much of a PGCE is focused on pedagogy. So the government has announced support for Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) courses in Computer Science, starting immediately. The goal is to take non-CS graduates, and give them enough CS knowledge to become CS school teachers. This is where you come in. Until recently, many of you taught one-year “IT conversion courses”, aimed at non-CS graduates; perhaps some of you still do. And that may leave you well placed to bid for funded SKE places. This is not a PGCE: it’s pre-PGCE. The focus is on subject knowledge; you aren’t required to teach about pedagogy. And doing so would leave you even better placed to engage with the rapidly-developing computer-science-at-school agenda. Details from

4. Coordination and leadership
Many CS departments are in principle willing to help, but perhaps lack experience, ideas, and a sense of what teachers’ priorities are. We don’t each need to reinvent the wheel. We can share vision, enthusiasm, ideas, and actual CPD material. We are much more likely to make progress if we have someone to enthuse, coordinate, and promote communication.

With that in mind, Dr Tom Crick, Information Systems Department, Cardiff Metropolitan University, is spending a significant fraction of his time, coordinating this work amongst the Universities. This is a unique one-time opportunity to establish a new relationship between Universities and Schools in our discipline, and to revitalise the whole subject in the eyes of the public, from school-kids, parents and teachers, professionals, academics and the world at large.

If funding can be maintained, Tom’s work will continue for the next two years. Funding for this is being provided by a variety of sources, including government and CPHC. A significant amount has been allocated from the CPHC budget, and in addition, to ensure continuity of Tom’s appointment for the full two years, members are being asked to make financial contributions, channelled through the BCS. A number of departments have already made or pledged financial contributions:

University of Cambridge
University of Greenwich
Lancaster University
Loughborough University
University of Warwick
Oxford Brookes University

If you are a Head of Department or other holder of funds who is willing to contribute towards this exercise (contributions typically in the range £500 to £1,000, but any amount is welcome), then please get in touch with the CPHC Chair (Dr Iain Phillips).

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