Computing is one of the most exciting subjects on earth. Yet the current arrangements for teaching computing concepts at school in the UK leave our brightest students feeling that it is irrelevant and dull. Those who make their careers in Computing progress in spite of, not because of, their school education. This is the challenge. There are a number of contributory factors, many of which are inter-linked:
- The confusion between 'ICT'?, sometimes called 'IT skills', and 'Computing'. Undoubtedly IT skills are important, and every student should learn them. Indeed, the campaign to get IT skills widely taught and used has been largely successful.
- However, just as numeracy is not mathematics, ICT is not computing, like mathematics, computing is a discipline. We should teach IT skills to every student, but we should not confuse that with GCSE and A levels in computing.
The pre-sixth-form school curriculum is a disaster as far as computing is concerned. The emphasis for the last few years has been on ICT literacy. Whilst the original intentions were not without merit the attractiveness of learning ICT skills has declined as computers have become ubiquitous.
- Key Stage 3 (11-14): The compulsory Key Stage 3 (11-14) programme of study in ICT has failed to develop imaginatively with the cycle of updates lagging far behind where the curriculum ought to be. Majority of curriculum is heavily oriented towards IT (spreadsheets, databases etc), and material that the students already know is repeated.
- Key Stage 4 (GCSE, 14-16): a similar situation applies to the optional Key Stage 4 curriculum in ICT (GCSE). The syllabi are simply boring and de-motivating. There isn't a GCSE in Computing only a GCSE in ICT. (NB. From September 2010 OCR are running a pilot for a Computing GCSE). By contrast, there is an IGCSE (International GCSE) in Computing but this is effectively only available to independent/private schools; state schools cannot teach it because it does not count in the school league-table scoring.
- 14-19 Diploma: From September 2008, the Secondary Curriculum Reform has introduced a new concept of curriculum planning in which students are taught the core within employment sectors (lines of study). The IT and Telecommmunication sector is represented by e-skills UK, which canvass IT employers' view and produced the subject criteria for the IT Diploma. Early experiences have indicated positive responses from students due to the problem solving emphasis and the opportunities for extended projects. The principal learning of the Diploma, however, revolves round Business, Technology and People. The choice available for the majority of the specialist learning option are restricted by the availability of technical courses available.
- Key Stage 5 (A level, 16-18): There are AS/A Levels in ICT but these contain very little computing. Examining Boards do also offer syllabi in Computing but these have to follow a prescribed and constraining subject core shared with ICT AS/A Level, which has distorted the current AS/A Level Computing syllabi (2000-present). In February 2005, the issue was addressed by the then Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, who granted AS/A Level Computing their own subject core for the development of revised AS/A Level Computing syllabi for teaching from September 2008 (14-19 Education and Skills white paper, page 65, section 8.26). So matters are improving somewhat at A level. However the Key stage 3 and Key stage 4 ICT curricula are missing out many of the fundamentals that are required to develop and inspire a future cohort of A level computer science students.
- As a result of the present situation, A-level Computing is not considered to be sufficiently aligned with university courses in computing to be given valued status. Why not? Because the current A levels contain little of the foundational material on which a first-year university course might build. (This is being partly addressed by the AQA syllabus rewrite.) Universities do acknowledge that in a subject with a high drop out rate at undergraduate level, students with Computing A-level tend to stay the course. However, recognition by universities of A Level Computing remains a challenge. They prefer Maths. What an indictment!
- The number of students applying to computing courses at university level has halved in the last 10 years, despite increasing take-up of university education, and strong employer demand. Ironically, many at universities directly attribute this fall in numbers to the increased spread of computing at school. (The dot-com bust, ill-founded myths about outsourcing, the perceived public image of computing, and general ignorance about the shortage of well-qualified specialists in computing, may also have had an effect.) It is also worth noting here that the number of girls applying for such courses has reduced even more dramatically over the past 15 years.
- The number of students wanting to take an A level in computing is small. As a result, schools typically have at most one Computing teacher, who has no colleagues and feels isolated. It is quite difficult for teachers to keep up-to-date. This is obviously not the teacher's fault! Supporting, equipping, and training teachers are also part of the challenge