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17 May 2023

CAS: into the future

Simon Peyton Jones profile image
Written by

Simon Peyton Jones

by Simon Humphreys & Simon Peyton Jones, May 2023

The huge fuss over ChatGPT has reminded us all, yet again, about how relevant, timely, and important our subject is. How can we make well-informed judgements about AI if we don't have the foggiest idea about how it works?  A great computing education is now, more than ever, a necessary foundation for a life well lived, one in which you have enough knowledge and understanding to navigate the opportunities and challenges thrown up by successive waves of technology.

CAS stands at the epicentre of the debate about what "great" looks like in computing education at school.  None of us knows all the answers. There is a core that we all agree on: that every young person deserves a great education in computing, as a subject in its own right; that we must encourage a balance of knowledge and skills, rather than treat the balance as an either/or dilemma; that we must communicate the joy, creativity, and beauty of the subject, rather than getting side-lined into dry academics or programming as an end itself.

But, like everything in education, the devil is in the detail.  The answers are nuanced, and will vary across schools, demographics, teacher expertise, and much else. 

So CAS is super-important.  It is a grass-roots, bottom-up, volunteer-driven organisation.  It is the subject association for Computing and Computer Science for both primary and secondary schools. Its central mission is to act as a community of practice for classroom computing teachers.  It is a safe place where we can debate what "great" looks like, a gift economy in which we freely share what we have created and can freely use what others have contributed.  It is a community characterised by respect and friendship. 

CAS is independent: it speaks for the subject, not for government, not for employers, not even for teachers - although all those voices are important. That independence allows us to ask the hard questions, to innovate and experiment, and (we hope) to learn from our mistakes.

1. Who is "we"?

But who is "we"?   CAS started as a group of four people (the authors of this post are two of them) in 2007, and now has supported over 44,000+ members, of whom at least 12,500+ are participants in our community today.  It has become influential, and claims to be "home" to a big community, so it is reasonable to ask how decisions are taken, how CAS's members can influence those decisions.

Whenever governance comes up, money is not far behind! And indeed, like many NGOs, CAS has become a victim of its own success. Along with growth and influence comes responsibility and expectations.   Doing anything meaningful for a membership of this size simply cannot be done in an evening a week offered by volunteers with the kind of day job that most teachers have, rewarding (hopefully), but often stressful and always voraciously time consuming.

So how does CAS work?  How is it funded?  And how can we all, as members, contribute to CAS?

2. The journey to today

CAS started around 2008 simply as an informal meeting in Cambridge every few months. That gradually evolved to be the CAS Board.  The Board is large (around 25 members), is intended to be representative of CAS's membership, and meets about three times each year.  Simon Peyton Jones has served as its chair since it was formed, and Simon Humphreys is its vice chair.

The first thing to know is that around 2010 CAS became part of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. It is hard to overstate how positive this relationship has been for CAS.  At the time we had no legal existence, no bank account; we could not receive a grant, employ a person, nothing.  BCS is the UK's professional organisation for the computing profession; it has a royal charter, and a mission to work for the good of computing without fear or favour.  It is hard for a government to listen to a rag-tag pressure group; much easier to listen to a professional body.

We (Simon and Simon) were initially very cautious about the BCS relationship, because we did not want to be "corporatised".  BCS promised not to do that, and they have been true to their word for over a decade.  CAS has retained its own identity and branding, and its own culture of a bottom-up, slightly anarchic, organisation.

BCS has recently re-organised itself around three "pillars": (1) professional membership, (2) learning and development; and (3) education and public benefit. 

CAS sits firmly in the third pillar, which is led by Julia Adamson, BCS's Managing Director for education and public benefit - and the nearest thing CAS has to a CEO.  CAS is firmly established as a key part of BCS's mission.

Whilst BCS provides a home for CAS it doesn’t fund everything.  Instead, BCS works hard to ensure CAS can be funded by grants from employers (such as Microsoft, Google, BT, and ARM among others), and the Department for Education. The latter initially funded the Network of Excellence that we ran, and more recently the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) of which we were part.

The NCCE has now entered Phase 2, with absolute continuity as far as its Computing Hub network, and its offer to schools and teachers, is concerned.  However Phase 2 no longer provides funding to CAS, and that is a highly material change to CAS.  For the first time, we have no government funding at all.  That is not entirely a bad thing - government funding (understandably and rightly) comes with all sorts of KPIs and safeguards - but the loss of our biggest source of funding has forced the CAS Board to undertake a soul-searching re-examination what we are here for and how we can pay for it.  The rest of this post describes the outcome of that board discussion.

3. What is CAS for?

Founded in 2007, CAS is a grass-roots volunteer-driven organisation dedicated to excellence in computing education in the taught school curriculum, for children aged 6 to 18.

CAS’s vision is to unlock the creative energy and expertise of school teachers, academics, IT professionals, and employers, to work together with the common purpose of giving our children an outstanding education in computing.   CAS is distinctive in a number of ways:

  • CAS is independent. Hosted by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, the UK’s professional body for computing, CAS speaks for the subject, not for teachers, not for universities, not for employers, and not for government.  Rather, CAS’s goal is to figure out what excellence in computing education looks like, and to support schools and teachers in delivering it.
  • CAS is focused on teachers and the taught curriculum. After school clubs and other extra-curricular outreach is extremely important, but CAS’s is laser focused on supporting teachers on making computing into a vibrant reality in every classroom in the land, so that every child has the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills for the digital world.
  • CAS is a trusted voice at national and international level. CAS wrote the first curriculum for computer science as a school subject, which led to the new National Curriculum for computing launched in 2014; CAS ran the Network of Excellence that supported and equipped teachers in 2014-18.   CAS was a key partner in the National Centre for Computing Education, a government-funded teacher professional development programme.
  • CAS runs a huge community of practice for computing teachers, across the UK. CAS supports 350+ local communities, groups of teachers who meet together locally to share ideas and best practice, offer mutual support and encouragement, and to laugh and cry together. 
  • CAS is a gift economy, not a fee-for-service organisation.  Like an open-source software project, members join to share their resources, energy, and ideas, and to benefit from the resources, energy, and ideas of others.

CAS’s bottom-up, grass-roots structure makes it a bit anarchic, but also full of vibrant energy.  We seek to enable and empower volunteers, not to supplant or replace them; we recognise that one size does not fit all; and we welcome a diversity of backgrounds, motivation, and views.

For background information on the revolution in the UK’s approach to teaching computing, see this page of links and for more information about CAS About Us.

4. How we plan to run CAS in future

We will split the CAS Board into two:

  • The CAS Education & Community Board is the spiritual successor of our current Board. It will be relatively large and representative.  It will focus its thinking on what "great" looks like in computing education, bringing together teachers, lecturers and industry to advise on how to support our community of teachers to be sufficiently equipped and empowered to teach computing brilliantly in their school.
  • The CAS Sustainability Board will be much smaller: around 7. Its focus will be on the business model(s) that will enable CAS to meet its vision and goals.  Brutally: how to fund the essential work of CAS.  We will seek members for the sustainability board who have specific expertise (e.g. financial, organisational, fundraising, legal...)

Both boards will report into BCS's Education and Public Benefit organisation, under Julia Adamson's leadership.

We decided on this structure because we wanted a large board to get lots of representative input; but we recognised (and had experienced) that such a large group simply cannot function as an effectively proactive body that is actually accountable for funding - which in turn ultimately means the livelihoods of those who work so hard for CAS.

In addition we’re proposing a further group, The CAS Innovation Panel.  This will not be part of the governance of CAS but will capture and disseminate new ideas, resources and pedagogy for our subject.

We are still feeling our way. Doubtless much of this will be refined in the light of experience. But that's where we are today.

5. Resourcing CAS's core costs

In the initial stages CAS was too small to require funding, but its remarkable success has outrun its resources.  Volunteers provide CAS’s motive force, but volunteers need inspiration, leadership, ideas, recognition, training, slide decks, event management support, and travel money.  Without this leadership, a bunch of volunteers are just that, an amorphous collection of enthusiasts.  With it, we become an effective force that can move the needle at national level – and CAS has demonstrably done exactly that.

But that inspiration and leadership takes money. Not much of it – we estimate that every £1 we spend unlocks £10 of volunteer effort – but enough to make the organisation tick.  (An alternative would be to hope that volunteers would step up to these leadership roles; but experience suggests that it is impossible to do this alongside a demanding day job without burn-out.  We need leaders whose day job is to make CAS flourish.)

5.1 What are "CAS's core costs"?

By covering CAS’s core costs we will

  • Provide inspiration and leadership to 350+ local communities of teachers, unlocking their skill and expertise to support and encourage each other.
  • Provide a platform on which CAS can bid for project funding (e.g. improving gender balance in computing, research in how to teach programming, exploring physical computing, developing the links with mathematics, running mentoring programmes for teachers, and so on).
  • Run the CAS web site, the hub for all CAS activities (for content creation/publication as well as technical support and development)
  • Fund a handful of central staff, the brains of CAS, that links together all this activity into a coherent whole.

5.2 How would money on core costs be spent?

We would expect to discuss the balance of funding with large donors but in broad brush terms:

  • 25% on centrally-employed leadership staff: strategic vision, advocacy at national level, CAS Board, innovation, developing new projects and seeking funding for them.
  • 40% on centrally-employed staff working primarily with CAS volunteers, especially CAS community leaders and coaches. The goal here is to unlock the creativity, expertise, and raw oomph of volunteers, by offering them support, encouragement, ideas, and vision.
  • 15% on the web site, without which nothing else will happen.
  • 20% to respond to the needs of the year.

5.3 How will we raise that money?

The Board has considered, and rejected, the path of turning CAS into a subscription organisation: teachers pay a membership subscription to receive well-identified benefits.  But

  • Pay-for-service undermines the bedrock of CAS’s gift-economy ethos.
  • We think it is unlikely to raise anywhere near enough money anyway.

Rather, we propose to firmly position CAS as a Good Cause, like the National Trust or RSPB.   Individuals or companies can donate to CAS (via BCS) as a charity, including Gift Aid recovery etc.

Then we can attract funding in three ways:              

  1. Small donations from individuals
  2. Large donations from philanthropists or companies.
  3. Grant/project funding for specific projects.

The idea is that (1) and (2) would cover core costs, providing a secure platform on which to build a set of externally funded projects (3).  But we can’t do (3) alone: project funding is episodic, has finite horizons, and (rightly) comes with serious obligations.  Indeed (3) is only possible because of (1) and (2).

We have not previously invited CAS members to become individual donors, or provided easy ways to make regular donations.  If all CAS members did so, at a level commensurate with their means, that would make a fantastic base income for CAS.  Would you consider doing so?  Find out more and donate to CAS.

5.4 Some really, really good news

We are absolutely delighted to be welcomed as Epic MegaGrants recipients, which will be used towards our core costs.  We are incredibly grateful for the support, which we credit to CAS's effectiveness, credibility, and influence.

You can read more about how the Epic MegaGrant will be used here. Thank you to Epic MegaGrants!

6. What about the NCCE?

We are absolutely delighted that the DfE is continuing to fund professional development for computing teachers, through the NCCE programme which includes teacher CPD, the Teach Computing Curriculum, Computing Hubs, Isaac Computer Science and the Computing Qualify Framework.

CAS and NCCE are complementary.  NCCE is a top-down programme, CAS is bottom-up movement.  NCCE has KPIs coming out of its ears, CAS has freedom to innovate.  NCCE has a mandate to reach schools in England (and funding to do so over the next 2 years), CAS is a UK-wide long-term endeavour and must necessarily concentrate on the places where we have enthusiastic volunteers, and reach out from there.  Each model has its strengths, but we are engaged in a common endeavour.

7. What does all this mean for me?

As blog posts go, this is a long one.  We thought it was worth laying all this out, so that every member of CAS could have a well-informed understanding, both of the opportunities that surround us, and of the challenges that we face in meeting those opportunities.

You can respond directly to this post, or talk to either of us, or any member of the existing CAS Board.  We would be glad to hear from you. Please use the comments thread linked to this blog to share your thoughts.

Epic's generosity is hugely encouraging, but remember: CAS is an organisation whose motive force is the creativity, enthusiasm, and expertise of its volunteers.  Even £500k/year is still only £15/year per school  - it is the oil that lubricates the engine, but the petrol is, well, us.  As our strapline goes: there is no "them", there is only us.

So please do not read this post and think "OK, I can go to sleep now".  Quite the reverse: we need you more than ever. 

  • Computing teachers. Will you share your classroom experience, and the hard-won lessons of your professional practice?  Will you find time in your already-oversubscribed day to support and nurture your colleagues in your school, in your MAT, in your feeder primaries, in your local area?  
  • Computing professionals. Will you volunteer your time and effort to support a computing teacher near you?  Will you work with your employer to help them to offer corporate support?
  • Everyone. Will you consider writing a CAS blog post?  Contributing resources to the CAS resource base?  Running a CAS local community?  Writing or responding to posts on the CAS forums?

CAS will succeed if enough people answer "yes, I will" to these questions.  And it will fail if too few do.  There is no "them".  There is only us.


Please login to post a comment

Pete Dring
17/05/2023 19:21

Thank you - this is a really helpful update of where we’ve come from, where we are and where we are (potentially) heading.

I think you’ve made the right call rejecting the idea of turning CAS into a paid for subscription service.

The Epic MegaGrant is great news - well done for securing that funding.

Whilst (in some ways) it’s a shame that NCCEv2.0 brings and end to a funding model for CAS, I welcome the return to an independent grass-roots volunteer led community that is free to innovate, support and question computing education policy and CPD.

The thing I value most about CAS is the opportunity to connect with other teachers (and other professionals) to share ideas. I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting up with @Richard_Pawson yesterday and loved the chance to put the world to rights and question the way we do things at GCSE and A Level. I came away full of ideas. I get the same buzz from meeting with @Chris_Sharples to plan or run shared CAS Yorkshire Community meetings. That, for me, is what CAS is all about: breaking down the feeling of isolation where we’re all struggling to solve the same problems separately in our own schools: instead working together to make Computing education accessible, inclusive, engaging and rewarding.

Three separate boards sounds like a lot to me but I can see the value and logic in each of the three. Do you have enough people to serve in them?

Thanks for sharing - looking forward to seeing what happens next and am keen to help however I can.

Julia Adamson
17/05/2023 15:58

We would love to hear your thoughts on the information in this blog by Chair and Vice Chair - Simon PJ and Simon H …