Jenny McMullen is part of a team changing the Computing Department at Commonweal School, a mixed comprehensive for pupils aged 11-19 in Swindon. Here she reports on the challenges she and her department have faced and how they have been overcome, resulting in a thriving Computing Department.
“Can you give a quick snapshot of your department before you started to implement the changes?
There have been many changes in our school over the last three years. We had two hours for each year per fortnight in Key Stage 3 and the curriculum consisted of ICT/Business and graphics with little to no computer science.
In Key Stage 4, ICT was compulsory, which many of our pupils resented and our Computer Science results were disappointing.
We offered A Level and the results here were better, but this was the only positive. The reputation of the department was not great – we decided something had to be done.
What was your first step?
We addressed the curriculum offering at Key Stage 3 and implemented a proper Computer Science curriculum. I worked with my joint Head of Department.
We went to our senior management team and pointed out that as our subject counted in the Progress 8 measure, it needed to be treated the same as others at that level – and at that time that wasn’t happening.
It was then decided that ICT would not be compulsory but could be taken as an option as a Certificate in Digital Applications (CiDA) – a vocational qualifications similar to GCSE.
That has now been changed and is no longer on offer but instead our pupils are taking courses in Creative iMedia which involves making and changing images using Photoshop, creating webpages and designing games.
Did they listen?
Yes! It’s proved to be a popular move, changing what we offered. Thankfully, we were given an extra hour for our Year 7 and 8 classes. We then had three hours per fortnight for years 7 and 8, with and two hours per fortnight for Year 9. This has worked well for us.
Originally, we thought we would need more for Year 9 but as many do not pick Computer Science for their options it has proved to be plenty.
How did the changes to the Key Stage 4 specifications affect you?
It was a lot of hard work with all these changes in Key Stage 3 and it was an extra challenge as both the Key Stage 4 and 5 specification were also changing. It has been stressful at times, but we could see the end-result was going to be worth it.
How do you organise Key Stage 3?
Each term in KS3 we changed topics, we include, of course, topics that are firmly in the ICT domain but most of our topics would be classed as Computer Science. We introduced algorithms, programming using Python, binary and networks as well as covering eSafety and basic ICT concepts in year 7. Many of these topics are revisited and built on in Year 8.
In year 9 we have two pathways to lead to either of the available KS4 options. We cover more algorithms and programming but also more on websites and introduce game making.
The students are more enthused and enjoy the content far more, more importantly students are selecting the KS4 course which is more appropriate to their abilities and interests. They know what is involved in both Computer Science and iMedia because of what we cover in KS3. So, this has become a win-win situation.
Do you provide any other types of activity?
This is the 3rd year we have entered all our Key Stage 3 students into the Bebras Computing Challenge, which introduces computational thinking to students.
It is organised in over 40 countries and designed to get students all over the world excited about computing. Students on our Key Stage 4 and 5 courses are also entered.
The students have really bought into this and every year we have many that have got into the (University of Oxford) TCS Oxford Computing Competition (top 10% of the competition nationally).
This is the first year that we have three students invited to the Bebras final as well, which is just fantastic.
Last year I asked for two year 12 students to try the Cyber Discovery competition to see what it was like and they absolutely loved it - both now want to have careers in this area.
One of them got to the finals from 23,500 participants. This year I have introduced the competition as an extra-curricular activity for the current years’ 10 and 12 and again it has caught their imagination.
It's so rewarding to see how they are driving each other to complete each challenge and looking forward to the next round.
We also facilitate the Cyber First for Girls competition in year 8 and get between three to five groups who want to enter.
Both Cyber Discovery and Cyber first are run by the National Cyber Security Centre, which is part of GCHQ.
They love the challenge but I'm now finding that the boys are complaining they can't do it as they want to take part in something as well!
What has been the impact of all these changes?
Our results at Key Stage 4 have improved significantly, better than we could ever have imagined. We were hoping for around 80% but got 92% (9-4) and many of these students have continued into KS5. Our reputation as a subject has grown each year.
From worrying if our subject would be dropped, we are now looking at how we can expand and develop.
If there was one bit of advice you'd like to pass on to other Heads of Department, what would it be?
Bring Computer Science topics in earlier at KS3, they love the challenges and are more than capable of learning some of the topics. Also, don’t be afraid to stop following the traditional ICT projects, many of the skills can be picked up and learnt while completing Computer Science or within other subject area projects. It is hard work, but for us it has definitely been worth it.
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