THE CAS Community in Northern Ireland provides a vibrant network of support to teachers across the province. But it has also played a real part in shaping the delivery of computing and computer science education for children across Northern Ireland.
Dr Irene Bell is the CAS Community leader of CAS Belfast mixed Community. Additionally, she is Head of Science, Mathematics and Technology at Stranmillis University College, and works closely with colleagues in education to bring programming and computational thinking into the curriculum in Northern Ireland.
“With a healthy membership of around 250 to 300 CAS Northern Ireland’s meetings are well attended and lively and, prior to COVID, it held a summer conference which was very well attended by teachers from across Northern Ireland,” she said.
CAS in Northern Ireland has played a key role in curriculum development over the years and has built up an excellent working relationship with CCEA, the Council for Curriculum Exam Assessment, which sets the curriculum and exams for Northern Ireland.
“Here in Northern Ireland, unlike England, computing is not a compulsory subject, it’s described as a ‘desirable feature’. Prior to December 2016 there was virtually no computing on the curriculum in Northern Ireland. CAS started working with the then Minister for Education in Northern Ireland to address that. We have focussed on supporting teachers to embed computational thinking in teaching practice.
“We’ve worked with CCEA, which has shown it really values the opinion of CAS, and we’ve been able to have a real impact on the computing in the curriculum here in Northern Ireland,” said Irene.
“CCEA now signposts references to Barefoot Computing and CAS resources. Computing is now a solid part of the curriculum here. CAS has worked exceptionally hard to get to that position.”
CAS Northern Ireland has also focussed on providing the training that primary and secondary teachers need in order to be able to deliver an exciting computing education and the Digital Schoolhouse (DSH) was set up three years ago to deliver professional development in computing to primary teachers through a network of DSH Lead Schools while simultaneously introducing pupils to creative playful computing
“We now have eight Digital Schoolhouses, and last year, free of charge, they supported CPD in 25% of all Northern Ireland’s primary schools,” said Irene.
They’ve also been working closely with Barefoot, directing teachers to Barefoot resources and since 2017, 50% of Northern Ireland primary schools have received training on Barefoot resources on computational thinking and more recently CAS has trained Barefoot Computing ambassadors.
“Because everything is now online we are able to reach teachers anywhere in the province,” said Irene.
“We are really focussing on the professional development side of what we do and I think we can be rightly proud of the impact we have had on the curriculum. Last year we reached almost 25 % of primary teachers who received support from the Digital Schoolhouse and Barefoot Resources will have reached 51% of primary schools.
“We try to make it as simple as possible for teachers to take part in CPD and get involved in CAS. They have enough on their plate. So, we have developed resources mapped across the Northern Irish curriculum.”
“Through 2021, I think teachers will want to come back to developing their computing skills and the local support from CAS will be there to support them, but online meetings and events that can draw on expertise regardless of location will continue. I think we’ve all become used to this as the new normal. Pre-COVID there definitely was momentum behind embedding computing in education. Now, I think as we all emerge from lockdown it will gain momentum again,” said Irene.
She’s justifiably proud of what CAS has achieved in Northern Ireland.
“What we have achieved with our volunteers, and with zero budget, has been incredible. It has been great having the backup of CAS UK.
“We have had a real impact on the curriculum. We have also raised the profile of CPD on computing in schools in Northern Ireland. We have defined the direction of computing education here in Northern Ireland and have definitely shaped policy.”