#Croydon #TechCity: Computer Science returns to Schools. Maybe.

By - Thursday 5th September, 2013

With Croydon Tech City reconvening this September, the movement’s push to empower Croydon’s young people through coding continues…


With the growing interest in Croydon becoming a Tech city, there is welcome news that, after nearly twenty years of neglect, Computer Science has suddenly reappeared in the National Curriculum for Schools, whilst ICT (Information Communications Technology) has effectively disappeared. So what exactly is going on?

I suspect many people outside of education may be surprised to learn that Computer Science in schools had died out by 2000. There wasn’t even a GCSE course until 2010. ICT became a core subject on a level with Maths and English; the skills it taught were biased to communications and digital literacy rather than technology. For example, nowhere at KS3 was there a requirement to even explain how a computer worked. However, being able to design a Powerpoint background was core. Strangely, that most useful of wordprocessing skills, laying out a letter, was considered irrelevant.

The demise of School Computer Science started after the ‘Golden Age’ in the ’80s when it seemed people were programming the length and breadth of Britain on their Micros. Enthusiastic teachers had started running computer science courses with few machines and a reliance on the students working away at home. The problem then, as now, was that there were too few competent computer science graduates in teaching and it became very patchy. Once the School League Tables appeared, schools quickly dropped any subject underperforming which wasn’t on the National Curriculum and the original Computer Science GCSE, which had dreadful results, courses died out.

A country which ignored computing by the mid ’90s was clearly out of step with reality so ICT grew out of the genuine need for students to be taught skills on practical day to day use of computers. With most schools having access to substantial numbers of computers, all running Microsoft Office, by 1998 it was hardly surprising that the new ICT courses became stuck in a very narrow Office palate. Unfortunately the league tables again waved their malevolent spirit by giving some ICT vocational courses a huge number of GCSE equivalences. League tables were then statistically based on five A-C grades and GNVQ ICT was worth four… It didn’t take long for schools to realise they could pad out their results by forcing everyone to take these vocational courses, by then reduced in teaching to the bare minimum, to obtain a pass or C grade. Or four grade Cs, as it turned out.

Not surprisingly the numbers of students reaching University with any interest in Computer Science started to seriously decline. Between 2003 and 2010 there was a 23% drop in the number of students taking Computer Science, in complete contrast to other subjects. The industry at last started to raise its profile and try to renew interest. To do so, it had to encourage a complete overhaul of the National Curriculum.

Without doubt, the pivotal moment in the revival of Computer Science was Google’s Eric Schmidt’s speech in 2011: “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage”.

With Schmidt a member of Cameron’s Business Advisory Group and a frequent Number 10 visitor, it was clearly the end of ICT which was ‘disapplied’ from the National Curriculum in 2012. The final vestiges ended when the subject became Computing in 2013

“ICT as a subject name carries negative connotations of a dated and unchallenging curriculum that does not serve the needs and ambitions of pupils”

What has replaced ICT is a new four page curriculum covering computer teaching from Reception to KS4. People with toddlers about to go to Primary may be surprised to learn that they will be learning about algorithms alongside their sums.

This was a necessary correction. But here are the issues:

1. Who is going to teach it? Realistically you cannot teach Computer Science with a few hours training. It is not intuitive but requires considerable time investment – the one commodity teachers do not have. The skills needed to deliver just the KS1 component will need extensive support. The government has pledged very little money to support schools in retraining - in fact only £2 million! There are nearly 200,000 primary school teachers to retrain in a year!

2. At Secondary Level there are very few Computer Science teachers. The likelihood is that Computer Science will become a minor option (like Music), with few students. The days of huge cohorts taking ICT will not be repeated in Computing GCSE.

3. None of the curriculum changes apply to academies. They can drop any subject. The chain academies in particular are results driven and if they cannot find staff to run courses, they are unlikely to do so. So the impact may be very muted as the majority of schools become academies.

4. Computer Science graduates have the highest unemployment rate amongst graduates, which suggests there either isn’t the demand or that university courses have become as hopelessly lost as ICT GCSE.

5. Wordprocessing a letter seems even further away as a basic skill!

We have gone from A to Z, dropping anything that could be construed as ICT which means that the creative aspects such as video, design and sound seem to have got lost. This seems as perverse as the original dropping of Computer Science…

The picture is extremely confusing. A determined lobby group has wrought considerable changes. But unless there is a serious and sustained program of retraining, it may be just be a paper exercise in a digital world.

The Croydon Tech City Autumn season launch is 7:30pm, Thursday 19th September at Matthews Yard, Croydon with a keynote by Russell Buckley, Special Advisor at the UK Government Venture Capital Unit.

Please sign up as attending here.

John Hobson

John Hobson

Currently Assistant Headteacher at the Archbishop Lanfranc School. Worked for many years in IT including launching the first private email service, the Link ATM network, AppleTalk and building a submarine.

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