Think about a computing lesson. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it a group of children dancing? Probably not. But perhaps it should be.
Computing became part of the national curriculum in 2014 and, since then, schools have been finding creative ways of engaging children in the subject. Dancing is one of them. Tasks include getting pupils to invent a routine with their classmates and then write a set of instructions. Using computing techniques, they can then create an animated on-screen character that replicates their moves.
“One wonderful thing about computing is that you can do a lot that’s creative and imaginative,” says Bill Mitchell, director of education at the British Computing Society.
Under the new curriculum, children aged five to seven are expected to understand what algorithms are and to create and debug simple programs. At ages seven to 11, they should be able to use logical reasoning to explain how algorithms work. From 11 to 14 they should learn to use two or more programming languages, and from 14 to 16 they should develop skills in problem-solving, design and computational thinking.
‘There’s an emphasis on failure being OK’
Many in the tech industry are optimistic about the new curriculum, and there are signs that this is justified. This summer, 62,454 pupils took a GCSE in computing, a huge increase from 35,414 the previous year.
“Where schools are embracing it, children become better problem-solvers in the rest of the curriculum,” says Phil Bagge, who teaches computing at two primary schools in Hampshire and is a computing adviser for the Hampshire Inspection and Advisory Service.
“In computing you get bugs, which challenge children’s persistence when things go wrong. That’s exciting because there’s an emphasis on failure being OK, and on working out how to fix things.”
He tells the story of a lesson last month, where a class of 11-year-olds were developing a computer game about times tables.
“Towards the end of the lesson, one of the girls was trying to find a way to get her times table bubble to move faster across the screen as the game progressed,” he says.
“With about two minutes to go, she came up with the solution. She punched the air, got really excited and said ‘That’s the best feeling ever!’”
But there are challenges that mean the optimistic vision of the new curriculum has not been universally realised. Recruiting and training teachers is a problem in many subjects at the moment, at both primary and secondary level, but computing faces a distinct shortage because few teachers or would-be teachers are experts in the field.
“Very few experienced computing in their own education,” says Bagge. “The chances are that their experiences of IT lessons would have been Microsoft Office; they wouldn’t have learned any computational thinking at all.”
As a result, many schools are training non-specialist teachers in computing or sharing an expert teacher between several schools. But sometimes even this is not possible. Bagge says some secondary academies, which do not have to follow the national curriculum, have decided to drop computing entirely because they simply cannot recruit enough staff.
Making computing a priority can also be an issue, he continues. Schools that are rated good by Ofsted and are trying to reach the outstanding category are more likely to teach the subject, whereas those with a requires improvement rating will often focus more heavily on literacy and numeracy.
“I’ve heard of schools that have dropped almost everything else [except literacy and numeracy], and only had one or two computing lessons a term, which is a real pity,” he says. “That comes down to an inspection framework which is heavily weighted towards maths and literacy.”
‘Some things have stayed the same’
Yet while some schools struggle to introduce coding and programming lessons, others are facing the opposite problem.
Miles Berry, principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton and one of the advisers on the new computing curriculum, says that some schools have been so enthusiastic about coding that they have neglected other aspects of the computing curriculum.
“I hear stories of children who get to secondary school and all they’ve done in primary lessons is programming; they haven’t figured out how to use a particular operating system or desktop application,” he says.
“That absolute core set of IT skills is still very important. Some people are focused on what’s changed, and they’ve forgotten the things that have stayed the same.”
An entitlement for all
Two years into the new curriculum, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the time and energy being devoted to computing in schools nationwide, because relatively little data is available.
But Berry says that the raised status of the subject is a clear success. “I’m pleased that this is now something that, at least in many schools, is taken seriously as an entitlement for all pupils, not just an extracurricular club.”
And the country is at a tipping point in terms of take-up, Mitchell adds.
“My guess is that about a quarter of secondary schools have headteachers that believe in computing and see it as a really important subject that has to get the same air time and support as maths or history,” he says.
“I’d guess another quarter of headteachers are thinking it probably is important, so let’s try to do something more. The other half are either too snowed under to worry about it, or [are] thinking that the subject will go away after the next election, so they’ll wait and see what happens.”
But what matters, he says, is increasing the proportion of schools that take the subject seriously in the next couple of years.
“If we get to 40 per cent of schools [teaching computing well], I think we’d be talking about a huge success for the country,” he says.
“But if we have a quarter doing it brilliantly, and three-quarters not, I think we’ll have some serious concerns. Right now we’re at a hinge point; it could go one way or the other.”
With the tech industry widely viewed as one of the UK’s best prospects for future economic growth, the implications of meeting – or failing to meet – that number will be far-reaching.
If it is achieved, schools will be able to play a crucial role raising the UK’s status as an important global technology hub, for the next generation and those to come. .