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23 March 2012
Reform roundtable seminar introduced by Simon Peyton-Jones, chair of Computing at School and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, on Thursday 22 March.
On 11 January, Michael Gove announced a consultation on withdrawing the National Curriculum statutory programme of study for information and communication technology (ICT). Although teaching the subject would remain compulsory throughout pupils’ time in schools, teachers would be able to decide what to teach and how to teach it. The Education Secretary argued that the current curriculum was in many cases not delivering a high-quality education preparing pupils for further study or careers in computing, and that a government-prescribed programme of study would always be out of date:
“In an open-source world. Why should we accept that a curriculum is a single, static document? A statement of priorities frozen in time; a blunt instrument landing with a thunk on teachers’ desks and updated only centrally and only infrequently?”
A Reform roundtable seminar, led by Simon Peyton-Jones, chair of the Computing at School working group and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, set out to discuss how a decentralised ICT curriculum could be delivered in practice, and how schools could be incentivised and supported to deliver innovative, high-quality and relevant ICT and computer science.
The key theme emerging from the discussion was that simply removing the compulsory programme of study will not automatically mean that every school will adopt a really good ICT and computer science curriculum. Schools respond to incentives – particularly league tables – and it was felt that many schools could perceive the changes as a “downgrade” to the status of ICT and so might prioritise other subjects, unless school leaders were bought in to its importance.
High status was also thought to be important for teacher recruitment. Few computing teachers are specialists, and a perception of decreased importance would likely discourage computer science graduates from entering teaching. There is also a risk around employability: if headteachers are focused on other areas of the curriculum they might be less inclined to hire ICT teachers, leading to fewer jobs and so further discouraging specialists to enter teaching.
Despite these threats, those around the table also clearly felt the changes present opportunities to improve the teaching of computing in schools. It was agreed that there is some extremely good ICT teaching currently happening in schools. These teachers could easily adapt to teach new, more rigorous computer science qualifications. But to ensure excellent computing teaching is happening in every school, teachers must be supported with high quality professional development and curriculum materials. Groups such as Computing at School have an important role here, and it was suggested that universities could help local schools to strengthen their expertise in computer science.
Perhaps most importantly, many of the participants saw a bright future for children wanting to study computer science. Computing and technology are, after all, some of the most exciting aspects of 21st-century life; young children’s use of technology completely eclipses that of children just a few years ago. The computing industry must take the lead in ensuring that pupils – and their parents – are aware of the plethora of stimulating career opportunities available in the field, and that they understand how to get there.