Political pique and a special adviser lie behind a clumsy attempt to silence dissent
The Department for Education (DfE) has withdrawn financial support for its Computing Expert Group in a bid to stifle criticisms of the narrowness of its computing curriculum.
In a bid to close down the group, the DfE will no longer pay subsistence and transport costs of the 30 or so teachers and teacher educators who have given up their time free of charge to support teachers having to widen their knowledge and understanding and learn new skills, including programming and computer science.
The Computing Expert Group has even created a website of free materials for teachers (Computing ITT and CPD) which have provided thousands of downloads for teachers and been praised by government ministers and industry representatives.
Special adviser instructed civil servant to shut down group
The shock decision followed an attempt to disband the group by DfE special adviser Dominic Cummings. He instructed a senior civil servant to inform group chair Bob Harrison that the proposed closure was a result of the continuing independent stance of group members on the computing curriculum for English schools, and the constructive criticisms they voiced on social media, in media articles and on the public platforms of the growing number of conferences which have sprung up due to the demand from teachers.
However, there was a strong response from group members when they received an email telling them that their next meeting in Manchester on November 8 would be cancelled due to the withdrawal of DfE financial support. The result is that the group will continue its work, and will look for support from elsewhere. Initial ports of call are likely to be the national body for ICT advisers, consultants and teachers, Naace, and technology companies working in education and the teacher educators group ITTE.
The expert group members have been shocked by what they regard as petty, heavy-handed politics designed to silence criticism. They say that their priority remains the same - to do everything they can to ensure that children in England get the best quality teaching possible for the new computing curriculum.
Although group members agreed with the need for curriculum reform, most of them still consider the new subject unnecessarily narrow, with too much emphasis on programming and computer science. But they are happy to work to ensure that their fears that it provides insufficient choice for both students and industry do not bear fruit. They believe that a skilled and confident workforce will ensure success for students.
Comment anonymity because of fears of victimisation
One group member from industry, who did not wish to be named because of the fear of victimisation by the DfE, said “There is a view across the wider IT industries that the new computing curriculum does not meet the needs of the broader industry but a narrow part of the academic computer science community. It is sad that the DfE should withdraw funding for the group and I am glad to support the continuation of the work of the group. Our children deserve knowledgeable and skilful teachers of computing and that's what the group will be focusing on.”
Another member wishing for anonymity said: “By removing the funding for the group's expenses, the group will no longer be able to conduct their periodical meetings to discuss, plan, and implement the work that members have been undertaking online.
“With very few specialist teachers currently in post with experience or training in how to teach the computer science element, coupled with insignificant funding or time to train and embed new teachers, it remains to be seen how schools and students will cope with the demands of the new curriculum when it goes live in 10 months, especially with this significant reduction in the support available to them.”
There was anger among the group too. One member said, “I am disgusted at the action of the DfE to withdraw funding. They only paid my travel expenses! I have voluntarily given up hours of my time online and in meetings to share my resources to help other teachers to prepare for the new computing curriculum and then this happens! We are determined to carry on, Teachers need a lot more help and the Google site has been a valuable resource”
Another teacher, a head of ICT for almost 25 years, said, “I have been alarmed by the way that the change from ICT to computing has been handled. I find it particularly worrying that extant, devoted teachers of ICT, many of whom have spent much of their free time over many years to keep up with ever-changing developments in the subject, are on the whole now expected to learn the skills necessary for the new computing curriculum in twilight sessions and during weekends whilst it was recently announced that newcomers to the profession are having the carrot of £25,000 bursaries dangled before them.
“I deeply admire the exemplary way that Computing at School members have shown commitment, motivation, enthusiasm and a willingness to share their skills with others, but the £2 million they were awarded to deliver such training is wholly inadequate.
“A large number of ICT teachers feel exceptionally vulnerable after the rapid speed of change that has affected their subject without the added insult of new, more highly specialised graduates being financially encouraged to join the profession without the same sort of opportunity being offered to them. The attempted disbanding of the expert group, which had done so much to help existing ICT departments get through this moment of turmoil, is disappointing, and I hope the DfE will reconsider the decision."
Teacher on group’s Google site: ‘Without it I wouldn’t know where to start’
Teachers who have been using the materials put together by the group are also surprised. Siân Bloor, a primary school leader of computing, in Trafford, Manchester, said: "As primary school teachers, we have not been trained to programme computers, nor do we have the expertise to create and deliver an innovative new PoS [programme of study] to fulfil a new computing curriculum by September 2014. The Google site set up by the DfE and the then Teaching Agency, run by teachers for teachers, is an excellent and invaluable resource, which has provided me with the help to identify staff CPD requirements, as well as ideas about how to deliver an engaging computing curriculum to very young children. Without it, I wouldn't know where to start."
The spat has also alarmed many of those responsible for educating teachers. Andy Connell, chair of ITTE, the group of educators concerned with supporting teachers with technology for learning, said: “ This is very, very disappointing. The work of this group is helping thousands of teachers gain the knowledge understanding and skills to ensure children can be taught computing in a professional way. I am pleased the group will carry on despite the unfortunate decisions of the DfE. ITTE members will continue to play an important part”
“We have avoided politics and have worked selflessly in the interests of students and teachers in schools across England. This withdrawal of support was the last thing we expected and I am dismayed by the behaviour of unelected, unaccountable advisers, bringing politics in to an area which had enjoyed full and frank discussion and debate in a mature manner.”
Quite why Dominic Cummings was so motivated to want to close down the group remains a mystery. The man described by The Independent as “one of the most divisive figures in Whitehall” is due to leave the special advisers’ office on the seventh floor of the DfE’s Sanctuary House to work with a free school.
Wales points to harmonious route for collaborative curriculum design
It didn’t have to be like this, as parallel developments in Wales demonstrate. A new comprehensive report on transforming ICT into a consensual and coherent computing curriculum has been delivered to the Welsh Government by a group chaired by a headteacher Janet Hayward, a computer scientist, Professor Tom Crick and business leader Stuart Arthur. There was no disagreement and no claims of a curriculum land grab and political backstabbing. In fact the collaborative working involve was so successful that the report urged that it be integrated as a feature of the new computing curriculum.
The Welsh project offers a stark lesson for those involved in the process in England whereby education secretary Michael Gove MP, stung by criticism of UK education’s failure to engage fully with technology by Google boss Eric Schmidt, handed over curriculum development to an unrepresentative industry grouping led by the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng). (See “Computational thinkers use Gove back door for ICT”). Now the DfE’s Computing Expert Group appears to be catching the political flak for retaining independent viewpoints following a highly divisive process with questionable leadership.
Ironically, Bob Harrison is quoted in the DfE’s own press release for its improved scholarships (awarded by the BCS) to recruit higher quality candidates into the teaching profession. This is understood to be a response to serious worries about the capability of the workforce to cope with the new computing curriculum. The DfE said that last year the BCS awarded 57 scholarships worth £20,000 - “This year up to 100 scholarships worth £25,000 will be available.”
Computing Expert Group’s free support materials for teachers
The ICT Steering Group’s Report to the Welsh Government