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A new GCSE computer science course from exam board AQA that, among other things, gets students to design and create their own mobile apps has been launched with support from Microsoft.

And the US technology company is also supporting the distribution of a “Strategic Information Pack: teaching Computer Science in schools”  to all school leaders from The British Computer Society (BCS), the Computing and Schools group (CAS) and another industry group, Intellect.

They are among the first practical responses to follow the tardy recognition by politicians and the media that education has failed to keep pace with technology for its learners – and that the curriculum is one of the obstacles. It’s understood to be the first time that Microsoft has partnered with an exam board to develop a new GCSE qualification – AQA is probably to be the largest board for England. Students can start he new course, which took 18 months to develop, in September.

AQA describes the syllabus for the new GCSE Computer Science as "unique". Not only will students learn computing theory and programming skills; practical tasks will require them to design, make and test their own applications. These could be for gaming, the web or mobile phones.

AQA believes that the course will address the demands of the IT industry and other employers for high-quality qualifications that can provide a bridge to A-levels, vocational courses, industry-recognised IT courses, or employment.

“Computer literacy still has its place, but we hope this innovative qualification will help take students’ abilities to a whole new level," says Geoff Coombe, director of general qualifications development at AQA. "The syllabus we’ve created is designed to take the growing importance of mobile and web technologies into account and ensure that students aren’t left behind.”

Microsoft's UK education director Steve Beswick adds “We know that computer science lessons have the potential to be experimental and genuinely engaging, but schools need the right type of curriculum to get results. We have worked closely with AQA to develop a fully tested and considered qualification which develops the skills to help to inspire the next generation to build careers in the creative, programming and media sectors.”

'Strategic Information Pack' for schools is an industry response

HTMLBehind the screen: html for this storyThe “Strategic Information Pack: teaching Computer Science in schools” is a response from the UK's IT industry to help schools in England to provide students with meaningful IT qualifications that could lead to a career. The organisations involved have been working together for some time to develop "computational thinking" and to pressure the Coalition Government into developing a national vision and policy for technology.

Education secretary Michael Gove MP finally gave full acknowledgement of the role of ICT for learning and the UK economy in his speech at the BETT 2012 education technology event in January, 18 months after taking office. He announced changes to the ICT curriculum, subject to a website consultation that has attracted a surprisingly uninspiring response (see, and expressed his intention to develop computer studies, possibly as an English "Bacc'" subject.

The Strategic Information Pack has been sent to headteachers of every state school in England and is available for download too. It is intended to explain "the strategic opportunities they would have from September 2012 to develop Computer Science as a rigorous academic component within a reformed ICT curriculum. Identifying the right strategies to ensure success is of paramount importance. The supporting materials in the information pack provide comprehensive information that will help headteachers and school governors make the right decisions."

This is what it contains:

  • A covering letter, explaining the key strategic choices and actions for schools to teach Computer Science;
  • A summary of the Royal Society Report "Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart?";
  • "Computer Science as a school subject", draws on the experience of the Computing at School working group and explains what computer science is, and why it is strategically important, beginning with a four-page summary, followed by appendices that provide further background;
  • "A curriculum for Computer Science", is the CAS curriculum for computer science, mentioned by Mr Gove in his January BETT speech, written by a group of teachers, academics and industry researchers, and endorsed by the BCS, Microsoft, Google and Intellect;
  • "A curriculum framework for Computing and Information Technology"  – computer science is a crucial academic strand of school education, but a rounded education in computational thinking and digital systems is broader, and this document puts the pieces together, covering what is currently called ICT;
  • "Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence" – the BCS and CAS are currently seeking expressions of interest in joining a network of computer science teaching excellence consisting of 500 schools together with universities (read this document for more details);
  • As examples of the wealth of high-quality material that is available to support computer science teaching, we have also enclosed a copy of the latest CAS newsletter, and a copy of the latest cs4fn magazine (Computer Science for Fun).

The industry overture also invites schools to register an interest in joining its Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science, and it's understood that some 200 have already done so.

Reality check – schools cannot yet deliver computer studies for the 'English Bacc'

The UK's IT and telecomms industries are reckoned to need around 550,000 new entrants over the next five years if they are to grow, so initiatives like these are welcome. However, a number of reality checks are required. In his new-found enthusiasm for ICT at BETT 2012 Michael Gove suggested that computer studies might become a part of the English Baccalaureate, but right now most schools simply do not have sufficiently qualified and skilled staff to teach it.

What students need is a spectrum of opportunities and entitlements ranging from embedded and appropriate ICT in all their subjects (not there yet) through to suitable qualifications for careers in the ICT industries. What schools need is an understanding of how to deliver that, and provide suitable staff.

ICT is still a compulsory subject and although dropping outdated requirements is popular, the DfE's online consultation, organised by Naace and ALT at, doesn't appear to have been particularly successful. This was supposed to have garnered feedback required for a comprehensive reworking of ICT.

Schools can expect all sorts of new initiatives, products and services to help them (a visit to last week's Education Show revealed new products promising to 'unlock children's love of programming'!). And organisations like Apps For Good (currently looking for more school partners) are already working successfully in this area.

School leaders will need to make sense of what is on offer and grasp what they require. The challenge is how, in such a short space of time, they can recruit, engage and develop teachers to convert these helpful ideas into brilliant lessons which will not only inspire learners but satisfy Ofsted and attainment targets.

Welcome from teaching schools 

Education organisations are already coming to terms with this issue and the teaching schools' New Technologies Advisory Board (see "Teaching school leaders greet 'ICT for schools 2.0'") has already welcomed fresh support for schools.

KingwoodThere's a lot more to schools ICT than computer studiesBob Harrison, who is chair of the advisory board, commented: "I think the information pack is a really useful contribution following Michael Gove's announcement at BETT. I know headteachers and teachers will be anxious to get cracking on converting these ideas into a curriculum that is exciting and deliverable.

"I am sure that teaching schools will be applying to become hub Centres of Excellence but we must remember this is not just about computer science. Technology has the potential to enhance learning for all pupils, and all pupils will need the digital skills to survive and thrive as workers and digital citizens."

His welcome was echoed by the board's founder. "When the teaching schools' New Technologies Advisory Board was formed we knew we had a huge and urgent task to perform as a small body," says the board's Paul Haigh, who is director of the Hallam Teaching Schools Alliance which is based at Notre Dame High School in Sheffield. "And we knew that the secret to success would be pulling in the support of industry, higher education and educational agencies and bringing together strategies that already existed or were well on the way to development into a coherent offer to schools.

"I am really pleased that the BCS/ CAS offer to support computer science has done just that and come together so quickly with their offer. It means that schools will soon be able to access exactly the support they need to develop their teaching staff to ensure children access great lessons in the subject.
"The teaching schools are well placed to act as intermediaries for this support. It is important though to remember that the advisory board also has aims to improve the use of technology in all subject teaching, support the development of digital literacy and also improve the teaching of technical skills to young people. So while this is a great step forward for computer science there are other aims that we must not forget about. However, it is wonderful to have such a fast start on computer science."

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Strategic Information Pack: teaching Computer Science in schools

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