Bob Harrison drops in on the Computing at School conference to check progress
Eric SchmidtEric Schmidt (pic by Charles Haynes)Google boss Eric Schmidt's McTaggart lecture was the lever that pressed the Coalition Government into action to reform the ICT curriculum and prioritise the position of computer science.

But the key question stretching all the ICT stakeholders, and the minds of the 150-plus delegates at the Computing at School annual conference at the University of Birmingham last week was: “That’s great but how are we going to deliver this ambition, and where will the teachers come from?”

Schmidt’s McTaggart lecture, which scolded the country that had invented the computer but only taught its children how to use them, not to create them, was heard louder by the Coalition Government than any internal criticism, however well informed. And it opened the door for industry pressure groups like the British Computer Society and Computing at School, and exam board AQA and Microsoft, to develop ways to support computer studies in schools.

David BrownDavid Brown, Ofsted ICT adviserThere were also significant reports accentuating the danger of the Government’s technology blind spot for developing the economy. The Royal Society’s “Shutdown or restart” report was published following a year-long review of the ICT curriculum, and Nesta’s “Next Gen” report highlighted the skills gap that meant that the UK’s digital creative industries could not recruit the workforce it desperately needed.

Ofsted also contributed to the debate when it published a report from data gathered in 2008-11 which suggested a wide variation in how ICT is taught in schools and seemed to blame the national curriculum programmes of study and attainment targets. Consequently, Michael Gove has decided to scrap them for September 2012 and schools have been invited to develop their own curricula. Although this Ofsted data is ageing, it is understood from Ofsted's ICT adviser David Brown that recent Ofsted inspections are finding a very similar pattern.

CAS is working on a schools 'Network of Excellence'

So what is Computing at School, whose membership has apparently doubled since Michael Gove’s BETT speech, working on? Simon Humphreys,the national co-ordinator is very clear about what they intend to do “We sent out an invitation pack to headteachers and asked if they would be interested in joining a 'Network of Excellence' and stressed to heads not to ditch ICT but to consider incorporating computer science in a broad and balanced curriculum.”

The aim is to establish a network of 1,000 schools which will be teaching computer science by 2015. So far, 490 have registered an interest and 15 universities have agreed to support the network, including computer science specialists Cambridge, Imperial College and, of course, the home of the “Turing legacy”, Manchester.

But do teachers have the right skill sets to teach computer science? And are there enough of them? If not, how will this happen and who will do it? “The fundamental aim of the network is to create locally driven continued professional development opportunities for existing teachers,” added Simon Humphreys, “and we have been encouraged by the support from the computer industry and the awarding bodies have also pledged support.”

CAS is a relatively small organisation but, from September 2012, it will have funding to second a university computer scientist and a teacher to drive the work forward. CAS sees this teacher development as ad hoc to support informal twilight sessions delivered through the CAS regional hubs which have already been established (a “hub leader” is already in post). There will also be more formal day and evening classes and a number of universities have already planned “upskilling” courses for existing teachers.

Phil Spencer, course co-ordinator at Sheffield Hallam University, told the teaching schools' New Technologies Advisory Board that he was "delighted with the response we have had from our network of schools in Sheffield”. He begins teaching his “transition programme“ in September. Other university providers who are gearing up to provide upskilling courses for teachers include,the Open University, Nottingham Trent and Chester.

Amanda Banks is the local leader of the Manchester hub and, after I attended my own local hub meeting I asked her about her plan to meet that need now that expectations have been raised. (I also asked her what challenges she faced and how schools could help in an interview due to be posted on the CAS website and Leon Cych’s Learn4Life website.)

Some schools will not want to, or be able to, meet the raised expectations

Amanda Banks is passionate about her subject – computer science – which she teaches at the Alan Turing home University of Manchester. However she is acutely aware, having an ICT schools background, that not all schools will want, or will have the capacity or expertise, to meet the raised expectations since the Gove BETT speech. The Computing at School Manchester hub has a small but growing network of schools but the exact details of how this will develop into a sustainable model for teacher professional development have yet to emerge.

Simon Peyton JonesSimon Peyton JonesThe other development that was creating a buzz at the Birmingham CAS conference was the emergence of the computer science GCSE (along with a full programme of seminars with titles like “Building gadgets with .Net Gadgeteer”,”Wikibooks:collaborative education” and “Programming the new literacy” and one certain candidate for overbooking, “Replacing city traders with robots”).

Simon Peyton Jones, principal researcher at Microsoft and CAS chair was, however, more interested in the thinking which underpins computer science; ”Although individual technologies change day by day they are underpinned by foundation concepts and principles that have endured for decades,” he said. “Long after pupils leave school and enter the workplace, long after the technologies they used at school have become obsolete, the principles they have learnt in computer science will still hold true.”

But Simon Peyton Jones also hinted at the challenge CAS faces – “CAS remains a grassroot movement of motivated individuals and partner organisations” – and therein lies a problem. The scale of the challenge faced by schools to realise Eric Shmidt’s ambitions and fulfil what Michael Gove identified as the “Turing legacy” is so large it is unlikely to be achieved without a sustainable funding plan, even with the help of a group of committed volunteers, motivated individuals and industry support.

CAS reckons it could have 1,000 schools teaching computer science GCSEs within three years, rising to a possible 2,000 by 2020. But this September there will only be 200. There are more than 3,000 secondary schools in England. (CAS is also active in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.)

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College and chairs the teaching schools’ New Technologies Advisory Board. He runs Support for Education and Training 

Eric Schmidt photo courtesy of Charles Haynes' Flickr stream

Computing at School
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See also:

"Teaching schools ICT group starts research with audit"  
"Not about ICT or computer studies, but engagement"

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