The PM's National College for Digital Skills? Look behind the computing policy codes
Prime minister David Cameron's recent razzmatazz, electioneering announcement about a new National College for Digital Skills glossed over disturbing feedback on teacher readiness for the new computing curriculum and also about his new college bedfellows.
Surveys of teacher preparedness for 'computing' are consistently ringing alarm bells, and two of the people behind the NCDS – protégés of Teach First – have been involved in an unseemly dispute over the use of the preferred title, "Code College", which they "launched" earlier in 2014 even though an experienced programming expert and successful teacher educator was already running one.
David Batty, whose Code College can be found at www.codecollege.co.uk (his Twitter handle is @CodeCollege), was forced to take legal action when he discovered that another Code College had been set up as a charity by the directors of the new NCDS, former history teacher Mark Smith (@markhpsmith) and his maths teacher colleague Tom Fogden (@tom_fogden).
Legal wrangle over 'Code College'
He discovered that they had bought the web address (URL) www.codecollege.org.uk (currently "under construction") and were using the name Code College for their Twitter address (@CodeCollegeLDN). They sought financial contributions online for Code College at Total Giving, and public support for Code College at pledge.codecollege.org.uk/ in their bid to get the government to make Code College the new "new ‘National College’ serving the IT/Tech sector and industry".
David Batty was more than a little bemused that a history teacher and maths teacher were publicly claiming that "Code College will be a centre of excellence for the teaching and learning of computing and related subjects" when it was no secret that an educator with real computer science expertise had been running a service with that name (and website and Twitter account) for three years.
A programmer for 34 years and a teacher of Computing/IT/ICT since 1991, he said: "I have been working in the field of programming, running my own software house, teaching computing, and in education for decades. I pride myself on my knowledge, skills and experience.
"I found it unbelievable when I found out that someone was setting up a duplicate Code College business, that they were not even IT teachers and that one of them had been following my Code College tweets on Twitter while setting up, and having a launch party using my Code College name!
"I had to engage a top IP barrister and solicitor to threaten them with 'passing off' to protect my business and reputation."
David Batty thought his troubles were coming to an end when he was made an offer of £3,000 (subsequently raised to £6,000), put to him in an email from Tom Fogden who described himself as a director of Code College. The offer was for David Batty's Code College trademark, the www.codecollege.co.uk web address and the then @Code_College Twitter account. He turned down both offers.
'On current projections we will be solvent until January 2015'
"They seemed to think I was nobody, and that they were very important and I would just roll over for them," he said. "I received an email from Tom Fogden stating 'we had no awareness of his small business at the time of choosing the name and it was certainly of no interest to capitalise on the limited amount of goodwill in his business’. This was despite the fact that their choice of domain name was limited because they could not register the '.co.uk' and some other Code College domains because they were already in use and promoting my flourishing business!".
Interestingly the email revealed, "We have £12,413 remaining in the bank account and on current projections we will be solvent until January 2015", which raises obvious questions about, if nothing else, the pair's financial status. This money was what remained from a "charitable donation" of £100,000 given to them in January 2014 which enabled them to quit their jobs. More details about plans for their national "Coding College" are available in the December interview with Mark Smith on the Online Educa Berlin Conference website (see "UK’s first coding college to set pace for digital skills education"). He describes the NCDS as "a significant education reform milestone in the UK. It will be the first newly incorporated further education college in 23 years."
When prime minister David Cameron made his announcement about the new college being run by Mark Smith and Tom Fogden with backing from founder partners which include IBM, Gamesys and Raspberry Pi, and Vince Cable announced the creation of four new colleges, David Batty was given more reason to hope for an end to his troubles. However, he was dumbfounded when he discovered that on December 7, the day before the prime minister's announcement, Mark Smith had bought the CodeCollege.net web address (the NCDS directors had already offered to sell David Batty the addresses they already owned at premium prices).
Claims to Code College dropped last week
NCDS director Tom Fogden confirmed last week however that they have dropped all claims to the title "Code College". He said, "Please refer to us as the ‘National College for Digital Skills’ as we no longer use the ‘Code College’ name nor intend to. There is a Twitter feed that references the ‘codecollege.net’ URL which was set up in 2009 which we have no knowledge of.
"Our ambitions for the National College for Digital Skills are to support all our post-16 students into highly skilled digital roles with a focus on women and those from disadvantaged backgrounds."
What prime minister David Cameron, Vince Cable and the new college's backers (its chair of trustees is Sir Rod Aldridge, founder of the Aldridge Foundation) make of this background dispute is not known, or whether they have even been told. However, should they want to know about the computing curriculum and the problems caused by the over-dominance of computer science they could do no better than ask a computer science expert working in schools, like Code College's David Batty, rather than a history or maths teacher with consultancy experience with the likes of Deloitte and Lloyds Bank (see founders).
David Batty has built his service and reputation visiting schools all over the UK to support teachers who need to improve their skills for computing. He does this through his own company and also through the AQA and Westminster Briefing. In doing so he confirms the urgent need to upskill teachers who don't feel confident to teach computing. That's why he left the classroom – to train other teachers.
Teachers positive about training – but often not enough money or time
Teachers are very positive about going on training courses to upskill, he says. The main problem is the lack of time and access they are given. Schools that recognise the seriousness of the change may be prepared to provide time, but in those under financial constraints some teachers may get only one day's training to help them make the transition from, say, business studies, to computing.
Clearly that is not enough and they have to find other means and places to catch up. One of David Batty's concerns is that this pressure means that many teachers only want to know how to get their students through controlled assessments so they may completely miss the opportunity to get a deeper understanding of computer science – or even learn programming – which would help them treat their students to a richer learning experience. Because of the anxiety surrounding teaching computer science, as a trainer that is all he is often expected to address rather than the wider notions of the computing curriculum.
He does this through his own company and he has also developed a service to help students learn games design at home – www.bedroomprogrammer.com. It's a new service that carries a whole set of "how to" videos that can be used with a free download of Gamemaker Studio so that even novices can get involved. While it carries a £40 charge, he is looking for commercial sponsorship so it can be free for those who can't afford it. His next development will be free – www.gamesdesign.tv/.
While David Batty is complimentary about the largely voluntary national grassroots movement to support teachers in England which is led by Computing at School (CaS), he does have reservations. For example, when training is not led by professionals there is room for erroneous advice to circulate.
He mentions a teacher who was helping her students with the Python programming language but was unaware that they could work using two on-screen windows. One of those windows allows students to save their coding but because the teacher was unaware of this none of the students could save their work. "A qualified trainer would have kept her away from that mistake," he added.
This feedback on the problems facing schools caused by the new curriculum are reflected by virtually all the research that has been conducted. The first one to reveal the extent of the worries was the YouGov survey commissioned by Nesta and The TES in July (see “More than half teachers 'not confident' in Computing”).
Headteachers confirm subject worries in summer survey
Also during the summer, a survey of headteachers on "school preparedness" was carried out by the UK Forum For Computing Education (UKforCE). This new national organisation was set up by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) because of the serious concerns about teacher preparedness. It had partnered the BCS at former education secretary Michael Gove's behest to lead work on the computing curriculum but it didn't receive any of the £6m or so handed out by the DfE to its curriculum partner to support teachers. The survey results confirmed that there was a problem.
The report said: "At primary level, more than half of headteachers think that their teachers are ‘quite’ or ‘fully’ prepared to teach the new computing curriculum. This however leaves nearly 50 per cent of headteachers who do not think their staff are really ready for September 2014." The response from secondary heads was better: "In secondary schools, the situation appears much more positive, with less than a quarter of heads feeling that teachers are not prepared."
One of the recommendations produced by UKforCE for UK politicians to reflect on for their election manifestos was "Comprehensively fund training of the existing teacher workforce to deliver the new Computing Curriculum across all schools in England. Without more, better and sustained training of teachers, curriculum and qualification reform is ineffective."
Computing in danger of becoming 'niche' subject at secondary
Adrian Mee, a researcher and subject leader for Computing PGCE with the Institute of Education's Department of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment (part of the University of London) posted the results of his own curriculum survey of 162 schools on "the Computing offer to Year 10" – "The secondary school curriculum for Computing: emerging trends".The alarm was raised yet again when
He warned that while curriculum reform had "‘unfrozen’ the digital curriculum landscape in secondary schools", perceptions of computing were being "shaped in the mind of curriculum decision makers in schools. Forces perceived to be acting to shape the role of computing in the wider curriculum include:
- "School leaders perceptions of Computing as a “difficult subject” which is suitable only for higher ability pupils.
- "Curriculum planners’ perceptions of the impact of key stage 4 Computing results on the overall performance measures of the school.
- "Pressure to focus curriculum time on subjects which have maximum impact on performance measures."
He concluded: "Overall the trends suggest that at key stage 4 Computing is taking hold as a “niche subject” comparable with Economics or Psychology. Downward pressure on the curriculum time allocation for computing which may, in turn, impact on the uptake of Computing at key stage 4 offers a significant and immediate challenge. These trends in perception may be strengthened by the framing of the GCSE associated with the National Curriculum subject ‘Computing’ as ‘Computer Science’."
Nothing in any of this feedback should take away from the sheer hard work and enthusiasm of teachers, schools and those who work with them to rise to the challenge of the new curriculum in England. There will be other feedback too, some from people who have reason to be less objective and critical than recognised independent observers.
The over-riding problem has been caused by the lack of a strategic view by those who pushed their vested interests in computer science over and above the broader needs of schools. It has led to the new subject being thought of as computer science rather than computing and this has introduced policy incoherence, particularly as far as assessment and accreditation are concerned.
Some local initiatives have been startlingly original and effective, like Islington's Creative Technology Day in 2014, a collaboration with Central St Martins (King's Cross) and Queen Mary University of London with support from organisations like the BBC and V&A and commercial ventures and developers. Brimful of energy and insight, with excellent input from local schools it lifted the new subject way beyond coding. And the organisers continued to build on this with a new "Celebration of Computing" event, featuring the BBC's Maggie Philbin, at the Emirates Stadium on January 13.
Computing now has a digital divide, with the 'leafier suburbs' ahead
However, it's important to remember that not every locality has the opportunity and resources to stage these kinds of events to support their schools. That's why "delivery" of the new curriculum is so patchy.
Even one of the key architects of England's computing curriculum, Microsoft principal computer scientist Simon Peyton-Jones who heads Computing at School (CAS) which has received at least £3m from the government, is worried about its prospects. Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme on December 11, he warned, "I think frankly we are under-resourced on this, badly under-resourced."
He said that the government funds teacher training for "steady state subjects" but that is not enough for the step change needed for a new subject where "you are training teachers not only in subject knowledge, which they don't have, many of them, but also pedagogy and assessment techniques. That is a big, big change."
His conclusion? "My view is that we'll get a polarised situation. It will be particularly bad if that two-tier situation ended up with the leafier suburbs doing computer science and the less leafy ones not. We are already seeing this right now."
'The country could again become a leader in this field'
It's a pity that computing educators like David Batty were not well represented among those who created the computing curriculum. He says: "If schools give more time for training, and funding is made available, and importantly if it goes to the right people who have real programming and teaching skills, then we can do even more to support teachers with quality training, and we could make a big difference to IT/Computing education in this country. My vision is that the country could again become a leader in this field like we were during the home computer boom of the 1980s and 90s and we could lead the world with a new generation of people starting their own technology and programming businesses like I did in 1985."
The UK's learning with technology community will soon congregate in London's Docklands for the BETT 2015 international event to share insights and innovations. On hand will be government ministers and policy-makers who will all be anxious to assert their confidence and reassure everyone about the success of English schools' new computing curriculum.
Observers are well advised to apply some computational thinking of their own and codebreak the utterances of the spin doctors. It shouldn't be too hard to do by talking to teachers, school leaders and those who do the support groundwork with schools, often under challenging conditions, people like David Batty (stand F518). Otherwise there will be a lingering suspicion that much of the current computing policy is based on smoke and mirrors.
Code College at BETT 2015 – stand F518
Education minister Nicky Morgan's BETT keynote speech, 11am on Wednesday January 21 in the BETT Arena
Skills minister Nick Boles' BETT keynote, on "new future skills and education", also at the Arena, 10.20am on Thursday January 22
Keynote – "Making the Impossible Possible" – by Professor Stephen Heppell, chair of Etag, BETT Arena, 4.30pm, Wednesday January 21
See also “Will Coalition ministers pass Bett broadband test?”
Graphics: Maia Terry, images sourced from Wikimedia (Guillaume Paumier and World Economic Forum/Moritz Hager)