Gove departs just as disaster looms for computing in schools

Lessons from game developers Kuato Studios, but most kids are not so lucky. David Parry/PA Wire

Back in January 2012, the now-departed education secretary Michael Gove said, “ICT in schools is a mess”. He went on to argue that what was needed was a rigorous computer science curriculum. Now, from September 2014, when the new national curriculum comes into force, maintained schools in England will be required to teach the subject computing, which includes a substantial focus on computer science.

But a new report by innovation charity Nesta and the TES based on data from a YouGov survey found that 60% of England’s teachers were not confident delivering this new computing curriculum. Given repeated warnings over the introduction of the new subject, the apparent surprise at this lack of preparedness by teachers seems unjustified. Gove’s replacement as secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, will have to deal with this looming disaster.

Many of the teachers included in the 60% figure are secondary school teachers, and not all secondary school teachers will have to teach computing. Looking specifically at the responses from the 427 primary school teachers and 316 information and communication technology (ICT) teachers questioned in the survey, the proportions who are not confident in teaching computing fall to 53% and 48% respectively. This is still too high, but unsurprising given our prior knowledge of the low level of subject expertise that primary school and ICT teachers had of computer science.

Under-skilled workforce

Data from the teacher workforce survey indicates that in November 2013 there were 15,400 ICT teachers in publicly funded secondary schools in England. Of these, 55.1% did not have any post A Level qualification relevant to teaching ICT. The new YouGov Survey data indicates that only 16% of primary respondents and 13% of respondents who teach ICT had gained experience of computer science in higher education.

In the light of this very low level of subject knowledge within the teaching workforce, in 2012 the Royal Society Report on Computing in Schools recommended that: “only the teaching of digital literacy is made statutory at this point”. They also recommended that the government ensure that adequate initial and continuing professional development be provided to build the capacity for computer science to be taught in schools.

While several million pounds has been provided, plus additional training programmes started with Microsoft, Google and IBM for the professional development of computer science teachers since then, this pales in insignificance relative to the number of teachers who need support.

According to the teacher workforce survey, there were more than 194,000 nursery and primary school teachers in addition to the 15,400 ICT teachers in secondary schools in England in 2013. The vast majority of primary school teachers in England have to deliver the whole curriculum to their class, including computing. Thus, every million pounds provided for the professional development of computing knowledge represents roughly £5 per teacher who is expected to teach the subject.

It is not surprising that many people, including representatives from relevant subject associations such as Naace, CAS and ITTE have repeatedly warned about the problem of the continuing lack of capacity within the teaching force to deliver the new computing curriculum.

An additional problem is that computing as a subject is a relatively low priority for many primary school teachers. While most spend five hours per week explicitly teaching language and literacy and five hours per week teaching numeracy and mathematics, very few will spend as much as one hour per week explicitly teaching computing. It has to sit alongside all the other national curriculum subjects, such as science, history, music, and art and design.

Little sense of urgency

The YouGov survey indicates that the most likely source of support for teachers with getting to grips with the new computing curriculum is “other teachers in their own school”. Given the lack of relevant subject knowledge within the profession, this looks like the blind leading the blind.

Even more worryingly, according to the YouGov survey, almost a third of primary (33%) and ICT teachers (27%) have not looked for any support from any source. Furthermore, 20% of primary and 16% of ICT teachers were not planning to look anywhere else for support, guidance or resources to prepare for the new computing curriculum.

Perhaps most alarming of all, if the YouGov data is to be believed, is the very low level of familiarity that primary school and ICT teachers have with aspects of the computing curriculum that most people would expect any teacher to know about, as the graphs below illustrate.

Graph 1: Primary and junior teachers’ familiarity with aspects of computing, survey of 427 teachers. YouGov survey, Nesta. Graph by Peter Twining
Graph 2: ICT teachers’ familiarity with aspects of computing, survey of 316 teachers. YouGov survey, Nesta. Graph by Peter Twining

Its not too surprising that many teachers are unfamiliar with terms such as “algorithms” or “computational thinking”, nor that they are unfamiliar with organisations offering help to teachers such as Computing at School. But it is shocking that many teachers report that they have never heard terms such as “copyright”, “collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data” or “e-safety”, and have no experience of these things either inside or outside school.

If the YouGov data is credible, then we should be seriously alarmed at what children are going to be learning come September.