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Regional differences in the UK’s computing curriculum

Teaching young people about the importance of digital skills is a focus of the education system across the UK, but the delivery of these skills is different across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – who has it right?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Are schools delivering on digital skills?

With computing skills crucially important in today’s society and the focus on what is required changing so rapidly, most developed countries are on a journey to ensure their school curricula are fit for purpose.

Nowhere is this truer than in the UK, which, due to the devolved nature of government in each of its four regions – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – has seen a marked divergence in syllabuses.

Views of what constitute pros and cons differ based on where individuals are coming from in the debate. But what is clear is that all of the approaches are on a spectrum, with England and its focus on computer science as a dedicated subject at one end, and Northern Ireland with its emphasis on cross-curriculum digital skills development at the other.

Elizabeth Tweedale, chief executive of coding education startup Cypher, says that while each method “includes a lot of good concepts”, she favours the English system.

“In my view, the most important thing is to have an understanding of the basics of computer science and computational thinking and to apply that in the real world,” she says. “So it’s about creating real projects using computer science as the basis, which involves thinking about it as a subject in the same way as maths and English, and then applying it to different problems. 

The idea is that unless both learners and teachers have a fundamental understanding of computing and its underlying concepts, “they won’t know how to apply technology in a functional way in other areas”, says Tweedale.

Simon Peyton Jones, computer science researcher at Microsoft Research and chair of Computing at School (CAS) and the National Centre for Computing Education, agrees.

“You can’t debate a question, such as, ‘What is the appropriate use of artificial intelligence [AI]?’, without knowing how the digital world works,” he says. “So computer science isn’t just for software engineers – it’s for future lawyers, politicians and plumbers, who all need a fundamental understanding of how computers work.”

Transient IT skills

But James Browning, head of digital platforms at RM Education, takes a different view. As many jobs are likely to be redefined and reinvented over the next decade or so, he believes a lot of the skills young people are currently being taught will be useless.

For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development deems around 14% of all jobs across the 32 member countries it surveyed to be at high risk of disappearing by 2030, while a further 32% face significant change.

“Computer science isn’t just for software engineers – it’s for future lawyers, politicians and plumbers, who all need a fundamental understanding of how computers work”
Simon Peyton Jones, Microsoft Research

“So the most beneficial thing is to look at raw skills and different ways of thinking rather than knowledge-based stuff,” says Browning. “I favour an approach in which computing is integrated across the wider curriculum and looks at the way we use technology rather than thinking about it in a separate way like, say, maths and English.”

The point, he says, is that in the same way that people who drive cars do not need to become engineers or mechanics, it is also not necessary for learners to have an in-depth understanding of the internal workings of computers to become tech-savvy. Therefore, he favours the Northern Irish model.

“I’d like to see students being taught the basics of how AI works, for instance, but also its defining principles, direction of travel and what needs to be considered ethically and socially over the next 20 years,” says Browning.

At the same time, he acknowledges there is a clear difference between providing learners with the skills required to go about their life and work, and the expertise needed by those wishing to pursue a career in computing. As a result, in an ideal world, both approaches would be adopted rather than just one or the other.

“My view, and that of the consensus, appears to be that, over time, the two approaches should, and will, come together by hook or by crook. It certainly seems to be the direction of travel anyway,” concludes Browning.

The computing curriculum in each UK region

England

The national curriculum for computing is taught to all learners aged between six (Key Stage 1) and 14 (Key Stage 3) as a compulsory subject. The current syllabus consists of three elements:

  1. Computer science: How digital systems work and how to put this knowledge into practice through programming;
  2. Information technology: How to create programs, systems and content;
  3. Digital literacy: How to use and develop ideas with ICT to make learners workplace-ready and able to actively participate in a digital world.

There is also a GCSE qualification in Computer Science.

But the new curriculum – which, according to RM’s Browning was meant to create a new generation of programmers – has been the subject of much criticism.

“The most important thing is to have an understanding of the basics of computer science and computational thinking and to apply that in the real world”
Elizabeth Tweedale, Cypher

Peter Kemp, senior lecturer of computing education at the University of Roehampton, for example, believes that, in marked contrast to its “generalist” Information and Communication Technology (ICT) predecessor, which focused on teaching students how to use applications such as spreadsheets, it has taken a “very specialist” turn. But this situation, along with a lack of teachers trained in the subject, has led to fewer students – particularly girls – taking the subject as a GCSE qualification.

Therefore, despite the government’s moratorium on curriculum change, Kemp says he would like to see the introduction of a more general computing qualification alongside the current computer science offering in a bid to boost its appeal and applicability.

As for the teacher skills shortage, RM’s Browning blames it on the fact they were “thrown in at the deep end” following the change in 2014. “The curriculum went overnight from being ICT to computer science, and teachers weren’t well prepared to teach it,” he says. “It was a big ask as they were being asked to be much more technical – and it’s not been successful.”

As a result, in October 2017, the government tried to address the issue by assigning England £84m (out of a total £100m for all of the regions) towards setting up a National Computing Centre for Education (NCCE). The aim of the NCCE’s four-year programme, which is still a work in progress, is to create sector resources and set up a network of 40 hubs to train and equip teachers in their region.

Scotland

Computing science is not a standalone subject in Scotland, but forms an element of Technologies, one of eight key areas that make up the country’s Curriculum for Excellence. Its three core goals are to ensure learners can:

  1. Understand the world by means of computational thinking;
  2. Comprehend and analyse computing technology;
  3. Design, build and test computing solutions.

Other Technologies subjects, which are mandatory for students between the ages of three and 15, comprise:

  • Digital literacy;
  • Technological developments in society;
  • Craft, design engineering and graphics;
  • Food and textiles.

The last four areas are meant to provide suitable contexts for pupils to develop their technological skills and knowledge. In other words, the aim of this approach is to provide them both with specific training in computing science skills, such as coding, and experience of how to use them on a cross-curriculum basis.

It is also possible to take Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework level four, five and six qualifications in computing science and cyber security.

RM’s Browning says: “In Scotland, they’re probably doing a slightly better job than the English of thinking broadly, but there is an argument that they’re paying a bit of lip service to it and not going deep enough.”

As in England, ensuring that teachers are adequately trained appears to be an issue. Changes to the Technologies curriculum guidance, which was last updated in March 2017 with input from industry, academia, local authorities and teachers, provided educators with a much more detailed framework of what students are expected to learn.

But embedding this shift is “expected to take time”, according to Kirsty McFaul, senior education officer at Education Scotland.

“Schools across Scotland were presented with significant change compared to the previous version, especially in computing science, and the digital skills team at Education Scotland, which comprises two education officers and six development officers, is working with all of our local authorities to support teachers to implement the refresh,” she says.

Wales

In its move away from single subject disciplines to thematic areas of learning, the new Welsh curriculum model, a draft version of which was announced at the end of April 2019, bears more resemblance to Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence than the English system.

An independent review of the entire syllabus for three- to 16-year-olds, conducted by Graham Donaldson on behalf of the Welsh Government, resulted in the addition of “digital competency” as a third cross-curricula focus, alongside literacy and numeracy. The review, which was published in February 2015, also adopted the recommendations of a 2013 review of the ICT curriculum.

According to Tom Crick, professor of digital education and policy at Swansea University, in an article entitled A university-based model for supporting computer science curriculum reform, these recommendations recognised, in particular, “the importance of separating digital competencies from the curriculum subject of computing, as well as significant opportunities for interdisciplinary learning across the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects”.

As a result, computer science will be placed into a new Science & Technology Area of Learning and Experience, which will replace the former Foundation and Key Stages individual subject structure with a broader approach.

Although the Digital Competence Framework (DCF) element has been available since September 2016, final versions of the other five areas of the curriculum – which include maths and numeracy, and languages, literacy and communication – as well as assessment arrangements, are not expected to appear until January 2020. The goal is to have them fully rolled out across the country by 2022 for all children currently in year three and below.

The DCF consists of four strands of equal importance:

  • Citizenship, which includes identity, image and reputation; health and wellbeing; digital rights, licensing and ownership; and online behaviour and cyber bullying;
  • Interacting and collaborating, which includes communication; collaboration; and storing and sharing;
  • Producing, which includes planning, sourcing and searching; creating; and evaluating and improving;
  • Data and computational thinking, which includes problem-solving and modelling; and data and information literacy.

Regional education consortia and Digital Pioneer schools are currently actively helping schools to implement the DCF, and a range of complementary resources have also been made available on the Hwb digital learning website.

But while Crick believes Wales is implementing an “innovative practitioner-led, co-produced curriculum reform model”, Cypher’s Tweedale is not so sure.

“The Welsh approach puts the responsibility on teachers to include digital competence in their lessons, but if they don’t have the confidence or resources to do so effectively, the curriculum falls apart,” she says. “They’ll just tick it off the list by saying their pupils used an iPad rather than using technology for proper problem-solving.”

Teaching unions, which are broadly supportive of the new curriculum’s aims, are also concerned that not enough resources are being put into training teachers to implement such major change.

Northern Ireland

The core tenets of the teaching curriculum in Northern Ireland (NI) consist of developing Cross-Curricular Skills (CCS) and Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities. This means that from the Early Years Foundation Stage to the end of Key Stage 3, “using ICT” is one of the three statutory CCS, alongside “communication” and “using mathematics”, which must be included in lessons.

The three key strands of the Digital Skills remit consist of becoming:

  1. Digital citizens: Furnishing learners with the skills to take part in the digital aspects of society safely and easily;
  2. Digital workers: Enabling students to use their digital skills at work or to further their learning;
  3. Digital makers: Providing pupils with the skills, which include programming, computational thinking and computing, to start creating their own technology.

There is also a GCE and GCSE qualification in Digital Technology.

RM’s Browning describes this broad-based, cross-curriculum approach as “very forward thinking in the way it’s designed” – although, on the downside, he says: “It doesn’t necessarily bring to the fore skills for people wanting to know how to work with the gubbins of how computers operate.”

“I’d like to see students being taught the basics of how AI works, its defining principles, direction of travel and what needs to be considered ethically and socially over the next 20 years”
James Browning, RM Education

A further challenge is that, like elsewhere, inadequate teacher training provision is an issue. But according to Irene Bell, head of Stem and a principal lecturer at Stranmillis University College, the situation has not been helped by the dissolution of the devolved government in January 2017, which “slowed the pace of discussion and the progress of computing in Northern Ireland”.

While the region was assigned £2.4m of the UK-wide £100m professional development package from Westminster, the absence of a working government has resulted in the money not being spent.

Moreover, although CAS NI and other higher education bodies have worked with the region’s Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment “to ensure that the agenda has progressed within the last two years”, Bell says things have not been easy.

While the Barefoot Foundation’s free-of-charge classroom resources and related teacher training programme for primary schools had already been endorsed before the government shutdown, which meant they were included in curriculum recommendations, the same level of teaching support has not been available in other parts of the school system.

Two-pronged approach to IT learning

In an ever-more technologically focused world, there would appear to be merit in ensuring students are equipped with both generalised digital and data literacy skills to help them deal with everyday life and work, while also ensuring there is a separate, specialised computer science stream/qualification for those wishing to pursue a career in tech.

The two approaches appear to be complementary rather than mutually exclusive, and indeed vital if the UK workforce of the future is to be in a position to compete against rivals on a progressively global stage.

Read more about the computing curriculum

  • At the launch of Ocado Technology’s AI:MMO educational game, a panel of experts said the computing curriculum needs an overhaul, but this cannot be achieved in a single government term of office.
  • The number of girls taking computing subjects at GCSE or equivalent level is significantly less than when the curriculum was introduced in 2014.

Read more on Diversity in IT

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So how can industry help? You can volunter we are looking for telecoms/networks staff working in london to support computing teacher professional development.  To come into a school and do a talk on careers in telecoms and networks! Can you help? Tweet @cas_london_crc if you can
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