Response to computing curriculum shows the profession at its best

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Say what you will about Michael Gove; one thing he got right was the replacement of ICT in schools with a cutting-edge curriculum for computing. The DfE promised to make it ‘the envy of the world’, and they did. No other curriculum incorporates such a substantial strand of computer science and programming that begins so young, and global interest is well and truly piqued.

Advocates for computing in schools will tell you the change was a long time coming, but like many of Gove’s major initiatives, in practice, seemed rather rushed. With its implementation set for September 2014 (just in time, if one were to be entirely cynical, to impact the 2015 General Election), schools had just one year to prepare. And that, of course, was on top of other major reforms, including a new, more challenging curriculum in every subject area. It simply wasn’t long enough.

At the Academies Show last week, Professor Achim Jung of Birmingham University provided the cautionary tale of New Mathematics from the 1960s. ‘New Math’ was a brief, dramatic change to the way mathematics was taught in American schools, mainly as a knee-jerk, panic response to the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik 1. It failed within the decade. Why? Mainly because teachers didn’t understand the content, and neither did parents. As singer-songwriter and university lecturer Tom Lehrer famously satirised, ‘It’s so simple, so very simple, that only a child can do it’.

Now, 50 years later, we are in danger of a similar situation. Teachers were not taught computing at school, neither did they learn how to teach it during training. Even now, a year from its launch, teachers are still saying they are not confident delivering the content of the new curriculum; one survey put the figure at an alarming one in three. And it’s no wonder when teacher training is patchy at best. A recent research report revealed the national disparity, with just over one in three schools (34 per cent) admitting to not spending a single penny on training their teachers in coding – arguably the most daunting aspect of the new curriculum – in the past year, and nearly one in four (22 per cent) spending over £3000. But really, who can blame the schools that spent so little? Cuts to school funding have been brutal, and for most schools, the recent spending review provided little hope for improvement.

The government has poured millions into the new computing curriculum this year, match-funding projects backed by digital giants Microsoft, Google, Facebook and more. But what can teachers do when their schools are not devoting – or just don’t have – the time and resources needed for them to make the most of these opportunities?

It’s a testament, really, to the profession and its eagerness to learn and improve, that teachers all over the country are banding together to take control of their own CPD. The grassroots Computing at School (CAS) community, for example, is growing at an exponential rate, and now has over 20,000 members. Excitingly, CAS has developed a network of excellence in computer science, which currently stands at around 1500 schools, of which 587 are lead schools committed to supporting other schools in their local community. Meanwhile, online CAS projects such as Barefoot Computing, Quickstart Computing and Teach Primary Computing provide well-curated advice on the planning, teaching and assessment of the curriculum, as well as reams of free resources and activity ideas. (You can find out more about these websites and other online tools in our website review article, 'Connected computing').

Even more excitingly, it’s not just their colleagues teachers are turning to for help. Today’s children have grown up with technology (one in three under-15s own a tablet, said Ofcom over a year ago), and by the time they reach the classroom, they have an enormous advantage over the adults there. Are forwardthinking teachers making the most of this unique resource? Some are definitely beginning to. Speaking at the Academies Show, tech trainer James Hannam mentioned one primary school in Cheshire, where a young pupil stood up in a crowded staffroom and taught the entire teacher body how to use Google. And in Creative Teaching & Learning's recent cover story, 'How to embed technology in science and maths', when Chris Waterworth asked his students to come up with ways they could use Minecraft in school, he was delighted when one boy suggested a virtual experiment.

As Chris himself says, ‘[Pupils] are the experts... just ask them’.

Creative Teaching & Learning