Decline in CS in Scottish Schools: CAS-Scotland 2014 Report #CSEdWeek

December 10, 2014 at 8:03 am 6 comments

The 2014 report from Computing At School (CAS) Scotland is out on the status of computer science education nationwide (see the report here).  The results are remarkable and distressing.  CAS Scotland succeeded at getting computer science to be a recognized subject, with the goal of replacing the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) curriculum.  However, computer science education in schools has declined dramatically.  Roger McDermott, who pointed out the report to me, is wondering if the push to improve the rigor of computing in schools may have led to the decline.

Some of the key findings (all of the points below are quotes from the report):

  • There has been a drop of 14% in Computing Science teachers over the last two years. Overall the number of Computing Science teachers in Scotland has gone down from 866 in 2007 to 773 in 2012 and to 663 in 2014. Low uptake, staff leaving and a need to reduce staffing were reasons given by some Local Authorities for the reduction. The number of schools without any Computing Science teachers has gone up slightly from 7.6% in 2012 (27 schools) to 12 % in 2014.
  • One school mentioned that one factor was Universities don’t require Higher Computing Science as an entry requirement:

    “[We] stopped offering certificate computing over ten years ago. The Head Teacher decided that with reducing staffing, low uptake by pupils and the fact that the higher was not required for further and higher education entry that certificate classes were not viable.”

  • Another area of concern is the lack of Computing Science teachers. There are currently not enough Computing Science teachers to address demand. Ten local authorities out of the 32 said that they had problems recruiting Computing Science teachers.
  • Many schools claim to be delivering Computing Science outcomes across the curriculum, but there is evidence of confusion with ICT skills.
  • The target for PGDE Computing in Scotland (the path to becoming a CS teacher in Scotland — see this link for an explanation) this year was 25 students (with a maximum cap set at 42 places). To date, 20 offers have been accepted for courses at Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities.

The problems that CAS-Scotland is facing are quite similar to ones we’re facing the United States:  Too few CS teachers, too few teachers interested in becoming CS teachers, a high drop-out rate among CS teachers (as already seen in ExploringCS), and a lack of value at the University level which influences perception at the high school level.  A mandate to teach computer science in all schools doesn’t make it happen.  Scotland is a smaller country which makes the problem more manageable, and they are already far ahead of the United States in terms of curriculum, teacher preparation programs, and having CS teachers in schools.  (Does anyone else look wistfully at that 12% of schools not teaching CS?  Only 12%?)  We need to watch how Scotland solves these problems, because we might able to use their solutions.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 10, 2014 at 9:13 am

    > Roger McDermott, who pointed out the report to me, is wondering if the push to improve the rigor of computing in schools may have led to the decline.

    The listed items don’t square with this. So what’s the argument for why the push to improve rigor may have led to the decline?

    I’ve seen several Program by Design teachers leave over the past year for industry. I expect the same thing is happening in Scotland, which has a good IT base (as does its neighbor south of the solid border, or its neighbors west of the liquid border).

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  December 10, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      I understand that some of the ICT teachers left, rather than dealing with the new curriculum. Perhaps Peter can tell us if that’s true.

      • 3. Peter Donaldson  |  December 10, 2014 at 5:55 pm

        Hi Mark,

        unlike the rest of the UK, we’ve never had ICT teachers. The General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) maintains teacher standards and everyone registered to teach Computing needed to have a certain number of university points in Computing related topics before they started their teacher training. In the 80s many existing teachers did a conversion course but anyone 40 or under will have a degree or equivalent in an IT related subject. For example I have a BSc honours in Computer Science from the University of Edinburgh.

        What has happened is that some of us have avoided the more difficult technical elements of the subject avoiding teaching programming in any great depth by focusing on the information systems courses. This has meant some of us have become deskilled with older teachers perhaps deciding to retire rather than try to catch up.

        We really need to redefine what cs for all means and how we may go about making the core concepts easier to learn.

  • 4. Peter Donaldson  |  December 10, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Hi Mark,

    good to see the report gaining a wider audience however there are a couple of things that I need to mention.

    Scotland didn’t really pursue ICT as aggressively as the rest of the UK. Previously in primary and early secondary we had ICT 5-14 guidance but in the 3rd to 6th year of secondary school we had Computing qualifications as well as Information Systems qualifications. Information Systems included data modelling and relational database design as well as other information orientated topics that you would typically find in a business information systems degree. The computing qualifications focused on some core topics traditionally found in a CS degree such as programming, networking and basic computer architecture.

    When Curriculum for Excellence (I know it’s a name just asking for trouble) was introduced there were experiences and outcomes specifically for Computing Science and for ICT to enhance learning that covered primary up to 3rd year of Secondary. Unfortunately schools were also given a huge amount of flexibility to redesign their curriculum and that’s where the problems really began.

    Essentially what happened was that time that Computing specialists would have had with all pupils in 1st to 3rd year was cut compared to previous levels. Many schools introduced subject choices in 1st to 3rd year which tended to affect technology and creative arts more heavily than other curricular areas. The National 4 and 5 Computing Science qualifications that replaced Standard Grade were more challenging but had been designed with the assumption that a firm foundation was put in place at some point in 1st to 3rd year. Without this foundation pupils have found it much more challenging to study N4 or N5 Computing Science in 1 year instead of Standard Grade Computing over 2 years from a standing start.

    We also had two separate qualifications, Computing and Information Systems, available at different levels merged into one Computing Science qualification at N4, 5, Higher and Advanced Higher levels. This was at the request of our universities but they then didn’t publicly increase their level of support for the new qualification. Other specialists in technologies (which is where Computing Science currently sits) saw an often dramatic increase in the number of options they could offer making technology option columns even busy than they’ve traditionally been.

    Our biggest issue was that before CAS Scotland was formed we didn’t have a unified voice that could advocate on our behalf. Many other specialist teachers thought we just taught pupils how to use applications and didn’t understand or value our contribution to a pupils broader education.

    We are now in the process of trying to reinvent and rejuvenate CS and really grapple with some of the essential difficulties around developing algorithmic understanding. Part of this is the PLAN C programme which involves over 50 lead teachers running 28 local hubs with 300 other Computing teachers involved. They have a chance to regularly meet during the year and actively explore an aspect of CS pedagogy before applying what they’ve learned to their own classroom practice. So far most hubs have met 3 or 4 times since the Summer and will have met 8 to 10 times by the Summer of 2015.

    Issues they’ve explored so far have included
    -program visualisation and using tracing exercises at different levels of detail as a learning tool.
    -understanding aspects of code comprehension using the block model and exercises to help students identify relevant structures.
    -using peer instruction
    -alternative conceptions, particularly related to programming, and contributing factors that may have helped to cause their formation.
    -informal and formal languages and why semi-formal pseudocode is not an appropriate way of testing program comprehension in the final exam.

  • […] Decline in CS in Scottish Schools: CAS-Scotland 2014 Report #CSEdWeek […]

  • […] When I wrote about this in 2014 (the trend has only continued), I pointed out that part of the problem is teachers refusing to shift from teaching Office applications to computer science.  The current report doesn’t give us much more insight into why. The point I found most interesting was that Scottish student numbers dropped 11%, and teacher numbers in the other disciplines are also declining (e.g., mathematics teachers are declining by 6% over the same period), but at a much slower rate than the CS decline of 25%. That makes sense too — if you’re a teacher and things are getting tough, stick with the “core” subjects, not the “new” one.  It’s worth asking, “How do we avoid this in the US?” and “Can we avoid it?” […]


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