Concerns about Computing in England’s Schools: What draws students and schools into CS?

July 12, 2017 at 7:00 am 1 comment

The most amazing and somewhat depressing session I attended at CAS 2017 was the presentation by Peter Kemp on the Roehampton report, a detailed analysis of what’s going on with computing education in England.  As a computing education researcher, I was frankly jealous. They have access to data that I cannot get in the US — for the whole country: demographics, attendance in CS classes, outcomes on tests, family income, and schools and districts that offer CS.

Even if you just read the Key Findings (executive summary), you’ll need a bit of translation if you’re not familiar with the UK system.

  • A GCSE is a General Certificate of Secondary Education.  Students need these to be able to go on to college-level studies.  It’s part of successful completion of high school. There was a GCSE in Information and Communications Technology (ICT), but that’s going away in favor of one in Computer Science.
  • A-Levels are roughly equivalent to Advanced Placement in the US.  There are A-Levels available in Computing.
  • Pupil Premium is funding given to a school for each child they enroll that are underprivileged, roughly like free and reduced lunch in the US.

I’m going to generalize and interpret some of the findings in the Roehampton report:

  • Computing is predominantly male and wealthier in England.  Almost 27% of the GCSE computing classes had no females at all.
  • Overall, less than 30% of schools offer computer science. 29.5% of urban schools offer GCSE computing, and 22.7% of rural schools.
  • Where there is computer science, the classes are too small to be sustainable.  The tweet below is about A-levels, which are on average less than 6 students each, where the government sees 11 as a sustainable size (e.g., it’s worth the cost of the teacher to serve those students).

What’s worse, as described in the BBC article linked below, is that ICT is going away and computer science is not growing rapidly.  In the end, there may be less computing for English students than before the new CS curriculum.

There are many explanations for these results. People at CAS who were involved in developing the new CS curriculum told me that they didn’t want to swap out ICT for CS.  They wanted both, but the decision was made to have rigorous CS instead of digital literacy.  I found this timeline interesting. Though obviously biased in favor of ICT, the author has a good point.  Maybe students and teachers don’t want coding.

I’m wondering about the meaning for the US and the rest of the world. The CAS movement is ahead of many national efforts to provide computing in primary and secondary schools for all students. Part of the belief of the AP CSP and CS for All movements in the US has been that if you have good curriculum and well-prepared teachers, schools will want to teach CS and kids (of all demographic groups) will want to take CS.  CAS offers terrific curriculum and high-quality professional development (see their Tenderfoot materials, for example). And yet, one hypothesis that explains the given data is that English students prefer digital literacy to computer science.

Maybe we have been wrong in how we go about computing education. Maybe access and curriculum aren’t enough. If students and teachers have prior negative conceptions about CS and coding, maybe the excellent curriculum and professional development from CAS is not enough to draw in the students nor to convince the schools to offer CS. Why should we expect it to be different in the US?  Is it enough that President Obama made CS for All a personal initiative?  Or do stories about sexism in the IT industry counteract that?  I’m dismayed that American CS faculty are pushing against recruiting women or making a special effort to retain them (see comments at CACM).  It’s not clear that it will be different in the US.

The old ICT course, which was the main way school students learned about computing, is being scrapped, with the last GCSE entrants taking the exam next year. The subject, which was described by critics as teaching little more than how to use Microsoft Office, is being replaced by the more rigorous computer science GCSE.

But figures from Ofqual showing entries for the exam rising to 67,800 this year from 61,220 in 2016 have set alarm bells ringing. With 58,600 still taking the ICT exam, the overall number getting a GCSE computing qualification has fallen slightly.

The British Computing Society says that when ICT disappears, the computer science exam will fail to fill the gap.

“If we don’t act now,” says Bill Mitchell from the BCS, “by 2020 we are likely to see the number of students studying computing at GCSE halve, when it should be doubling. If that happens, it will be a disaster for our children, and the future of the nation.”

Source: Computing in schools – alarm bells over England’s classes – BBC News

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