The following are my own thoughts and observations on the direction ICT and Computer Science are taking in NI. If you disagree, please comment. They have come from many discussions I have had with other members of Computing At School.
Where we are: Education is divided between two ministers, in our Assembly. School (age 4-18) is looked after by the Department of Education NI (DENI) and Minister John O’Dowd (Sinn Fein). FHE, which includes age 16+ FE Colleges are the remit of the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) and Minister Stephen Farry (Alliance).
Both ministers have said that Computer Science is a good thing. Both have said that education-for-employability is a good thing. In 2012, O’Dowd stated in the Assembly that he would ask CCEA to examine the need for Computer Science throughout the school curriculum – as far as I know, they are still examining it (if you know of any public statements, let me know).
Meanwhile the complaint of the FE Colleges and Universities, and of Farry, is that students currently arrive to do Computer Science courses and a lot think it will be a few years of PowerPoint and Excel. FHE points the finger of blame at the school curriculum. Yes, O’Dowd says Computer Science is a good thing, but schools are not hurrying to implement it.
Where we are going: is anybody’s guess. However, with a quarter of all job adverts on nijobfinder.co.uk being in IT, and specifically in software development/maintenance/etc., and with a number of big firms starting to wonder where new talent will come from, there is massive frustration with the educational system.
CAS (Computing at School) have talked with politicians, who in turn have asked questions in the Assembly, and many teachers or other concerned people have written to their representatives.
However, a clear action plan from DENI would be of considerable help.
Where we are: Classroom 2000 (C2k) is a managed service that provides a networked infrastructure, PCs and software to all schools. When it arrived in all post-primary a decade ago, they declined to support software development tools: this effectively terminated many schools’ ability to deliver A-level Computer Science, which had been delivered via the schools’ own networks until that point. A handful of schools retained their own parallel network, from their own budgets, but over time, the numbers able to do this declined (see A-level, below).
Presently, C2k permit IDEs that support interpreted languages that run on a virtual machine (e.g. Java, Python). Schools must install themselves (and work around various network restrictions in the process). A virtual machine is also provided which schools can configure (again, heavily restricted). Likewise, teachers of ICT often report that some things that they want to do are not supported.
Where we are going: C2k will soon become the Educational Network for Northern Ireland and the requirements for the tools needed to support Computer Science to A-level are being considered. C2k have been in useful discussion with CCEA and CAS and requests have been made for a clear list of programming tools to be supported as-standard. This includes IDEs to support the full range of languages taught at GCSE and A-level. Nothing has been confirmed yet, but they are well aware of the need for a range of programming tools that will support all GCSE/GCE Computer Science specifications.
Key Stage 2
Where we are: a new, less-prescriptive curriculum now allows teachers more flexibility to innovate. A steadily growing number of Primary Schools are using tools such as Scratch. In the end-of-KS2 assessment tasks, designed by CCEA, a number of programming tasks are included.
I am not an expert on KS2 – and would be grateful for any feedback in this area.
From talking with a few KS2 teachers, it’s interesting to discover ‘Bee Bots’ – programmable Bees that roam the floor are doing what Logo Turtles did 30 years ago, in some schools. Daisy the Dinosaur, a very simple drag-and-drop programming tool is used in some places- leading nicely to Scratch. A lack of uniform provision here does mean some kids will arrive in KS3, knowing more than others about tools that are used in KS3 (e.g. Scratch). However, this already happens with aspects of Maths, English, Science, etc., and KS3 teachers are well used to it. My own view is that encouraging innovation at KS2 will make it more likely that such ideas spread out to many schools, which in turn will benefit KS3 teachers as they will be able to expect most new students to already know a little of programming.
Key Stage 3
Where we are: there are major concerns in this area. Despite much negative feeling from teachers, CCEA are pressing ahead with their Key Stage 3 assessment scheme which will soon become compulsory. The need for KS3 assessment is mandated by DENI, who have asked CCEA to administer it. This involves assessing the use of cross-curricular ICT skills, through recognised KS3 subjects only. Neither ICT nor Computer Science are recognised as discrete subjects that schools are expected to deliver at KS3.
Effects of this include:
- Some schools withdrawing ICT periods completely from the KS3 timetable, as a need is no longer seen, because ICT is now taught through all subjects. However, some schools have allowed these to be converted to Computer Science periods.
- ICT being assessed by people who are not subject experts. So, while the scheme allows a History teacher to design a ‘Chop the Head off King Charles’ app, few History teachers will have the skills to teach or assess this. Hence, there are concerns that the scheme may aim to the lowest common denominator.
- It is time consuming to deliver, administer and assess. The need for teachers to make it manageable for themselves may reinforce a perception that ICT=MS Office, thus affecting GCSE uptake.
- It does present opportunities for creative, cross-curricular ICT. For this to be fully realised, the administrative burden must be reduced.
Where we are going: Union action is currently in place to boycott this scheme. OCR Ireland are trying to run their Cambridge Nationals in ICT as an alternative. However DENI have ruled that for this to be allowed, CCEA must certify tasks for individual schools, to decide whether they are acceptable for the DENI assessment. Presently, for the CCEA scheme, schools must submit all their tasks to CCEA for CCEA to decide whether they are appropriate. If the scheme is to reach its full potential, of effective cross-curricular ICT, the administrative overhead needs to be removed. Not trusting teachers to determine the suitability of work – instead, relying on a cumbersome back-and-forth approval process – has already hamstrung it.
Key Stage 4 (GCSE)
Where we are: CCEA’s GCSE ICT now allows programming. This is a major development. A games-development task, originally designed with MS Office in mind, can be interpreted to allow Scratch, Greenfoot, GameMaker, etc. CCEA endorse such approaches. Other compulsory tasks include PowerPoint, Excel, Access and web-development (often done in Frontpage 2003, part of the C2k standard package).
A growing handful of schools offer GCSE Computer Science. However, a number of CAS members have reported that participation in OCR/AQA training has not been supported by their schools, due to financial constraints. DENI fund participation in CCEA training, but not that of other boards. CCEA currently have no plans to offer GCSE Computer Science.
Where we are going: assuming C2k deliver IDEs as part of their standard installation, schools will have more flexibility in what software to use. Teachers who have introduced programming in KS3 have seen demand for GCSE Computer Science grow, which will lead to A-level demand. The CCEA ICT course is sparking increased demand for programming, either as part of A-level Computing, or as an option within ICT.
Key Stage 5 (A-level)
Where we are: CCEA withdrew A-level Computer Science in 2002. In 2002, there were 1201 students sitting the final A-level exam (mostly CCEA, some AQA and OCR). In 2012, there were 52 (AQA, OCR). In most schools, CCEA ICT is offered in its place (some schools have chosen ICT in preference to Computing; others have chosen ICT as the next-best-thing, as they feel unable to deliver Computing within the managed service). Only a few schools offer both ICT and Computing. Most schools offer the CCEA course and do coursework via Frontpage and Access/Excel (AS) and Access (A2). The CCEA specification clearly states that programmed solutions are “not within the spirit” of the specification. Requests for an optional programming module at each revision of the specification have been declined. Instead, a database-centric model is followed, which excludes many options for programming, as well as other applications of ICT. A smaller number of schools offer the AQA ICT course and the CCEA Applied ICT course, both of which offer more freedom.
A number of teachers have reported that concerned Principals have pushed them towards ICT, in place of Computer Science, because of a perception that ICT delivers better grades.
Where we are going: CCEA have developed a new Software Systems Development A-level, at the request of the Department for Employment and Learning, for delivery from September 2013. This is a major, and welcome, change in direction. The expected audience are FHE Colleges and a number of schools who do not currently offer Computer Science. Most schools who currently offer A-level Computer Science are likely to remain with their current provider for the time being, until they assess the effectiveness of CCEA’s new course.
Both AQA and OCR are keen to expand Computer Science provision. With a number of schools who do not offer A-level Computer Science offering it at GCSE, or intending to do so, A-level demand is likely to increase. School Principals are aware of developments in England regarding ICT and the drive towards Computer Science, and many are receiving enquiries from parents. Issues in the local economy and job market are also raising awareness of Computer Science.
Successful delivery of Computer Science or the new Software and Systems Development course depends on improved provision from C2k. Many schools simply do not have time or resources to work around restrictions that are currently in place.
Where are we: ICT is taught by a broad spectrum of teachers. At one end, there are those who would prefer to teach Computer Science and who will gladly return to it. At the other, there are those who came from other subjects and who are content with ICT unless they are given time for training. In the middle, there are varying shades of preference. There are also concerns about whether a broad spectrum of students will do as well in Computer Science as they do in ICT, especially if it is not introduced to them until late in their school careers.
Very little time and money for training exists. Local universities have suggested a willingness to offer training, if money was available. This may be a major downfall, if not addressed. Many ICT teachers are willing to use Scratch at Key Stage 2/3 and a lot are competent to self-learn the skills needed for GCSE. However, A-level may be a major challenge for many if they are not allowed time to properly train.
STEM funding was recently made available via the Southern Education and Library Board, for a small number of ICT teachers. This included 3 days of training (including Python, C#) and 2 days of placement within a software development company. However more training, for more people, is clearly needed.
Where we are going: some teachers are investing their own time and money in training, as they are keep to teach Computer Science. However, it is not feasible (or fair) to expect all teachers to do this – especially those for whom Computer Science is an entirely new subject. Advances in the perception of Computer Science and in the demand for it will be negated if the subject cannot be delivered effectively.