School computing ‘an unfocused mess’

'Boring' school computing is turning pupils off, says academic

School computing ‘an unfocussed mess’, says professor

An expert in cybersecurity is calling for schools to lose funding if they drop or demote computing science, as he criticised the standard of the subject as taught across the UK.

Professor Bill Buchanan, the head of the Cyber Academy at Edinburgh Napier University, who advised the Scottish government in the wake of the NHS cyber attack last year, has analysed figures on the number of pupils opting to take computing science at National 5 and Higher (roughly equivalent to GCSE and A-level in England).

The figures highlight the small number of girls engaging with the subject and show that between 2016 and 2017 entries for computing science at National 5 dropped by 6 per cent, while computing science was only the 14th most popular subject at Higher last year, with twice as many pupils taking PE.

Professor Buchanan concluded that “kids are picking subjects for their easiness, and not for a future career”, but argued they were also being turned off computing science because of “boring” lessons. He described computing science in school as “an unfocused mess with a complete lack of proper investment” and called on staff to stop “teaching trivial, out-of-date and useless knowledge, and concentrate on proper skills development”.

While Professor Buchanan’s analysis focused on the Scottish system, he said his conclusions also applied to England – where computing qualifications have recently been changed – and Wales. 

He called for computing science teachers to be paid more and recruited from abroad if necessary, saying the “white heat of technology is certainly not on the agenda at schools, and pupils (and teachers) continue to drift away”.

He argued secondaries needed to “get rid of labs full of networked computers” and to invest instead in Raspberry Pis – tiny and affordable computers – so every pupil could learn to code, not just those with parents capable of sending them to “external coding classes”.

This would be “a massive step forward” but instead the subject had tried “to fuse bits and pieces of software and systems, and doesn’t manage to do either of them properly”, he said.

In a piece published on the online platform, Medium, and entitled The Long-term Neglect of Computer Science at School in Scotland Professor Buchanan said: “In the UK, there has seldom been, in recent memory, such a time of economic risk, and our kids deserve a stable future, and to have the skills that will allow them to face the challenges that this generation is putting in their way. We thus need to switch them on to the possibilities that technology can bring to their work, and stop switching them off with boring computer science classes. To create a nation of proper coders would be much better than a nation that knew the difference between a GIF and a PNG file.”

Listing over a dozen potential solutions he wrote: “Don’t allow schools to drop or demote the subject. If they do, they should lose funding.”

He also recommended: “Get great teachers in place, and train them on the best of technology. If we can’t get enough teachers, pay them more or get from around the world, and make it a KPI [key performance indicator] for schools to improve their standards and resources.”

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