Code to joy

16th January 2015 at 00:00
For years ICT was a neglected and low-status subject in schools. But now computing education is undergoing an astonishing transformation - and England is in the vanguard. The world is watching, writes Simon Peyton Jones

We are on the brink of a major revolution in education. Not all revolutions are for the better, of course, but this one is. In England, the subject ICT has been renamed "computing" and, for the first time anywhere in the world, it contains a substantial strand of computer science and programming, starting at primary school.

It's a change that is pregnant with opportunity and risk, and the rest of the world is watching us with intense interest. But why do we need a revolution? Where did we go wrong?

The story starts in the early 1980s, the era of the BBC Micro, which single-handedly moved the microprocessor-based personal computer from the hobbyist's bench to the kitchen table and the classroom. These early Micros had fairly primitive software - all you could do was program them in a language called Basic. Kids thought it was fun to run into W H Smith, where you could find these computers, and type 10 PRINT "[they would insert a rude word here]"; 20 GOTO 10 and run out again.

Then the IBM PC arrived and suddenly personal computers were useful, as well as fun. They were also more opaque and less programmable. Office productivity software became the norm; employers started demanding basic IT skills and schools responded. Few students had a PC at home, so teaching children how to use them purposefully made a lot of sense.

Thus, when England's first national curriculum was launched in 1990, it included "IT capability". In 1996 this became "information technology" and was an element of design technology. In 2000 it became a distinct subject, ICT. These were progressive ideas at the time; even today, many countries have no statutory provision at primary level for any form of computing.


But by 2005 it was clear that ICT was failing our children. Many students had computers at home and arrived at school already proficient with the technology. Proficiency does not always imply understanding, but instruction in elementary software skills (which was what happened in too many schools) became counterproductive because it taught students things they felt they already knew.

Meanwhile, ICT qualifications proliferated and, for understandable reasons, they focused on coursework, which could sometimes be submitted repeatedly. League-table pressure led schools to seize on this fact and sweep large numbers of students into ICT, where they could get good grades despite weak motivation. Indeed, school leaders perceived ICT as a useful but easy subject, one that could be taught by a non-specialist teacher with a spare period - something that would never happen with English or maths. ICT never became established as a high-status subject in its own right; it was often conflated with the use of technology to enhance learning across the curriculum, or even with the school's management information systems.

None of this was the fault of ICT teachers, but it was deeply demoralising for them. Students voted with their feet: the number taking A-level computing fell every year, halving between 2001 and 2009 from a low initial base of 10,000 (maths has about 80,000 entries). University admissions tutors ignored ICT qualifications altogether; they were not mentioned in the Russell Group's influential Informed Choices guide to post-16 subject options.

A succession of national reports in the late 2000s criticised the status quo, including Ofsted's 2009 publication The Importance of ICT, which found that "too many of the lessons seen during the survey emphasised the development of skills in using specific software at the expense of improving students' ICT capability".

So much for the symptoms. What of the causes?

We teach our children enduring, foundational subject disciplines such as maths, natural science, history and English. These subject disciplines offer a body of knowledge, principles, methods and ideas that equip children to make sense of the world around them. Building on these disciplines, we also teach our children useful, applicable skills: how to create an articulate presentation, play a musical instrument, make a dress, read a map or ride a bicycle.

But in ICT we unconsciously came to focus on the applicable skills (which are useful) while losing sight of the underlying subject discipline: computer science. This emphasis was implicit in the very title of the subject - information and communication technology.

Motivated by this analysis, the Computing At School working group (CAS) was formed in 2007 out of a number of grass-roots organisations. It had a single aim: to establish computer science as a foundational subject that every child would study from primary school onwards. This was, and remains, a radical change of perspective. To most people, computer science is still a geeky university-level vocational subject that allows socially challenged males to get a good job.

CAS' goal was not to abandon ICT - much of which was good - but to repurpose it as part of a substantial subject discipline, motivated by ideas rather than technology. Subject disciplines underpin an education that will last a lifetime, because they articulate principles and insights that survive successive waves of technology. Our children must not come to believe that their sleek computers are essentially magic - powerful, but under someone else's control. We want them to create as well as consume, to understand as well as use. This may be idealistic but it is also realistic. As US writer Douglas Rushkoff puts it, the choice is simple: program or be programmed.

By 2011, things were moving fast. A review of the entire national curriculum was ordered by England's education secretary Michael Gove. The Next Gen skills report made the case for computer science in the curriculum and, a year later, the Royal Society released an influential publication entitled Shut Down or Restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools. Until 2009 there were no GCSEs in computer science, but by 2013 every exam board had one and Gove had made computer science part of the English Baccalaureate performance measure. In summer 2012, the Department for Education invited a working group - hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT - to draft the new programmes of study for computing. The result (after DfE editing) was launched in September 2014.

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