Computing faces staffing meltdown

21st November 2014 at 00:00
`Crucial' subject is threatened by recruitment crisis, experts say

Computing is suffering a "recruitment crisis" in schools, at a time when such expertise has become more crucial than ever, experts have warned.

The number of computing teachers has fallen by 14 per cent in two years, according to figures compiled by Computing at School Scotland (CAS Scotland) and shared exclusively with TESS. The news has prompted calls for an urgent recruitment drive to increase the number of student computing teachers entering the education system.

The CAS Scotland figures, obtained through Freedom of Information requests to all 32 local authorities, reveal that Scotland is losing computing teachers at an alarming rate. A 2012 survey found that numbers had fallen by 11 per cent in the five years since 2006-07, from 866 to 773. In the two years since, however, the decrease has accelerated further, to just 664 teachers.

This represented a "recruitment crisis", said CAS Scotland co-chair Kate Farrell. Many councils reported low numbers of applicants: one authority said it had been able to fill only one of eight vacancies and another filled just nine posts after advertising 17 vacancies.

Only 20 postgraduate students were training to be computing teachers in Scotland this year, Ms Farrell added.

On average, secondary pupils study computing for less than one period a week, according to CAS Scotland. At the same time, ICT trade body ScotlandIS has reported that the digital industry is growing faster than any other sector. It already employs 100,000 people and needs 45,000 new professionals in the next five years. CAS Scotland also states that a grounding in computer science is now beneficial in most careers.

Experts fear that computing is suffering because of misconceptions about the subject, particularly ignorance of the fact that ICT - which covers the practical use of computers and their applications - is not the same as computing.

"We are concerned that headteachers and school management teams perhaps do not understand this difference, or recognise that computing science is a rigorous academic subject," Ms Farrell said.

"Every child should have an opportunity to learn from a subject specialist, not just from an enthusiast," she added. "It's going to require schools, universities and industry to work together. If we can provide university students with experiences in schools, then more will see teaching as a worthwhile and rewarding career."

Bruce Robertson, who leads on ICT and computing issues for education directors' body ADES, said that computing was "certainly one of the subject areas that is most sought-after in the private sector".

Potential computing teachers were increasingly being attracted to highly paid industry jobs, he said, and the subject was also being hit by the retirement of a large cohort of teachers who qualified in the 1980s.

Local authorities were keen to tackle to the problem, Mr Robertson added, but it could not be solved without a "major recruitment drive" to attract more student teachers.

The decline in computing teachers comes down to a complex combination of factors, according to educational consultant Laurie O'Donnell, who specialises in digital technologies.

He said these included "dreadful" school computing qualifications introduced since the 1980s; the merging of computing and business studies departments (often resulting in no computing for S1-2s and no clear progression for pupils); and budget cuts, since computing was expensive and "an easy target".

"The good news is that there is a serious attempt to revitalise computing in schools," Mr O'Donnell said.

He pointed to a Scottish government-funded project that encourages teachers to introduce digital creativity in a systematic way, and Plan C (Professional Learning and Networking for Computing), an initiative that has been granted pound;200,000 over two years to boost the skills of computing teachers.

A Scottish government spokesman said: "We are helping to ensure that computing science is supported in our schools, funding the British Computing Society to offer professional learning for secondary school teachers of computing. We are working closely with universities to ensure that recruitment challenges in subjects, including computing, are met."

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