Get with the program

9th March 2012 at 00:00
The future of Scotland's economy could be at risk if children don't learn vital computer science skills

Last week Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized computer designed to help teach children to code, went on sale in the UK to great fanfare. It was the latest high-profile attempt to reverse a lack of programming skills in the UK - starting with young children.

Its launch came within weeks of an announcement by Michael Gove, the Westminster education secretary, that by September this year, England's current information and communications technology (ICT) curriculum in schools would be replaced by a flexible curriculum in computer science and programming, designed with the help of universities and industry.

One of his advisers on the issue was computer games entrepreneur Ian Livingstone, co-author of last year's Next Gen report (TESS, April 22, 2011) which highlighted the poor quality of computing teaching in schools.

Livingstone wrote in TES last year: "The narrowness of how we teach children about computers risks creating a generation of digital illiterates and starving some of the UK's most successful industries of the talent they need to thrive."

Computing was no longer a marginal skill for experts and geeks, he said; it was "the lingua franca of competitive, innovative business".

The national curriculum in England required schools to teach ICT - "a strange hybrid of desktop publishing lessons and Microsoft tutorials. While PowerPoint and Excel are useful vocational skills, they are never going to equip anybody for a career in video games or visual effects," he said.

Computer science, on the other hand, was different. It was a "vital, analytical discipline and a system of logical thinking that is as relevant to the modern world as physics, chemistry or biology".

Around the same time, the Royal Society in London published its report on the same issue. Led by Professor Steve Furber, a University of Manchester academic who was behind the creation of the BBC Microcomputer, it recommended that every child should have the opportunity, starting in primary school, to get some exposure to programming - and thus see the creative side of the subject.

A digital literacy curriculum, it said, should include the safe use of computers; an understanding of the internet and the design of web-based systems; an examination of the application of computers in society; computer programming and design; and the underlying principles of computing. Word processors and spreadsheets would be replaced by robotics kits, such as Lego Mindstorms, and introductory programming languages.

So where does that leave Scotland? Most experts argue that Scotland's delivery of computing science has been superior to that of England for some time - but that it too needs to raise its game.

ScotlandIS, which represents the ICT industry, warns that the sector is facing significant skill shortages, due in part to a "dwindling talent pipeline" from schools and universities - at a time when youth unemployment is at a record high.

Too many schools continue to confuse ICT with computing science, argue the computing experts - a point driven home only three weeks ago by Scotland's new chief scientific adviser, Professor Muffy Calder, who told TESS she wanted schools to treat computing science on a par with physics, chemistry and biology.

Last year, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and BCS Academy of Computing set up a joint advisory group, with representatives from industry, schools and higher education, to look at ways of making computer science more engaging and up-to-date in schools.

Jeremy Scott, principal teacher of computing at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh, was seconded to develop exemplification materials for Levels 3 and 4 of Curriculum for Excellence (S1-3) (see panel, page 14).

Five years ago, computing teachers simply didn't have the tools to excite and engage pupils in programming, says Mr Scott. Now, programming languages such as Scratch and Alice have taken the drudgery out of it - pupils no longer need to type in instructions, but can focus on problem- solving.

"The UK used to be third in the world in the computer games industry; in the last few years it's slipped down to sixth. Scotland contributes a disproportionate amount of UK output in computer games - it's punching well above its weight at an international level," he says.

"But to feed this industry and pretty well every industry, we need computer graduates and a workforce that is well versed in algorithmic thinking."

Computational thinking (see panel, page 14) is delivered through core computing in the broad general education of CfE - and that, Mr Scott says, is very important in the development of a skill set for the 21st century.

Computing may not figure for many pupils once they make subject choices but, he argues, "It is important that up to that stage they have had computer science for the deep understanding of what a computer is and the problem-solving approaches employed for computer science."

The old Standard grade course was made up of a bit of computer science and a bit of ICT. Things moved on when Intermediate qualifications arrived - but Mr Scott hopes the new National 4 and 5 courses will cement the importance of computer science into the curriculum.

The new course has a working title of "computing and information science" and the final documents are due out in April. He hopes it will soon become as natural to take computer science as a core science subject as it currently is to take physics or chemistry.

In England last year, just over 4,000 pupils sat an A Level in computing; in Scotland, roughly the same number did it at Higher, despite having less than a tenth of the population.

"But we need to get better still," he says.

He and other computer science teachers share a concern that some local authorities are closing some of their computing departments - perhaps because it is a relatively expensive subject to run and difficult to staff.

Another issue to be addressed is the lack of proper articulation between secondary and tertiary education. Computer science is recognised as an entry qualification to university, but it is not a requirement for doing computing.

Alan Bundy, professor of informatics at the University of Edinburgh, and vice-president of the BSC and member of the RSE advisory group, believes that one advantage in Scotland, compared to England, is that computing teachers all hold a relevant qualification, thanks to GTCS regulations. According to the Royal Society (London) report, two-thirds of teachers of computing in England are not classed as qualified.

But even in Scotland, the quality of computing teaching is variable and a department's strength can depend on how seriously the headteacher takes it, he says. "Some don't see it as a subject in its own right - they just want to know that pupils can use a computer".

At university level, what had been buoyant recruitment until the mid- 2000s, when the dot-com bubble burst, has turned into a 20-30 per cent drop in recruitment, even in institutions like MIT and Stanford in the USA, because people assumed that these would be poor job prospects, says Professor Bundy.

"Employment has remained buoyant - e-skills are the biggest gap in supply and demand. Employers are trying to recruit people," he says.

But universities are concerned that they are not always attracting the very best students, and he puts that down to the fact that many pupils have been exposed to "lessons on office products which they have found totally boring and repetitive, teaching them things they have already taught themselves".

"That has lowered their expectations about what a computing degree or job would be," he says.

For that reason, the university sector is "very motivated", he says, to promote this subject and to see good materials being taught at school level.

Quintin Cutts, a senior lecturer in computing science at the University of Glasgow and member of the RSE computing group, is an expert on computer science education. He is worried about the blurring between ICT and computing science, and the tendency in many schools to squash computing and business education together into a department or faculty.

He is pleased that computer science is sitting in a separate area of the technologies in CfE, but is concerned that not all headteachers and local authorities recognise that. "We need to address that issue of maintaining computing as a separate and independent discipline," he says.

CPD is imperative, he says. The qualifications currently being developed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority are "unnerving" some teachers who have tended to concentrate on software development.

"Software development is just a vehicle," he says. "I am not suggesting that we need to produce lots and lots of programmers - but the exercise of learning to program, particularly when you make it fun and enjoyable, actually teaches you a way of thinking that is valuable in our highly technologically-oriented world."


pound;4bn - The value of the technology sector to the Scottish economy

pound;30m+ - The rate by which technology boosts the Scottish economy every year

100,000 - The number of ICT professionals in Scotland

40,000 - New entrants required over the next five years to fill IT and telecoms professional job roles in Scotland

Over the past year, the Bank of Scotland reported that demand for permanent jobs in IT and computing was ahead of other sectors and had the fastest rate of vacancy growth

Employment in the IT industry is predicted to grow nearly nine times faster than the Scottish average.

Source: ScotlandIS, the trade body for the ICT industry in Scotland.


Computing science resources for teachers and pupilswill be published in August, under the auspices of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the BCS Academy of Computing.

The materials, for Levels 3 and 4 of Curriculum for Excellence, are expected to map out the stages at which basic computing science concepts should be introduced and developed.

The resources will also be aimed at pupils who are not likely to specialise in computing science as a subject. They will include:

- an introduction to basic computing science concepts and a grounding in computer programming;

- further exploration of computing science ideas, with a focus on abstraction, modularity and hierarchy within programming;

- consolidation of previous concepts through mobile app developments and exploration of new mobile technologies, interfaces and opportunities for interdisciplinary links.

The materials would provide the basics for any pupils moving on to the new National 4 and 5 computing qualifications. Education Scotland, which has liaised with the advisory group on its work, is expected to publish them on its website.


This area is important for 21st century learners, says computing teacher Jeremy Scott. It involves a set of problem-solving skills that software developers use to write programs:

- Decomposition - breaking down a task in order to explain a process to another person - or computer;

- Pattern recognition - the ability to notice similarities or differences that will help you make predictions or lead you to shortcuts. This is frequently the basis for solving problems and designing algorithms;

- Abstraction - the ability to filter out information that is not necessary to solve a problem and generalise the information that is. This allows you to represent an idea or process in general terms, so that you can use it to solve similar problems;

- Algorithms - the ability to develop a step-by-step strategy for solving a problem. Algorithm design is often based on decomposition and finding patterns to solve a problem.


Your character is a "man mountain" of a soldier. Your mission: to clear a drop zone of enemies and bombs.

Kevin Finlay, an S5 pupil at Castlebrae Community High in Edinburgh, had planned for his computer game's fearless hero to be controlled using the cursor keys, but today he is learning how to create a handheld controller using Lego WeDo.

Each Lego WeDo kit costs around pound;100; traditionally, Castlebrae's computing department has had an annual budget of pound;300, most of which has gone on toner. But the equipment has been borrowed from Education Scotland's Consolarium, allowing the department to make the investment themselves over time if the quality of learning warrants it.

In S3, meanwhile, pupils are building digital cameras using Microsoft's.NET Gadgeteer, a toolkit for building small electronic devices. Again, this is expensive kit, but the school is using it free of charge after becoming involved in a trial being run by Anglia Ruskin University.

Building the cameras was challenging but it made lessons more interesting, says pupil Rebecca Milligan.

Uptake of computing is increasing at Castlebrae. This year, the department's budget is over pound;1,000 and the school will soon take on another computing teacher to join Kate Farrell.

Ms Farrell puts her subject's increasing popularity down to the decision three years ago to drop Standard grade in favour of National Qualification Group Awards.

"The Standard grade course was very dated, content-heavy and fact-driven," she says. "There was no scope for livening it up and making it apply to the kids' lives."

National Qualification Group Awards, on the other hand, can be tailored to pupils' interests and teachers' skills, she argues.

"It is a pleasure to teach. Instead of forcing the kids to sit and copy notes and read textbooks and answer questions, they are going for it with programming."

Ms Farrell is irked by the "fallacy" that youngsters are "digital natives". They may know how to use computers but they do not understand how they work, she argues - a crying shame given that the computing industry is one of the few areas where there is still a huge demand for workers.

However, when it comes to igniting pupil interest in computing, the National Qualification Group Awards would not suit more academic schools, she says.

For these schools, the challenge of the new National 4 and 5 qualifications looms large, says Ms Farrell, who is also chair of Computing at School Scotland.

"Computer science and information systems are being pulled together. Some teachers have only ever done the information systems side, which concerns databases, so they have no idea how to make programming fun and engaging."

The work being carried out by the Royal Society of Edinburgh is a start, but that project needs to be continued and government-led CPD introduced to plug the skills gap among teaching staff, she believes.

"We have not had any decent CPD since computing was introduced," she says.


Original headline: Time for young Scots to switch on to computer programming


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