Interest is there but teachers are not

16th November 2012 at 00:00

Computing science in schools is ready to take centre stage - but there are fewer computing teachers around to make the most of that enhanced status.

That was the conundrum presented at the first Computing at School Scotland annual conference, where palpable enthusiasm for the oversubscribed event in Edinburgh was tempered by recognition that the subject's progress is being hindered by ignorance and a lack of qualified staff.

Kate Farrell, chair of CAS Scotland, ended the otherwise upbeat conference by describing the challenges facing computing teachers in Scotland at the moment: their number has fallen by more than 100 since 2006-07, and 8.9 per cent of Scottish secondary schools have no computing science teacher at all.

"The amount of time allocated to computing in the timetable of most schools is still pitifully low," she told TESS. "Many parents, and some headteachers, don't understand that computing science is a rigorous academic discipline and feel that it is an unimportant subject if pupils are skilled in using social networking tools."

But there were positive messages, too. CAS Scotland has already met with the Scottish government, Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority to discuss how to improve the representation of computing to schools and parents, and the quality of professional learning for computing teachers.

Muffy Calder, Scotland's chief scientific adviser, has a computing background and spoke frankly to TESS before her appearance at the conference.

There could be no excuse that computing was failing to catch up with other subjects because it was a new discipline: in fact, computing science has been around since Alan Turing began his groundbreaking work in the 1930s, she said.

It had, however, become mixed up with ICT, the teaching of which Professor Calder likened to a "Microsoft driving course". But how many people, she wondered, could "fix the engine"?

Professor Calder "loves" her iPhone and iPad, but such devices have made technology a "friend" rather than a device: users are detached from the mechanics of the devices and have no idea how to fix them if they break down.

"Computing science is everywhere," she said. "Everyone needs to understand what computing is and have some idea of programming." Indeed, it was "incumbent upon everyone" to have a basic grasp of programming, just as everyone has some basic physics and chemistry.

Programming was best started in secondaries, while computational thinking could be taught in primaries. Computational thinking was not entirely reliant on access to technology; concepts around grouping and sequences of numbers could be taught without any devices at all.

"You wouldn't go anywhere near a computer," she said. "It's about maths, thinking and solving problems." Computational thinking could even take place in pre-school, she stressed.

Scotland is in a fairly good place, said Professor Calder, as it has long had a subject of computing at Standard grade level, whereas England focused on ICT. She has been encouraged by the distinction Curriculum for Excellence draws between computing and ICT, and believes a grassroots drive is under way to make computing more prominent.

In 20 years' time, it is her ambition that computing should be represented by one coherent voice for industry, academia and teachers and she believes things are definitely heading in that direction.

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