It's a science, not a skill

11th April 2008 at 01:00

Computing studies, the `under the bonnet' technology, could soon be a subject of the past

Schools across Scotland are cutting back, and in some cases scrapping, computing studies courses, prompting fears for the future of the subject.

Academics are also warning that student numbers entering computing science courses at university, which have halved in five years, could fall further - at a time when ministers want Scotland to be at the forefront of the knowledge economy.

Teachers claim the crisis is because of a lack of understanding among headteachers and local authorities of the difference between computing studies (building new technology) and information and communications technology (how to use it).

They accept that ICT can be taught across the curriculum, but argue that computing cannot. While pupils may be well versed in how to use a computer, that is not the same as understanding "what is going on under the bonnet", as one teacher put it.

Mark Tennant, a computing teacher at Dunbar Grammar and subject support co-ordinator for East Lothian, said: "Management in local authorities don't see the need for computing, because they believe pupils at school have got ICT skills. But computing is about the science behind the technology. ICT is preparing them for a call-centre culture, whereas computing prepares them to develop the technology."

Raymond Simpson, principal teacher of computing at Queensferry High in Edinburgh, suggests schools and local authorities are being put off running the courses because of difficulties in recruiting staff and the expense of equipping departments when school budgets are tight.

Academics, who have criticised computing studies courses for being "irrelevant" and "boring", are calling for the subject to be overhauled and given more prominence.

Andrew McGettrick, of Strathclyde University's computer and information sciences department, said: "At the ages of 12, 13 and 14, youngsters start thinking where they are going and choosing their subjects. We want to introduce them to computing at that formative stage, but if the subject does not exist in school that's not going to happen."

Companies such as Mircosoft and IBM - not just "gripey folk in ivory towers" - are getting more and more concerned about the way computing is taught in schools, Professor McGettrick claims.

"The curriculum is getting more and more out-of-date," he suggests. "Youngsters, who are living with this technology and are excited by it, go on these courses and think it's some kind of archaeology. This is a crisis, but blow me if we can get anybody to talk to us about it and engage with us about the future."

This year, Edinburgh University's Moray House School of Education stopped offering training for computing teachers, which has switched to Strathclyde University. Tom Conlon, a senior lecturer and computing specialist who used to run the course at Edinburgh, said: "In the '80s and '90s, computing was the shining star in the curriculum. It is obviously now in descent, and something needs to be done to decide its future."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "A Curriculum for Excellence will re-energise and reinvigorate computing studies so that young people have the chance to apply ICT skills across the curriculum and gain specialist knowledge in the application of computer technology.

"The number of training places for computing teachers has remained steady over the last two years, and there is flexibility for the intake to increase if there is more demand for the subject."

Ministerial advice to the Scottish Funding Council, which sets overall intakes to teacher education courses, gives computing a relatively low priority for 2008-09 in the same category as modern studies, chemistry, art, drama, music and classics.


James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh has scrapped the computing Higher but has a Higher in information systems. Department head David Bird says: "The consequence is that pupils and parents are less disposed to consider a course for S3-4."

HMIE criticised Eyemouth High in the Scottish Borders, in a follow-up inspection in February, for failing to offer courses in computing from S3- 6. They offer practical information technology courses at a local college for S3-4. The report described the set-up as a "significant weakness".

Jedburgh Grammar plans to phase out computing studies when the head of department retires at the end of the school year.

Peebles High is scrapping computing in favour of offering ICT to "meet the needs of the majority, rather than focusing on a small number that might continue computing studies to Higher", says head John Brown.

A teacher in Highland claims that, for the past two years, computing at his school has been whittled away and that no classes will be on offer next year. "If anything is left, it will be general ICT in S1-2."

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