It's time for a system upgrade

24th October 2014 at 01:00
The new computing curriculum is challenging - make sure staff are prepared

Today's digital landscape is almost unrecognisable to those of us who remember trying to work with BBC computers and cassette recorders. The change from clunky, whirring and hissing leviathans to today's bewildering array of pocket-sized digital devices has been so rapid that schools - and school leaders - are always playing catch-up.

The problem is that although digital technology is an integral part of our lives, most of us are passive receivers of it, with little understanding of how it is developed.

But pressure is mounting for a change of approach. Apple founder Steve Jobs once said: "Every child needs to be able to program as it teaches them how to think." The new curriculum echoes this. The government wants a future workforce that can not only use programs but also write them. And that means school leaders need to get clued up, fast.

The missing component

First, we have to accept that serious concerns exist about the lack of programming skills among teachers. The new curriculum's focus on programming and coding means that school leaders must understand that "computing" entails teaching pupils and staff alike how digital technology functions, how it can work for them and how a knowledge of it will equip them for the future.

At my school - a large, two-form entry primary - we know the limitations of traditional ICT. Previously, each class would troop down to the computer suite once a week, log on and attempt to learn how to use a program or do some research, developing discrete skills but not necessarily applying them. The PCs didn't always work and many children were used to quicker and more powerful hardware at home. It was ineffective and frustrating.

We realised that we had to change the way we thought about computing. Risk-taking is encouraged at my school and so my enthusiastic ICT leader and deputy headteacher (both more knowledgeable than me) were given a long lead to press on with the challenge of changing how we delivered the subject.

A new system

We tried to look ahead to understand what we would need in order to teach programming. We recognised that children now often know more than adults about the subject; teachers could no longer be considered the fount of knowledge - they would need to take on a greater facilitating role in the classroom. The key requirements were to embed technology into everyday classroom use, invest in better and more easily accessible technology and software and to train teachers to be able to deliver the subject effectively.

The four Es

As a result, we developed and launched our vision for computing - the four Es: "Engage me, equip me, excite me, empower me." We got rid of the ICT suite, brought laptops and tablets into the classrooms and redistributed the PCs. The plan was for such devices to become commonplace in lessons, to ensure that the skills learned could be applied to different contexts.

A fundraising drive was launched, along with information sessions for parents. We increased our laptop and tablet supply, installed wi-fi so that pupils could use the technology outside the classrooms and invested in technical support that offered curriculum guidance. We also issued all teachers with tablets, to make them familiar with the technology and to give them the confidence to transfer that to their lessons.

Programs such as Scratch, Google SketchUp and Kodu Game Lab, for example, enable children to make their own games using discrete programming skills, which can be linked to digital literacy. Students' self-evaluations have shown increases in both usage and confidence.

There are, however, big challenges from a leadership perspective. First, scheduling appropriate CPD is crucial: staff may be willing to embrace change but confidence and expertise will vary. We favour sessions that are short and frequent.

Second, budgets are tight, so it is important to ring-fence money for technology and training to ensure that computing is delivered in a relevant and sustainable way.

Finally, the overarching challenge is to ensure that developing computing skills also helps to raise standards of teaching and learning across the curriculum.

Computing is just one area, but with the central role it plays - and will continue to play - in society, we need to find the time, money and expertise to teach it alongside literacy, numeracy and social skills. We don't know all the answers and still have a way to go but we're working hard to deliver our four Es.

Richard Bullard is the headteacher of Combe Down CofE Primary School in Somerset. He is working with Computing At School on resources such as QuickStart Computing; a free toolkit for teachers, available from January 2015

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