Debug the system and get computing on track

24th June 2016 at 00:00

The subject of computing science is in crisis. We are facing a number of issues resulting in fewer learners taking the subject and departments being closed – a ludicrous situation given all that we’re told about the digital economy being at the heart of Scotland’s future.

Scotland has enjoyed an enviable situation with computing science education, nationally and globally. Other countries, led by England and the US, are just starting to introduce it into schools and retrain teachers from other subject areas. But in Scotland, we have had computing science as a subject since the 1980s, with dedicated subject teachers who have relevant degrees.

We have seen money directed to the subject, with the Scottish government and Skills Development Scotland investing in the Professional Learning and Networking for Computing project (known as Plan C). This award-winning initiative has resulted in a mindshift among the teachers involved; they are now keen to make their lessons more challenging and expect all learners to understand complex topics such as programming, not just the “geeks”.

So what’s gone wrong? Teacher numbers are dropping dramatically and departments have closed. English schools are recruiting heavily and attracting our graduates and probationers, and there are thousands of unfilled vacancies in Scottish tech firms tempting overworked and underappreciated teachers away from education.

We’re also failing to attract sufficient numbers of new graduates into the profession. The replenishment rate for computing science is the lowest of all subjects, at just 2 per cent, with half of teacher-training spaces going unfilled. This is a problem the world over, so universities and government need to be more creative in attracting new graduates into computing-science teaching, rather than seeing them opt for a lucrative industry job.

The appalling National 5 computing science exam paper last month hasn’t helped. Our members highlighted errors in 19 out of 21 questions in the paper. These ranged from mistakes in programming code to questions that could not be answered. We are concerned that this will have affected the performance and shaken the confidence of many candidates.

We are also worried that this will affect the number of learners who choose to study our subject. We need to attract more pupils into computing science, not scare them away with over-assessment and impossible exam questions.

There are fantastic job opportunities in areas such as cyber-security, robotics and computer vision. Scotland has an amazing range of employers, from small start-ups to “unicorn” companies – start-ups valued at over $1 billion (£700 million), like Skyscanner and FanDuel – and tech giants including Amazon and Microsoft.

Employees can work in fun, flexible workplaces anywhere in the world – we just need to persuade more learners to choose this exciting career path.

Kate Farrell is an executive committee member for Computing at School Scotland, which represents computing science teachers

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