Is there too much emphasis on coding?

19th January 2018 at 00:00

He was one of the teachers to advise an influential Royal Society report that established the direction for the new computing curriculum, but now Drew Buddie is abandoning the GCSE in computer science.

From next year, the Year 10 students at the Royal Masonic School in Hertfordshire, where Buddie is head of computing, will take the iGCSE instead. They are not alone in avoiding the computer science GCSE: 54 per cent of schools do not currently offer it.

So what went wrong? Buddie believes the main issue is that the balanced curriculum and qualifications envisaged by teachers and experts were ditched in favour of an overwhelming focus on coding.

“Coding has been seen as the magic lantern or the beacon that everyone thinks shines brightest, when in actual fact it’s not the thing that’s most important,” he says.

Following publication of the Royal Society report, three strands of study were proposed for the curriculum: computer science (including coding), information technology (focusing on the application of computers) and digital literacy (which involved social issues around technology, such as safety and security). But according to teachers and curriculum experts, the coding element of computer science has come to dominate the timetable.

Getting educators to place greater emphasis on coding has long been a goal of technology companies worldwide. Google set the stage for the reforms with a 2011 speech by its chief executive at the time, Eric Schmidt, in Edinburgh, lamenting that computer science was not a compulsory part of the curriculum. Along with Microsoft, the company also funded the influential Royal Society report.

“I’m not suggesting that Google played a direct role in all of this, but it was part of a network [at the time] of different organisations that were all beginning to campaign and lobby for ICT to be at the very least reformed, if not replaced,” says Dr Ben Williamson, lecturer in education at the University of Stirling, who has researched how the English computing curriculum was developed.

Willing audience

Some claim the technology companies found a willing audience among advisers to Michael Gove, then education secretary, and that they then lobbied for a more coding-heavy approach. For some members of the expert panel on the curriculum, this constituted a betrayal.

Bob Harrison, a former college principal and education technology consultant, says a balanced curriculum was “hijacked” by a coding agenda.

Aside from the need to provide a rounded education, he questions whether a strong emphasis on coding without creativity makes sense for the UK economy.

“The last thing you want is just lots of mediocre coders who won’t be able to compete with cheaper labour from [elsewhere],” he says.

Others suggest that this wasn’t the outcome that industry was seeking. Bill Mitchell, director of the academy of computing at the British Computer Society, says that technology companies supported a proposal to create a new information technology GCSE in 2015 to be offered alongside computer science.

“Employers want more people to have computer science degrees but they also want their whole workforce to have digital skills,” he says.

The plan for an additional qualification was rejected by schools minister Nick Gibb, who said it was against policy to have substantial overlap between different GCSEs.

The fact that the curriculum was left so coding heavy has been an issue for schools. Coding has put disproportionate pressure on teachers, many of whom have little experience with it and no computer science degree (about 8,000 of the 12,500 computing teachers do not have a degree in the subject), meaning they often need more time with the topic.

In a follow-up report by the Royal Society, 44 per cent of teachers said that they felt confident only in the first half of the curriculum, before the more advanced topics in computer science.

Dry and uninspiring

As Miles Berry, lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton, puts it: “I think computing was unique in the national curriculum, particularly in primary schools, in expecting teachers to teach something that they themselves had never been taught.”

And there certainly remains a demand for skills other than computer science.

In its Digital Development Index, which surveyed nearly 10,000 people worldwide, Barclays found that 16- to 24-year-olds were less digitally skilled than older workers, who used productivity software routinely. “Many may be experts in digital communication and entertainment but they stumble when it comes to creativity.

“Despite growing up in a digital world, they face the challenge of learning how to create digital content and not just consume it,” the report says.

Bob Clift, head of higher education at the Tech Partnership, which represents technology employers on skills, says there’s a demand for the creative application of technology, knowledge of cybersecurity, design skills and an understanding of how to use data. “I think it’s really the ability to exploit IT rather than to just code. Because there will be a lot of people who go into companies, particularly graduates into IT organisations, and will never code,” he says.

In short, many are of the opinion that what we have been left with in terms of a technology curriculum in this country is only partially doing the job needed.

“We feel there’s a missing piece to the qualifications landscape that is a high-quality, worthwhile GCSE in information technology and/or digital literacy,” says Mitchell. “Eighty per cent of students are able to finish their KS4 education without a qualification in the digital skills that they need – that’s the problem.”

Joseph Lee is a freelance journalist

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