Bill Mitchell is Director of the Academy of Computing at the BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT).
Applications to Computer Science courses in UK universities have collapsed by 60% since 2000, yet the demand for software professionals across the EU has grown by around 50% in the same period. The value added to the EU economy directly from IT products and services is around £480bn each year.
Computing is a vital part of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). It is also an academic discipline in its own right, underpinned by scientific and mathematical principles. It is the silent `C’ in STEM. The UK economy is missing out because we cannot meet the urgent demand from UK companies for software professionals who have the expertise necessary to create business growth.
Computing is on the verge of collapse in the English state-funded school system. Most English schools nowadays teach ICT (Information and Communication Technology) rather than Computing. ICT in a great many schools consists solely of teaching how to use office productivity software such as word processors and spreadsheets, which results in students actively disliking what they mistakenly believe to be Computing.
Teaching computing, or just software?
Students are not taught how computers work and are denied the opportunity to be creative through inspiring computing activities. The March 2009 Ofsted report into ICT GCSE ‘The Importance of ICT’ states “Too many of the lessons seen during the survey emphasised the development of skills in using specific software at the expense of improving students’ ICT capability.”
We must educate our children so that by the time they become adults they are capable of making a valuable contribution to our digital society and economy. Computing education in school should equip every child with the basic understanding of how computers work and with the IT capabilities necessary to take their proper place in a digitally enabled, knowledge based society and economy. The fact that we spectacularly fail to do this is a serious problem.
The problem is not lack of concern from school teachers; many of whom are working extremely hard to improve the way Computing is taught. For example, the Computing At School group (CAS) is a volunteer group made up mainly of teachers, but also examiners, employers and professionals working to promote computing education and support teachers. CAS have shown that dedicated teachers with enthusiasm, expertise and the right support network are key to solving this problem.
Teacher shortage and curriculum must be addressed
There is, however, a serious shortage of Computing specialist teachers and of easy to use, inspirational, classroom-ready Computing material. Many non-ICT specialist teachers end up teaching ICT at GCSE and would very much like support in delivering more interesting and intellectually stimulating Computing material, but have no local network of peers to turn to. They struggle to convince their school senior management of the need for more Computing within the ICT curriculum.
The upcoming Government Curriculum Review offers an opportunity to address this problem. It is crucially important that Computing is included within the Science component of the new English Baccalaureate announced in the DfE White Paper.
So far, the DfE have only explicitly listed Physics, Chemistry and Biology within the Science component of the English Baccalaureate. Scotland has included Computing as part of its Curriculum for Excellence because of its strategic significance to the country’s future prosperity. It would be extraordinary if England did not follow suit.
Forthcoming report to show the way forward
The Royal Society has begun a study into the state of Computing in schools and its importance and implications for the economic and scientific well-being of the UK, which is due to report in November 2011. This has been reported by the BBC and widely picked up in the technical press.
BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, is one of twenty four organisations, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, supporting the Royal Society with their study.
Many thanks go to all those who provided financial assistance and pledges of funding to the Royal Society. Namely the Universities of Birmingham, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Greenwich, Imperial, Leicester, Loughborough, Manchester, Open University, Oxford, Queen’s University of Belfast, Sheffield Hallam, Surrey, UCL, York, and Dundee, and larger pledges from BCS, CPHC, EPSRC, Google, IBM UK Trust, Microsoft Research and Praxis.
Without their support, this study would not be possible.