The Collapse of Computing Education in English Schools

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted 09/01/2011 at 18:29 | Permalink

    The situation is shocking when you stop to consider just how central computing has been to UK science and technology, as well as business, arts, culture, government, defence, health care and other public services. In decades to come, computing and software will be the glue that holds pretty much every aspect of our lives together. I’m pretty sure the government and many senior educators just don’t understand that. Whatever Britain’s ambitions for the future, it will heavily involve computing.

    I think, though, that the decline in Computer Science education at university/college is partly the fault of CS faculties growing increasingly out of touch with real-world computing, and especially with contemporary software development.

    • J Cole
      Posted 13/01/2011 at 15:07 | Permalink

      Jason Gorman said “The situation is shocking when you stop to consider just how central computing has been to UK science and technology, as well as business, arts, culture, government, defence, health care and other public services”; unfortunately, the reality is reflected in Carey Gray’s comment that “the degree subject with the highest rate of unemployment is computing”. These two views are interconnected with the way that computing is viewed in this country.

      The problem is that there is no governance of IT in either the public or private sector. If you can spell ‘IT’, you can become a CIO. If you can spell ‘PC’ as well, you are overqualified!

      We are in the unfortunate situation where the ‘rising stars’ are children of the PC age who think that the PC is all that there is in computing (they even use PCs as servers); whose concept of software is whatever you can download for free; and ‘design’ is contorting those packages to run in ways they were not intended. I am sure that many will say ‘good riddance’ to the old school way of spending years of development to create flakey software that might have been useful when it was spec’d, at least there was some control and people were trained before being let loose.

      We need a middle ground, where good theory and practical application go hand-in-hand. The education sector must decide what ‘computing’ is in their context – do they want Computer Scientists, computer practitioners, or just people who can use spreadsheets? My contention is that the current education system (including the BCS’s ECDL) generates spreadsheet users, which is OK for most of the population. We do not need hordes of Computer Scientists but we do need hordes of computer literate people who are willing to think for themselves (in the same way that we don’t need hordes of neurosurgeons, but we do need hordes of family doctors).

      The current (and previous) economic environment was based on the fact that it is / was cheaper to buy shrink-wrapped software that sort of did what you wanted and to import underpaid slave labour from third world countries than it is to use skilled, home-grown talent. There is a saying that an accountant is someone who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Until we go for value rather than cost (and I am not implying that the third world labour is bad – most of it is excellent) using home-grown skills with local knowledge, we will continue to see computing slide off the scale. There is already a backlash against call centres based in other countries that are good on cost but not so good on understanding our culture and locale; we must not wait for the same to happen to computing.

  2. Carey Gray
    Posted 12/01/2011 at 15:10 | Permalink

    According to the press, the degree subject with the highest rate of unemployment is computing. The lowest rates are in medicine. You can’t blame people if they look at the figures and decide to become doctors or dentists.

  3. Tom
    Posted 15/01/2011 at 06:00 | Permalink

    I have just read today, 15th Jan, on the BBC site that the English Baccalaureate content may be up for further negotiation. I hope that the BCS, CAS and the Royal Institute use their influence to ensure that computing is included in the science option. It is now or never!

  4. Dave Cliff
    Posted 08/02/2011 at 20:51 | Permalink

    Would the BCS like to say something about where it was, and what it was doing, while the “collapse of computing education in schools” took place? Seems to me that it was soundly asleep at the wheel. As the BCS is the Chartered Institute for IT, surely it was the one organization in the UK that should have taken a lead in preventing this from happening. What did it do to try to prevent his collapse? Did it simply do nothing? Or did it try to do something but simply fail to have any influence?

  5. Christine Arrowsmith
    Posted 10/02/2011 at 11:44 | Permalink

    When I started in computing (1969), no one knew what I was talking about and I had to travel 250 miles to get a start.

    These days everyone know ‘computers’ and are very dismissive!

    I worked briefly with a headmaster who did not want to discuss the teaching of ‘computing’, he thought that all students needed to know was a word processor or a spreadsheet – but he had failed to find a network expert to manage his schools system and did not understand the connection!

    I feel very sorry for the kids who do not know the joy of making a program deliver the result which is wanted.

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