News

Is the government doing enough for computing?

Preparations are under way for the biggest change in the UK’s approach to computing education – but Raspberry Pi’s education expert Clive Beale reveals that the government is not putting enough money where its mouth is

Teachers and parents are just as fascinated when it comes to learning about Raspberry Pi

Come September, every computing teacher in the UK will have to be a proficient coder. They will need to program to a standard that is high enough for them to impart their knowledge to children as young as five. Who says? We’re not too sure. According to Clive Beale, director of educational development at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the idea that teachers need to understand coding inside out by September 2014 is a misunderstanding by the media. Not only that, some politicians are getting it wrong too.

When talking to Beale, you get a sense of perspective and common sense ahead of what will be the biggest change to the way the UK teaches IT since computers were first introduced into schools. Beale is supportive of the government’s aim to teach the subject in a way that doesn’t rely on teaching packages such as PowerPoint and Microsoft Word but he is withering about the way the Coalition has gone about implementing it. Given that the new National Curriculum in Computing – a subject replacing ICT – is mere months away, the feeling is that the government has been waving a magic wand and yet has failed to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Much of that is due to a lack of investment.

Teachers and parents are just as fascinated when it comes to learning about Raspberry Pi
Teachers and parents are just as fascinated when it comes to learning about Raspberry Pi

“What they’ve done is given some money to organisations like the BCC – the Chartered Institute for IT – and Computing At School (CAS) which they handed £500,000 to,” he says. “They’ve supported the Year of Code and given £2m so that CAS can run networks for the training up of teachers. But it’s been about giving a relatively small amount of money to a few organisations and that’s about it really. In terms of support and proactive help for teachers who need to deliver this new programme of study, my view is that it falls way short.”

It’s not the first time Beale has imparted such a viewpoint but it is certainly one to which he appears to be sticking. He has spoken in the recent past of bringing in the National Curriculum for computing “on the cheap”. This, he says, has led to panic among some teachers, some of whom have contacted the Raspberry Pi Foundation in confusion and worry. Some believe they don’t have the level of skill; others feel they are being left to get on with it alone.

Perhaps for this reason, more than any other, the Raspberry Pi has become the go-to for teachers in schools. Desperate to plug their own skills gap, they have come to rely to a large degree on the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which has been working hard on resources that teachers can use in their class. It will take time for some teachers to build up the knowledge they need to be confident in the subject matters that they are being asked to teach but Beale is confident that, with the help of the Foundation, a firm basis will be built.

“Computing is effectively a new subject because it hasn’t been taught for so long,” he says. “There are maybe 1 in 20 teachers who are trained in Computer Science, so bringing in this new curriculum and throwing a few million pounds at it, thinking that it’s all good, well… it’s more complex than that.”

Gathering momentum

Much of the problem facing teachers has come from years of neglect that extends back to the Eighties. Computing back then tended to be taught by teachers with different disciplines, such as maths, and if lessons involved programming they were generally unstructured. There was certainly no qualification to be had by the end of it. Children were able to familiarise themselves with the machines but they were not formally tested and the situation persisted until ICT became the norm in the Nineties.

“ICT was the saviour of computing in that decade,” says Beale. “But computing got lost along the way. One of the issues we face now is a skills shortage. If you teach English, you tend to have an English degree. If you teach Physics, you have a Physics degree. But if you teach computers, then it’s not the case that you will have a computing degree. It may be maths, science or business studies. Those with Computer Science degrees have a choice: get a job on a very good salary or start on £21,000 or so as a teacher. The choice to make is clear and it means there are not a lot of skills on the ground.”

What makes things worse, though, is that such issues were spotted rather early. Even in 1997, the then president of the BCS, Ron McQuaker wrote: “By all means let us equip our classrooms with adequate computing facilities, but let us make sure we have clear objectives in mind and pursue them effectively, giving teachers the training and support they need if the potential is to be realised and opportunities (not to mention expenditure) are not to be wasted.” McQuaker died three years later, his words largely ignored. Real progress would take at least another decade when other people began to spot potential issues.

Indeed, the idea that computing education in the UK has, for years, been too poor, was raised in 2011 by the Google chairman, Eric Schmidt. He was talking at the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, saying Britain’s chances of success in the digital media economy were being held back. He called on the UK to reignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths.

Education secretary Michael Gove seized on this and, in his BETT speech in January 2012, Gove described his intention to establish Computer Science as a new foundational element of the school curriculum. ICT would be scrapped and in its place would be Computing. It would start in primary school, teaching children to analyse problems in computational terms while applying the principles and concepts of abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation. It would continue into secondary school and provide a solid foundation.

“Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum,” Gove said. “Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in University courses and be writing their own apps for smartphones.”

Alleviating stress

But while Beale says he backs the change in direction, he says certain problems were not addressed at the time. One of them is the issue of subject-crowding, where so much is being expected of generalist primary school teachers. “We’re delighted with the new programme of study but come September we’re going to start teaching computing to five- year-olds at primary school and this will be done by non-specialist teachers,” Beale says. “They’re just having a new subject sprung on them in addition to what they already have.”

To help teachers, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has been developing resources that show how, in the first year or two, children can be taught computing without touching a machine. “Teachers don’t need to teach coding straight away – it’s a red herring,” he says. “Coding is to get to an end point and teachers are not failing pupils if they don’t know how to code at an intimate level – that kind of proficiency is eight or nine years away. What we are doing, as an organisation, is showing that computing as a subject is rich, creative and cross-curricular. It’s the message that never comes out – there’s this Hollywood-style perception of people sitting in front of a computer, hacking away and that misunderstanding has to change.”

Beale runs training days with primary school teachers as part of the Foundation. “They come in worried and concerned but leave feeling computing is great and they fall in love with it,” he says. He tries to emphasise the importance of experimenting and playing. “It’s about solving a problem,” he says. “It’s about using computers creatively. Maybe creating a bird box with a camera in it – that kind of thing. Unless teachers understand this, there will be concern. We try to put across the view that computing is a great new thing that will enrich the curriculum. Even the lower-ability children are picking up on computing and running with it. Their eyes light up. This is a subject than can make a real difference to both teachers and pupils.”

With ten years of teaching experience behind him, Beale says he fully understands the issues being faced by teachers. He dismisses talk of teachers having lots of time on their hands to learn as being a myth – “It’s 50- to 60-hour weeks,” he asserts – and this is why a separate area for teachers has been created by him and his team on the Raspberry Pi website to produce plans that can be tweaked and adapted for the classroom: “We’re looking to save teachers’ time and the best way is by putting effort into resources, especially for those not familiar with computers. We have a two-day free course to help teachers understand the curriculum, we’re doing lots of workshops for teachers, pupils and schools. We’ve sent Pis into schools and provided resources for Code Clubs. We’re expanding the team and we’re really busy.” The team has tried to inject fun at every step too. “We have enough resources for whole terms on robotics – it’s stuff like that which gets people interested,” says Beale.

Pulling together

One of the knock-on effects of the lack of government funding for Computing is a sense that teachers are in this together. They are helping each other out, attending Raspberry Pi Jamborees and swapping ideas. Most of all, they are finding they are not alone: the Raspberry Pi Forum has 100,000 users with lots of teachers involved and there is a drive among them to set up clubs for pupils. The Foundation is training 24 teachers in April. They will become Pi- certified and be encouraged to spread their new knowledge among their fellow teachers. “If the government is only going to throw a few pennies, then we’re going to get stuck in,” Beale adds.

The Raspberry Pi has made this approach possible. It was created to fill the perceived gap in computing education with creators Evan Upton and David Braben both noticing a glaring need to move people away from being mere consumers of technology to become creators.

And with the Pi has come freedom. “The Pi has had a lot of exposure and its gone global,” says Beale. “It’s a piece of kit that cries out to be messed around with and that’s very different to a Mac or PC – expensive kit that some would be scared to allow experimentation on. So we’re part of the solution – the Pi can make it a lot easier to get into and understand computing and it’s important from that point of view. For £30 you can get a Pi and a camera and it can do things like tweet pictures of parents as they come in the room. That kind of thing is fun and engaging and it’s certainly far removed from programming on a locked-down PC at school where a technician says you can’t do this or you can’t do that.”

By unleashing young minds on computers – and de-geeking them in the process by ensuring everyone has the chance to shine – it should have a knock-on effect further down the line. Beale talks of Computer Science A-Level lessons nose-diving in popularity, “It’s a hard subject at A Level and computing classes have declined from having 25 pupils to as few as two or three kids”. He says Computer Science courses at university run on the premise that the students do not have any prior knowledge. “The people who run the courses don’t care if pupils have Computer Science at A Level because they teach everything from the beginning. They are after Maths and Physics. But then we’re in a situation where you couldn’t take a GCSE in Computing until 2010, so we can’t expect much more really.”

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is hoping to turn things around, with or without mass government funding. “We just want to get the message across to teachers that computing is just as much a way of thinking as it is coding. It’s about algorithms and abstractions and getting stuff done,” says Beale. “It’s really good for the brain and that’s why we love it; it teaches a special way of problem solving and that’s why Computer Science Unplugged (csunplugged.org) is brilliant – it’s a resource that shows how to teach computers without a computer – colouring in stuff to learn binary.”

As time goes on, Beale predicts teachers will become more confident and coding will, at that stage, start to take on greater prominence. “If you can’t program, you can’t tell a computer what to do,” he says. “But at the age of five, six and seven, you want to be introducing them to the concepts. What we don’t want is teachers to panic. This is a long journey and teachers will come to understand that learning is two-way with computing. If we can get people to a point where computing is just as common a skill as reading, then we’ve cracked it – and I think we will get there one way or another.”

×