Twenty-plus years ago I walked into my first A Level computing classroom. It was a daunting experience. The term before I’d been Head of Music and a hearing loss forced the change of subject, following an invitation from my Head Teacher. That moment set me on the path to supporting teachers as they made their leap from other subjects to computing and computer science when the Government changed what we teach our children in school about their digital world.
Computing At School (CAS) was formed in 2008 to establish computer science as a foundational subject that every child should have the opportunity to learn, from primary school onwards, just like mathematics or natural science. I was privileged to be there at the start, and maintained my involvement as the CAS National Coordinator as the community grew from four to tens of thousands. I’m not sure how I would have reacted if someone had told me when I stepped into a computer science classroom for the first time that this would be the start of something which one day might be recognized, but I feel honored and humbled in equal measure today.
Curriculum change is not easy. This is not the place to repeat the argument for why the change for Computing was necessary but it is the place to acknowledge the pivotal role every classroom teacher plays in bringing sustained and lasting change for the benefit of our pupils.
Learning in school is complex, it is organic, but at its heart are the teachers. It is they who have to understand the relevance of their subject for the pupils, to learn new and unfamiliar concepts, to develop and adapt resources and to manage learning and assess progress. It is the teachers who bring about curriculum change and reform. In CAS we sought to place the teachers front and centre. The CAS maxim: “There is no them, only us” summarised it well. The change in the curriculum meant we asked our teachers to teach a subject they felt under-qualified to teach. CAS’ role has been to draw alongside them, to say “it’s OK, you can do this” and to provide them with much-needed support by establishing a vibrant and trusted professional community.
At the foundation of the CAS community lie the many hundreds of small communities of practice that we started and are still growing and developing today. Coupled with an online community this provided a safe place where the teachers could meet to share ideas, best practice and return back to their classrooms with something they could use. These informal networks gained recognition through the DfE-funded programme “The Network of Excellence” (NoE) which recruited and trained over 500 CAS Master Teachers to deliver local training as part of the CAS Communities of Practice. Those teachers who received training saw the grades of their pupils improve and the number of pupils taking the subject in their schools increase at Key Stage 4. Following the success of the NoE the government invested £84m to create the National Centre of Computing (NCCE), an important and significant step. The CAS community is an integral part of that programme.
Computing as a foundational subject is part of the National Curriculum for all schools. However, it would be premature to say true curriculum reform has taken place. What I mean by that is two fold. Firstly, the acceptance of the subject as a pre-requisite for all pupils. For many schools the subject does not yet have sufficient priority in their curriculum planning. It should not be an optional extra for higher ability or exam classes but for all. Secondly is to realise its potential in other subjects. Let’s take a couple of simple examples. Geometry: learning about shapes and angles by drawing shapes using code. The shape can be generalised to a number of sides and angles and thus changed to create any number of different regular shapes. Or, gravity: creating a simulation of how a planet orbits the sun. There are a multitude of opportunities for creating such inter-disciplinary work and the availability of programming tools accessible for all students, combined with the freely available data sets, mean we are only limited by our imagination to make our lessons fun, creative and engaging. When we see pupils learning trigonometry through programming a game to get their objects to move then, maybe, we will have arrived.
I firmly believe that all our pupils need to understand their digital world, just as much as their chemical or physical one, irrespective of their postcode, gender or skin colour. Back in 2008, I optimistically guessed that we would need 25 years to effect this change. So, we’re about half-way through! There is much to be done but the professionalism and commitment of the many thousands of computing teachers who have been learning new skills and knowledge, often in their own time, has been an inspiration.
CAS has benefitted from the support of industry and other professional bodies such as The Royal Society and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT who provided legitimacy to our endeavours, and I am personally thrilled that this work continues to be recognised through the award of [the Kavli Education] medal.
Being involved with CAS has been one of the highlights of my professional career. It has been a privilege to work with and alongside some remarkable teachers, and I continue to look for those opportunities to transform the lives of our young people with this most exciting of subjects.
Our future truly depends upon it.
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