Fringe Event Liberal Democrat Conference

Originally published by Institute for Learning: Shane Cowen.
original post

Liberal Democrat conference, Monday 24 September 2012.

Shane wrote a much better account than me.

The relevance and ‘functionality’ of the curriculum is of constant debate in most subject areas and none more so than in the area of ICT and computing. Whilst these subjects are discrete and different by definition, recent debates around the national curriculum in schools have brought computer science to the fore at the expense of the arguably more traditional approach taken through delivery of ICT.

This fringe meeting began with an animated (in every sense of the word) presentation by Simon Peyton-Jones, principal researcher at Microsoft’s research lab in Cambridge. He began by explaining why, as a computer scientist, he advised his own children against taking GCSE ICT. From Simon’s perspective, the ICT curriculum focuses too much on the technology element of computing and not enough on the actual discipline of computing which he believes is inherent in a computer science curriculum. His aim is to bring computer science into the mainstream, not only by having it included in the English Baccalaureate of ‘favoured’ GCSEs, but also to integrate the subject in to the broader educational experience of children through primary and secondary school to allow more young people to specialise in post-16 further and higher education.

He then introduced Genevieve Smith-Nunes, an active participant in the Computing at School campaign who teaches computing programmes in a local secondary school and at Sussex Downs College. Genevieve has created some truly innovative teaching and learning approaches which are proving successful in providing children and young people with a broad range of skills to succeed in computer science and consolidated learning in other subjects, particularly maths. The example she used was of a group of GCSE students working to program a computer game who had to use trigonometry to determine the angle at which a ramp would need to be constructed in order for a skateboarder to jump over some obstacles. We also saw mobile phone apps her students had developed which helped business students and apps that year 9 students had helped 6 year-olds build using specialist software.

The session could quite easily have descended in to the usual debate about how to ’embed technology’ in other areas of the curriculum, but thankfully it didn’t. This approach is lauded as a ‘golden bullet’ all-to-often without the necessary supporting mechanisms for teaching practitioners alongside. So whilst there is an extent to which technology is and should be utilised to support teaching and learning, the resounding message from this session was that a national programme of continuing professional development (CPD) for ICT teachers in particular, was required to, if nothing else, ensure everyone knew where to access resources to support the kind of approaches that teachers like Genevieve have been able to use.

Whilst this session was mostly geared towards the education of primary and secondary school pupils, there were parallels to be drawn to FE and skills. The types of skills that Simon believes all young people need to be equipped with are being developed in some vocational subject areas all of the time. The engineering apprentices I visited at EAGIT recently were trained in programming across a variety of platforms to ensure that they had the skills to do the job depending on the age and type of the machinery being used. But more broadly, with the Coalition’s early removal of tax breaks in the UK’s gaming industry and exclusion of computer science or ICT from the EBacc, there was concern about the current direction of travel expressed by some in the room. Nonetheless, the move towards a “more rigorous computer science approach” has been muted by secretary of state Michael Gove as a preferred way forward in schools at least, which he made clear earlier this year.

Shane Chowen, IfL policy officer