Kids at school watching Microsoft laptop

7,000,000 children in England now learn computing in school, but how well is that going?

By Bill Mitchell, Director of Education, BCS

Since the autumn of 2014 computing has been a statutory subject for all children in England from age 5 through to age 16. Computer science is at the heart of the new computing curriculum and for almost all schools is a new and intellectually challenging academic discipline, and one that most teachers have had no experience of before 2014. What are the chances of schools making this new subject a long-term success that benefits all students, no matter where they live or what their home circumstances?

Young people, especially those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged, will not have access to outstanding computing education unless the headteachers, principals and senior leadership teams at their school have a strategic view of how to embed computing in the school curriculum so that it benefits all students. Thanks to our YouthSpark grant from Microsoft we will now be developing and distributing a toolkit to every secondary school in England that will enable teachers to provide an outstanding computing education to all their students. The grant also means we will be able to use different engagement strategies to ensure the toolkit is used and changes teaching in the classroom, which is just as essential as the toolkit itself.

The schools that do best are those where teachers feel confident and enthusiastic about computing. Various surveys over the past year show teacher confidence in delivering computing in the classroom is steadily improving thanks to a range of grassroots support, including from employers and universities as well as schoolteachers themselves. Locally tailored face-to-face Continuous Professional Development (CPD) seems to benefit teachers the most. Teachers receiving CPD through the UK government funded Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science (known as the NoE) reported their confidence increasing an average of 88% over this last term. Meanwhile, our latest survey, in 2015, showed that the majority of teachers said they received less than five hours of such CPD over the year.


The NoE is run by the Computing At School group (CAS). CAS is part of BCS and is a grassroots organisation of more than 22,000 teachers, university academics and IT professionals aimed at helping teachers give every child an outstanding computing education. Every child means, of course, girls as well as boys. CAS is committed to ensuring computing in the classroom is just as inspiring for girls as it is for boys. In practice one of the best ways of doing that is to ensure all students gain hands-on experience of applying computing to address big societal issues, such as around healthcare, sustainability and social equality, as well as big fundamental problems across science and engineering. It’s widely recognised that girls are more likely to be motivated by studying solutions to these major societal issues than studying technology-based problems. With the right CPD teachers can embed that sort of experience into the classroom. It’s essential for headteachers to understand how to get access to and make the most of the kinds of CPD support organisations like CAS and the NoE provide to make sure teachers get the development they desperately need.

There are some really good things going on in the schools we talk to that we want to showcase to headteachers as one part of the toolkit. Examples include: The school development plan includes computing as a core subject, just like maths and English, which means it has strategic support from the senior leadership team in terms of resource and timetabling. The curriculum is enriched through taking part in competitions and attending student focused events (e.g. TeenTech, Lego Mindstorm, Kodu or Minecraft activities). Breakfast and after-school clubs (e.g. Code Club in primary schools) include stimulating computing activities, which are interesting to girls and boys. Local employers are invited to come in and give talks on computing in their companies. Secondary schools bring in year 5/6 classes from their feeder primaries to give them an afternoon of computing each term. Schools make contact with their local university computer science department and, as a result, undergraduates spend time in classrooms to support teachers. Teachers are getting mentoring and coaching from other schools nearby who are further ahead in implementing computing. These are just some of the examples from schools that have joined the NoE.

One piece of hard data we have for progress with the curriculum is looking at the uptake of GCSE Computer Science (GCSEs are qualifications taken by students in England at the age of 16). The number of students taking GCSE Computer Science has more than doubled this year to just over 34,000. That’s really encouraging. At the same time, that’s only about 28% of the number of students taking Physics GCSE, which shows how far there is still to go in terms of GCSE take-up. Ideally we’d like to see the number of students taking GCSE Computer Science double again next year. Realistically, that will only happen if we make sure teachers are getting the right professional development to make GCSE Computer Science a success, which means making sure headteachers know where to go to get the best possible support for their school.

The UK is not just England. Scotland has had a computing curriculum in secondary schools for some years. Although different in many ways, at the same time the underlying issues of making sure teachers have the right kind of support are very similar to the situation in England. Wales is different again, and is currently planning how best to introduce computing. Northern Ireland has a very different education curriculum to the rest of the UK, which means they are at an earlier stage than the rest of the UK. However, the YouthSpark headteacher toolkit will be of value to headteachers across the UK since it addresses the underlying issues that are relevant everywhere.

For example, CAS Scotland runs a Scottish government funded CPD programme for teachers called PLAN-C that has a similar purpose to the NoE in England. The toolkit will help headteachers across the UK develop the right strategy for their school, which may be through PLAN-C, the NoE or other local grassroots organisations. CAS is currently advising similar groups across the world, for example in the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Poland, South Korea, Malaysia, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Denmark, Spain, Canada, Australia and Mexico. We’ve found that many of the resources CAS produce are valuable for these other groups, such as the Microsoft and Department for Education funded QuickStart Computing packs, and we anticipate the same will be true for the headteacher pack to.

Computing matters to the future of the UK, but much more importantly it’s about giving every child the essential thinking skills they need to succeed in our digital, connected society. So it matters that every school is doing all it can to give their children the best computing education possible, and the YouthSpark funded toolkit will ensure headteachers in all schools understand how their leadership can make that happen and have access to the best support possible to make that happen.