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Monday 12 February 2018

Computing in schools: time for industry to step up?

Empty Classroom phtoIf one off the highest-ranking state secondary schools in the country is struggling to recruit computing teachers, what hope is there for other schools? I ask following a conversation with a friend over the weekend. Her son’s school had sent home a letter to parents advising that, though having advertised extensively, they had not been able find a replacement computing teacher for after half-term.

This really is a very worrying position. It is, of course, not the first time that we have heard of the difficulties in recruiting suitably qualified teachers. And there have been steps taken to try and turn the tide. Perhaps it is just too early to be seeing results from recent attempts to attract more computing teachers into the profession. But the concern is that little is helping…

Back in January last year, the Home Office Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) acknowledged the national shortage in computer science teachers (as well as general science and Mandarin) by stating that employers (schools) could bring in workers from outside the European Economic Area (EAA). However, the same was done for maths, physics and chemistry eight years ago, and it didn’t seem to help. To blame? The pay differentials between teaching and other professions. And at a time when we have a significant digital skills shortage, that pay differential will be even higher in computer science.

Then, in the Budget 2017 (see Autumn Budget 2017: Tackling productivity with technology), skills was high on the agenda, with Government pointing to the need to improve STEM skills to protect the country’s future productivity. One commitment was a £100m National Centre for Computing to train 8K new computer science teachers. But, this is no guarantee that it will attract the numbers needed. A previous £3m scheme to recruit 400 “master teachers” in computer science failed to meet its target (with the target subsequently scaled back to 300). There was also a programme to attract qualified teachers to return to teaching in the sciences, including computing. But of 428 teachers that returned, just 27 were in computer science.

In the interim, we are seeing schools looking to retrain teachers in computer science. But there’s a problem here too. Teachers who previously taught “ICT”, are struggling with the new computing curriculum. Anecdotal evidence from a few friends with secondary school children suggests that the result is “boring” lessons. Pupils are left to copy code from a paper sheet onto a computer to create a website. The lessons are uninspiring and unexciting. The result? One pupil, who had achieved the highest grade possible in his report (a 9 in ‘new currency’ – and higher than an A*), is now choosing his GCSE options and has no interest in taking Computing. Perhaps it’s no wonder that, last year, just 67,800 computer science GCSEs were taken – that’s 11% of Key Stage 4 pupils. And only 1 in 5 of those was female. It also doesn’t help that, according to the Royal Society, just 54% of English schools offer computer science GCSE; that means 30% of GCSE pupils in England do not have access to the topic.

In line with our 2018 research theme – Breaking the Boundaries – schools are having to think more laterally about how to fill these vacancies. The school that prompted this piece is working with both universities and agencies to find a solution. But it’s a recommendation from the Royal Society that I like the most: the idea that “industry and academia should support and encourage ‘braided’ careers for staff who want to teach as well as work in another setting”. This idea has the potential to get over multiple issues. Firstly, it would get over the problem in pay disparity. Secondly, it would help ensure the computing curriculum meets the needs of industry. But also, I remember my most inspiring teacher (in economics) being the one that had worked for decades in industry. Today’s pupils need excitement brought back into their lessons or we risk losing their interest in a subject that is set to infiltrate every aspect of their future lives. I’m sure there are plenty of ICT industry employees who would like to ‘give something back’?

Posted by Georgina O'Toole at '08:34' - Tagged: education   skills   computing  

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