Headlines about Computer Science

It’s been well over two years since the new computer science curriculum was introduced in the UK. Not that long ago, Roehampton University released its wonderful Annual Computing Education Report 2015 which says clearly, in black and white, that the numbers of pupils taking computing compared to those that took ICT are significantly lower now and, more importantly, the proportion of females has dropped. Newspapers jumped onto headlines exclaiming that we should have stuck with the old ICT curriculum, but that doesn’t address a number of significant issues.

So, let’s look at the lower number of students studying computer science compared to ICT. There are two things to consider here – when I was at school, ICT was seen as a bit of a joke subject: not one that was taken seriously in academic circles. It was a subject where you learnt to use Excel and create a blog, but it was a bit of a ‘soft’ subject. I suspect that a number of the pupils studying ICT were doing so because it didn’t require quite as much work as, say, French GCSE. Let’s compare that to Computer Science – the computer science curriculum is as difficult as learning a new language because you are actually expected to learn a new language, whether that be Python, Ruby or JavaScript; for the controlled assessment, you need to write some code. It is therefore not a soft subject by any measure.

The other thing to consider is that in a number of schools, there is a fear of failure – I have heard no end of stories from teachers who have been told in no uncertain terms that only the ‘top’ mathematicians are even allowed to consider computer science – no school wants to have a drop in the percent of grades A*-C that they can brag about (or whatever the numbers are in the new system). That immediately isolates around three quarters of the pupils. While I agree that there is some correlation between academia and computer science, it is also true that many pupils with dyslexia and ASD are excellent programmers who may not succeed in maths or English, but would, in contrast, perform exceedingly well in a Computer Science GCSE. Why should we exclude pupils that are interested just because they aren’t in the top set for maths? Surely it’s better that a pupil gets a low grade GCSE in CS than get no GCSEs at all?

By the way, I’m not criticising the schools for not being confident enough to allow everyone to study CS at GCSE level. It’s the system that forces them to fear failure and to force their pupils to conform because of that fear of failure. What, then, can we do to fix it?

On top of that, we have that issue of teacher training. Some of the best teachers in the UK for teaching the ICT curriculum are being pushed into teaching computer science without any knowledge of the necessary skills and there is no time nor funding for them to learn. Of course, they’re not going to want difficult or potentially weak children when they are not confident themselves!

Another issue is that the new GCSE assumes that pupils have been learning about algorithms since they were 4 years old and spent most of their school life learning about coding from an early age. Except that most of these pupils have probably learnt ‘a bit of HTML’ in a ‘coding lesson’ in year 9 and that’s about it; you have no idea how many secondary-aged pupils have told me that is their only experience of coding at school… How can we expect them to study at an advanced level when they’ve missed out the easy level? It takes both an excellent student and excellent teacher in order to achieve this feat, so is it any surprise that both numbers studying and grade expectations are dropping?

What about the fall in numbers of girls?

Well, I loved maths at school, but I know I was in a minority – I was the only girl to get an A* in maths GCSE and I was the only girl to study maths and further maths at A-level. Maths is a traditionally boy-heavy subject so if we’re limiting students to top-set maths then yes, that does exclude a lot of girls. However, that’s not the main problem with the subject, let’s be honest…

Computer science has a massive image problem – when you think about programmers, most people will imagine a middle-aged, over-weight man. When we talk about successful people in the industry, most people will list off “Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg”. So, where are the women? We are seriously lacking in positive female role models who demonstrate a passion for CS and programming even though evidence suggests that women write code equally as good, if not better, than their male counterparts. How many girls out there were put off as teenagers and never really got started – I know I was! I mean, how many schools even have a female computer science teacher?

This is something I’ve been saying in various circles for quite a while, but I really don’t know what the solution is – there are some great people out there like Carrie Anne Philbin from the Raspberry Pi Foundation and groups like the Stemettes and Django Girls, but is that enough? Young women like Yasmin Bey and Cerys Lock are flying the flag for young, female coders, but they’re still not well known enough outside of our community of already-super-enthusiastic people.

My heart feels like the key is in the teacher training. At the school I used to teach at, because of my enthusiasm for coding, my Code Club was 50:50 male:female. The girls were just as excited as the boys and so far three of them have come and talked very eloquently about their coding experiences at Wimbledon Jam. I should point out that only one of the three was a ‘top set’ mathematician, but that didn’t stop the others from being passionate and enthusiastic about learning to code. I was also given the freedom to tailor my curriculum to my resources and my pupils, something not always available to state schools where results are the only thing that matters and pupils are lost in the overwhelming need to achieve.

We need to support the people on the ground level, the teachers in the classroom, to help them to nourish and enthuse both male and female students and to help them to realise that computer science is for anyone who is interested and not just one subset of society.

This isn’t a criticism of the teachers as individuals: they’re doing the best they can. However, without the right training, without the right support, how can we expect teachers in the classroom to fill pupils with a sense of wonder and excitement for CS? Something has to change.

Just so we’re clear: I’m not a feminist. I’m not saying we should be holding girls-only events and pushing a female agenda even if the girls aren’t interested, I just wish that I’d been more supported as a teenager and felt more like coding was something that was socially acceptable for a girl to do, because who knows what might have happened if I had been! I just want us to encourage and foster interest in everyone to ensure that all students get a chance to be the best that they can be, no matter what their gender, ethnicity or background.

One final, happy note – take a look at the new Raspberry Pi Pioneers competition. That’s how you encourage people to get excited about computer science! I look forward to laughing at all of the (intentionally) funny entries and hope lots of young people have fun entering!

*please note this blog reflects my personal views and not those of any company that I represent.

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