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The Way Forward For Computer Science in the U.K.

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Judy Robertson

The last week has seen some interesting developments in Computer Science Education in the U.K.. Or at least, there has been some public hand-wringing about the poor state of computer science education, some sensible proposals for what could be done about it, and some government promises to dramatically overhaul the school ICT curriculum. This could be enormously beneficial for computer science, assuming the momentum is kept up.

The hand-wringing is along the lines of “We used to do this so well. Look at Alan Turing” and “Think back to the glory days of the BBC Micro project in the ‘80s.” And then there is a public shaming of the geeks in the nation by the CEO of Google who rapped us on the knuckles, and admonished us for “throwing away” our “great computer heritage.” The Guardian newspaper has embarked on a Digital Literacy Campaign which has a comprehensive selection of articles from kids, politicians, teachers, parents, academics and business people all bemoaning the state of computing education in schools. All this does seem to have had an effect; the Secretary for Education (Michael Gove) announced last week that the current ICT curriculum would be scrapped, and more high quality qualifications in CS developed with freedom for schools to develop their own curricula.

Fortunately, the Royal Society published a report on Friday which brings reason, evidence and considered recommendations to the well intentioned but confused discussions. It clarifies the terminology, distinguishing between “Computing,” “ICT,” “Computer Science,” “Information Technology,” and “Digital Literacy.” It recommends that school children in the UK should be educated in digital literacy; in the same way as they become fluent in reading and writing text, they should become fluent in using computers confidently. The existing ICT curriculum attempted to do this, albeit in a boring, simplistic and out of date way. A real contribution of the Royal Society report is to argue that children should also have the opportunity to study Computer Science as a rigorous academic discipline and that the curricula and qualifications should be restructured to reflect this.

The report recommends that the shortage of specialist Computer Science teachers should be addressed (alarmingly, in England, 66% of teachers of ICT are not considered as qualified by the Department of Education), and that teachers should have greater access to continuing professional development, perhaps offered through industry sponsorship. Resources should also be improved in terms of increased access to software and hardware, and a loosening of network security restrictions which currently hamper access to online materials. Extra-curricular computing activities should also be encouraged. Less cumbersome assessment methods should be developed.

So maybe--just maybe--the much lamented golden age of U.K. computing can return. If we follow these recommendations, our schools will be full of little Alan Turings and Ada Lovelaces all busy in their sand pits exploring the fundamental nature of computation.


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