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13 November 2017

Invest in Education to Make UK Fourth Industrial Revolution Leader

Dr Sue Sentance, a contributor to the Royal Society's new 'After the Reboot' report, shows how research and teacher training in computing education at King's can be the basis of the UK's tech future.

Dr Sue Sentance
Dr Sue Sentance

On 10 November the Royal Society launched its new report on the state of computing education in UK schools. Dr Sue Sentance, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science Education at King's College London, and a member of the report's working group, shares her thoughts on the importance of investing in computing education. This blog originally featured on the Royal Society's website. 

Computing in school allows young people to learn vitally important skills that will be required for the future. For the subject to truly succeed in school, we need to make sure that teachers of Computing have the knowledge required and are confident to teach the subject. As a working group member for the Society’s latest report, After the Reboot, which looks at computing education in UK schools, I felt that it was vitally important that the support needed for teachers was highlighted.

Introducing Computing to the national curriculum in England in 2014 was definitely a step in the right direction, but not enough consideration was given to teacher support. There are many, many Computing teachers doing an excellent job but to get to that point they have had to put in huge amounts of their own time to upskill and develop resources. In essence many teachers were asked to teach a subject they didn’t know how to teach.  To ensure that Computing teachers have the subject and pedagogical knowledge required they need to be supported by continuing professional development (CPD) over a period of time. The research carried out for this report shows us that not enough teachers are getting this vitally important training: 26% of secondary Computing teachers had not completed any continuing professional development over the 2015/2016 school year.

Having worked with Computing At School (CAS) for several years now to support teachers of Computing, the results of the survey did not come as a surprise. Teachers at CAS events often tell of difficulties getting time out of school and shortages in their departments. Computing At School offers great support for teachers, based on a peer-to-peer model and community building, but does not have resources to reach all teachers in the country, and particularly where their schools are not in a position to release them for training. Learning the computing skills needed takes time and a one-day course alone will not do the job. For a teacher who has not met computer science before, many, many weeks of support and training are needed, and needs to focus on learner outcomes.

It is important to note that the gap in teacher training is not the fault of schools. For a teacher to take time out for training, a school will have to find another teacher to replace that teacher for the day. With the recruitment picture for Computing being so challenging, this has created a situation where schools are unable to find supply teachers that will allow them to release their teacher for training. There is considerable pressure being put on teachers and this needs to be addressed immediately.

My own approach to professional development (PD) in Computing is around a holistic approach that enables teachers to take ownership of their own PD. When I worked as a teacher, I was encouraged to be reflective and carry out classroom-based investigations to understand teaching and learning better and improve the teaching strategies I used. I believe that providing support for Computing teachers to carry out their own research or investigations, and developing peer support networks that enable reflective practice and useful feedback are ways to value teachers’ contribution to the development of computing education. Computing is a new curriculum subject, which is hardly taught at school anywhere else in the world, so as such we are all learning. We need to listen to teachers’ voices on how we can best inspire and engage students in this subject.

I have a very strong interest in educational research and developing more effective pedagogy for Computing education. We urgently need more (or some!) rigorous research into what we can/should teach and when, how we make Computing accessible and success achievable for all learners through effective teaching strategies, and how we can make Computing an attractive and engaging subject to the diverse majority.  At King’s College London we are developing our research agenda in computing education and are doing this in conjunction with the local teacher community: our experience is that teachers involved with research projects led by academics can develop their subject knowledge and also gain a deeper understanding about how children learn Computing. The Royal Society report highlights the need for research in computing education in school and also the role that teachers can play in this.

As part of my role at Kings College London, I teach on the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in Computing,  training new computing teachers. We recruit some very talented candidates to teaching, often from industry and with strong computing backgrounds, and then invest a significant amount of time enabling teachers to have the pedagogical knowledge to be effective classroom practitioners. Despite the investment in the training, I am hearing too often of these teachers gaining their Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) status, entering the profession, but then leaving teaching after a few years. These new teachers primarily cite their heavy workload and low remuneration as reasons for leaving. This is such a shame as we are losing some very talented teachers.

For the UK to truly become a worldwide digital leader, we need to make sure teachers are effectively trained so that children are provided with the opportunity to gain the essential skills for the future. The responsibility of this cannot lie with schools alone. Urgent support is required from government, industry and academia to ensure students are provided with a quality computing education.

Read more about After The Reboot here.