Whatever Happened to Computing in Wales?

Two years ago, Wales was leading the way in the Computing revolution in schools.  Now it’s falling behind the rest of the UK.  What happened?

2012 was an exciting year to be involved in schools education in the UK, with Wales being no exception.  By 2013, the Welsh ICT Steering Group had reported to the Welsh Government with an ambitious set of proposals, at the heart of which was the bold assertion that:

“Computing should be integrated into the curriculum as the fourth science, served by a mandatory Programme of Study, and receive the same status as the other three sciences”

Now, in 2014, the situation appears to be one of chaotic stagnation.  And, if that combination appears oxymoronic, just take a look …

The Need for Change

Even at the beginning of the new millennium, it was apparent that Computing education in schools in the UK had been in decline for several years.  Schoolchildren, rather than studying programming, computer systems, computational thinking and problem-solving, etc., had grown up on a unsatisfactory diet of tasteless IT and ICT.  Even by 2010, a typical GSCE syllabus  would include an uninspiring combination of coursework based on office software and might conclude with a project in which students created a video or some other form of presentation.  Although there were some outstanding schools bucking the trend, in most, conventional notions of Computing or Computer Science (CS) were conspicuously absent.

In 2008, a group of CS enthusiasts and professionals formed the Computing At School (CAS) movement, with the stated objective of addressing these shortcomings.  Numbers were small, and influence limited, for two or three years until a series of commissioned reports, professional endorsements and media stories served to raise the profile dramatically.  Within a few months, UK government educational policy, noting a changing public tide, had shifted beyond recognition.  Almost overnight, the problem had transformed from one of trying to find support for a radical new curriculum to that of preparing for it being somewhat hastily implemented.

Naturally, there were challenges, the immediate difficulty being twofold.  Not only were schoolchildren about to be immersed in an entirely unfamiliar syllabus but so were their teachers.  Most estimates put the UK number of existing IT/ICT teachers unprepared for the new Computing/CS curriculum in the tens of thousands.  In response, CAS, supported by the British Computer Society (BCS), the BCS Academy and the UK Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC) set about building the Network of Excellence (NoE), a national collaboration of trailblazing UK schools and universities and a number of major international technology companies, including Microsoft, Google, IBM, British Telecom and Facebook.  Together they set about preparing UK schools for the CS revolution.

Change for the Better

Of course, the situation in Wales was subtly different from the outset.  Education has been, over recent years, one of those areas devolved to Cardiff by Westminster; Scotland also has to be considered separately.  Cynics often point out that UK=England in parliamentary terms but it’s particularly true for education.  Clearly the provinces would have to fend for themselves.

Wales got off to a good start though.  It had an enthusiastic Education Minister, capable of taking on board technical concepts with only minimal reiteration, who seemed amenable to change.  CAS was well represented in Wales with six very active hubs, bringing HE and FE expertise into schools and enabling schools themselves to share experience and good practice.  A Welsh ICT Steering Group was formed to report directly to the Education Minister.  (Its constitution was heavily biased towards South Wales but the North was well used to that.)  By the time the Minister opened the UK CPHC Annual conference, which happened to be in Cardiff, in early 2013, things seemed to be progressing well and he received a warm welcome.  When the ICT Steering Group finally reported, they did so with clear insight and produced some bold recommendations, including:

  • A new subject named Computing should be created to replace Information and Communications Technology (ICT) from Foundation Phase onwards. This new subject will disaggregate into two main areas: Computer Science (CS); and Information Technology (IT).
  • Computing should be integrated into the curriculum as the fourth science, served by a mandatory Programme of Study, and receive the same status as the other three sciences.
  • A Statutory Digital Literacy (DL) Framework should be implemented to work alongside the Literacy and Numeracy Framework from Foundation Phase through to post-16 education.
  • Perceptions of Computing education pathways should be changed to recognise the key societal roles of computing and technology, as well as promote the importance and diversity of IT careers.
  • The revised Computing curriculum should encourage creativity, allow thematic working and develop real world problem-solving. It should be flexible enough to continually evolve to remain current, adopting an Agile ideology and approach to ensure this.
  • Engagement and collaboration between education and industry should be an integral part of the curriculum to embed current practices and skills.

The Welsh Government’s response was equally promising and the revolution looked set to happen.

Change for the Worse

Then two things happened.  Neither in isolation would probably have caused much damage but the combination was fatal.

  1. Firstly, the Welsh Education Minister got into some hot water and was forced to resign.  It was the usual political fudge; nothing serious in the grand scheme of things but faces had to be saved and he fell gracefully on his sword.  Political veneer: everyone knew he would be back some day; politics is a horribly dishonest system at heart.  The new Minister appeared equally enthusiastic in his role but, from the very start, seemed to have more of an FE than schools focus.
  2. Secondly, a bit later in 2013, the OECD’s ‘Pisa’ test results were published and these were not good news for Wales. The tests ranked Wales bottom in the UK and “From an international perspective, the performance of 15-year-olds in Wales on Pisa is low overall, and there are too many students performing at low levels.”  “The Pisa 2012 reading and science assessments showed that almost one in five Welsh students did not achieve level two which is considered the baseline of proficiency at which students begin to demonstrate competencies to actively participate in life.  “For mathematics this proportion was even higher, almost 30%. These levels are among the lowest in OECD countries.”

Suddenly, all bets were off.  The old Minister would probably have managed to push through the CS changes and dealt with the Pisa bombshell.  The new minister would probably have seen through the CS changes he’d inherited without Pisa to deal with.  But the combination was too much.  A new Minister stepping into an unfamiliar role, suddenly being presented with such bad news, was never going to have time to deal with anything else.  Welsh CS reform died that very day.

Plus Ça Change?

So where are we now?  Where’s the ‘fourth science’?  Well, the OECD is still pointing out that, “the Welsh government lacks education ‘long-term vision'” and, in fact, the situation is probably worse now than it was when the report was commissioned; only now, all subjects appear to be suffering.  Other comments included:

  • “The Welsh government had tried to do too much too soon”
  • “The pace of reform had been high and lacked adequate school improvement infrastructure or a clear implementation strategy all stakeholders shared”
  • “One of the most controversial reforms by the Welsh government was school banding, introduced in 2011”
  • “Teaching unions had argued it did not reflect what was happening in schools and that the requirements changed from year to year”
  • “The report largely agreed with that, but added the Welsh government should consider making the school banding calculation method more transparent”
  • “The report also criticised the standards of teachers in Wales, and the lack of options for career progression and professional development for teachers and head teachers”
  • “But it said schools in Wales found it difficult to recruit high-calibre teachers, which may be a result of the standard of applicants on teacher training courses”
  • “Successive Welsh education ministers had made attempts to place more emphasis on tackling the link between poverty and low educational achievements”

Way too much information, and probably most of it unfair, certainly from a CS perspective and certainly on teachers, but the damage was done.  With Welsh education apparently causing concern across the board, there’s now very little chance in the foreseeable future of much focus on a single subject, no matter how crucial.  Welsh CS has been effectively forgotten.

So what has been achieved?  Well, of course, there are some of the new Computing and CS GCSEs being delivered, one of which is the Welsh WJEC version.  But, unlike in England, there’s no consistent switchover to the new framework – there is no new framework.  Some schools are running the new versions and some are still running the old IT/ICT nonsense.  Some teachers are ready for the new system – if it ever arrives – but many aren’t.  What ‘reform’ there is is patchy and voluntary.  It’s both chaotic and stalled at the same time.

Meanwhile, of course, England is racing ahead.  Not only is the new Computing framework in place, so is the English Network of Excellence and the Master Teacher Programme.  To be fair to CAS and the NoE coordinators, Welsh teachers and CAS hubs have been welcomed into the fold wherever funding restrictions have allowed or where it’s been possible to overlook them but the experience simply isn’t the same.  With the very best of intentions, there simply isn’t the support for Welsh teachers because – officially at least – no-one really knows what they need.

There are pockets of good news.  Recognising the urgent need for Welsh support, CAS recently supported a financial bid by Welsh universities and CAS hubs for Google Computer Science for High School (CS4HS) funding.  $25,000 has been awarded to a project led by Glyndwr University, and including Bangor, Cardiff Metropolitan and Wales Trinity St David universities to train Welsh schoolteachers this summer.  It all helps but, at the moment, it’s all much too little, too late.

About Vic Grout

Professor of Computing Futures at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Wales, UK. View all posts by Vic Grout

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