Our journey in Computer Science

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress of St Mary's School, Cambridge

St Mary’s School, Cambridge, has thoroughly and consciously embraced computer science. This is the second in a series of articles on the theme by the school’s Headmistress Charlotte Avery. You can read her first article in the series here

I was invited to speak at the technology in education event BETT because I am passionate about promoting the teaching of Science and Technology and harnessing the energy and networks of Cambridge’s academic and business communities to inspire St Mary’s girls. I was responsible for overseeing a radical overhaul of our school’s IT infrastructure, and implementing changes in staffing and curriculum that are leading to a sea-change in the way ICT is perceived and taught. I spoke from my perspective as a Head who had taken the plunge positively. The fact that my school is all girls’ was of added interest.

I introduced my talk by giving some of the background to St Mary’s – a very high achieving 4-18 all girls’ day and boarding Catholic school. We take advantage of our position in Cambridge, with its Universities (Anglia Ruskin University alongside Cambridge University), Addenbrookes and Silicon Fen as much as we can.

Historically, ICT was taught in curriculum time at KS3 but it was not seen as a core subject, nor  sufficiently academic. Consequently, its timetable allocation was cut. The ICT curriculum was primarily focussed on developing competence in software packages such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint and the importance of a tangible end-product saw ECDL favoured. However, two years ago, and a year ahead of Gove’s pronouncement last year at BETT, St Mary’s Cambridge came to the realisation that ICT needed to change.

Small Steps

In our experience, an organic approach to change through small steps has been effective. Programming has been introduced to the KS2 and KS3 curricula (Rising Star ICT series in our Junior School and Scratch in the Senior School). With support from Sue Sentence at Anglia Ruskin University and loan of kit from Microsoft, a .NET Gadgeteer club was started at lunchtimes. A small core of dedicated and enthusiastic students were hooked: we had 12 girls last year and 10 this year.

On the back of this success, a proposal was made by the ICT department to offer GCSE Computing as a trial beginning in September 2012. This takes place, for five students, on timetable making use of study periods. Bringing our story right up to date, the publicity generated about Computing within the school has resulted in students asking about A Level Computing at St Mary’s, and plans for offering this to two or three of our current Year 11s are under way.

Raising Aspirations

In a crowded and competitive further education and career landscape, students need to have their eyes opened to the opportunities that Computer Science offers. This was relatively easy for us because of our location: at St Mary’s we are fortunate to be situated the technological hotbed of Cambridge, and we try to leverage this position whenever we can. Through inviting speakers to talk to the girls at lunchtime and seeking input from our neighbour universities and technology companies, we aim to inspire and raise the aspirations of our students. A couple of years ago, Abigail Sellen gave a fascinating lecture to the whole school on Human Brain and Computing Interaction. We are currently planning to host a Raspberry Pi demo/talk aimed at those interested in music as well as those enthusiastic about computing.

At St Mary’s we aim to raise our girls’ aspirations by making use of both local and national opportunities. STEM East have invited our students to a 2 hour workshop for Year 11s and Sixth Formers in Computing Mathematics, and the University of Southampton is currently offering a STEM Computer Science opportunity to Year 11s & 12s for late July 2013 .

Making Change Happen

To bring about this change in the way ICT is taught, we have implemented a strategic vision for staffing, management and our infrastructure. We are fortunate in having ICT teachers with industry experience of programming. But they have also been given the freedom to go ahead and innovate and make positive changes to the ICT curriculum. CPD has been encouraged and supported throughout.

It is crucial that the right management structure is in place; at St Mary’s I have created a series of posts to encourage innovation and change, and these positions have worked remarkably well: Director of Digital Strategy; Head of Technology; STEM Coordinator and Enterprise Coordinator. They all work together to ensure that technology at St Mary’s flourishes across the curriculum. Finally, regarding infrastructure: ICT teachers need to know that they have the platform on which to build their new curriculum. To that end, we have invested in both a robust and reliable network, and excellent technical support.

Support of Key Stakeholders

In order to bring about change, you need the support and buy-in of key stakeholders. In the case of a school, these are the parents, Governors, teachers and pupils. Many of our parents are from the hi-tech sectors, and our open channels of communication mean that feedback and dialogue have helped to shape our thinking. Some parents have also come into school to help with clubs.

We are fortunate to also have a very supportive governing body amongst whom are representatives from the University and local technology companies; their insight has been invaluable. Without the support of teachers, change cannot happen, and having teachers on board from the very beginning has made the job so much easier. My staff are fantastic at the way they have inspired their students to take up the Computer Science baton.

Finally, if the pupils don’t enjoy the lessons – if they are not inspired by them – then the initiative will wither and die. All of the structures and changes we have put in place are designed to ensure that this won’t happen. In my next article in this series I will talk about girls and Computer Science in more detail.

The first article in this series is here. Charlotte also wrote three articles about technology in schools for us back in November. You can find her first piece, “Making technology work in schools” here, second, “How to run a switched-on school” here, and third, “What makes a good digital product?” here.

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