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BETT seminar: how can schools embrace the computer science challenge?

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress of St Mary’s School in Cambridge, recently sat on a panel at BETT – a technology in education event that took place at the ExCel centre in London at the end of January. This is the first of a series of articles on the theme that Charlotte will be writing for us over the next few weeks. 

I was delighted to be approached to join some key players for a session on Computer Science in Schools, sponsored by Microsoft at BETT, the major show for technology in education around the world, with 30,000 visitors and a large number of international guests too! As Clare Riley, of Microsoft Education put it: “We absolutely could not ask for a better opportunity to reach out to schools who may be ready and able to embrace computer science, but in need of practical advice, or who may be capable but in need of inspiration.” And this is what the panel was asked to do. The aim was essentially to be upbeat and positive; computer science does not need to be either alien or frightening! There is obviously fantastic practice up and down the country and industry backing schools so generously. So now, computer science needs to move along, barriers need to be broken down, staff engaged and good CPD rolled out as a national programme.


Dr Jo Twist, Chair of the UK Video Games membership association, UKIE chaired the session. Alongside myself, the panel comprised of Professor Simon Peyton Jones, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, where he studies functional programming language design and implementation.  He is a founder member and current Chair of the Computing at School Working Group, and is committed to establishing computer science as a first-class subject in British schools. Roger Davies, Director of ICT, Queen Elizabeth School, Cumbria had been invited as a lead practitioner and advocate of Computing Science alongside Nicki Maddams, Advanced Skills Teacher in ICT, Hartsdown Technology College, Margate and winner of the Cutting Edge Use of Technology for Learning Award at Microsoft’s Global Forum in 2012. Nicki’s main focus over recent years has been the use of Kodu Game Lab, giving students a starting-point in programming and reaching out to teachers with resources and training to enable the software to be taught across other schools.

Jo opened the session with scene-setting remarks. She said that coding is part of a creative craft and that coding combined with art are crucial skills for the games industry. She felt that we are at a point of great momentum, with the fantastic announcement of 15,000 Raspberry Pis in schools and the “Ebacc” announcement (ie that Computer Science is to become, in effect, the fourth science and in consequence be recognised as a qualifying subject on the E Bacc). Whilst we know that previous experiences of technology in schools have been off-putting, the point now is to enhance the digital capability of schools to build an innovative and creative digital economy. She stressed the need to move beyond the early adopters in schools and “up-skill” and give those ICT teachers who have been undervalued in the past, the confidence to lead the change.

Each speaker then had five minutes to make some initial points and present a call to action. Simon continued to set the scene which has involved a grass-roots (not political) campaign driving real change and supported by employers. Like Jo, he was keen to suggest that we are now at a pivotal point with the computer science discipline fizzing with energy and excitement: “we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a lasting, substantial, and beneficial change in our children’s education. We want nothing less than to establish Computer Science, for the first time, as a proper, rigorous subject discipline like maths or chemistry, that every child learns from primary school onwards.”

Again, in his words: “The stars are aligned. The iron is hot. We must not let this opportunity pass”. The alignment being: the National Curriculum review; the enormous energy and enthusiasm from teachers; vigorous support from employers such as Microsoft, BT, Google, ARM and others. For older children, he suggested that many wonderful tools abound, for example inspiring teaching platforms like Kodu and Raspberry Pi; and yesterday’s crowning glory, namely computer science finding its place in the EBacc which will incentivise schools to introduce this as a new subject.

Realistically though, he noted that there are massive challenges too since we start from a near-zero base. We must find a way to equip thousands of ICT teachers to teach computer science, rather than simply dump new “unmeetable” expectations on them from a great height.

Roger then spoke as an educator about how teachers get started. As teachers progress they gain confidence and understand that there are many different tools and approaches to suit the needs of pupils. Reassuringly, he made the point that Visual Languages have a low floor of entry – but can also support complex things. (An example project he demonstrated uses StarLogo to model an epidemic.) He also pointed out that you don’t always need a computer to teach concepts and he went on to demonstrate that this can even be achieved in the playground!

I then spoke with a general focus on how to engage wider audiences (especially girls), and how to go about getting ‘buy in’ from stakeholders at institution level – especially helping parents to understand the importance of the new curriculum. (In my second article in this series I will go into more detail about what I said.)

Nicki described some of the tools available to hook young people in and make coding relevant and appealing to a host of subject areas. She discussed programming from a young age and the use of Kodu as a tool for introducing programming with children in Key Stage 2. She also mentioned girls in IT from a careers perspective, because she has recently set up a website for her “conference mascot”, Geeky Barbie, which is used to host interviews with women who work in IT. The site aims to enable girls to see the range of jobs available to them.

Nicki went on to highlight cross-curricular links with other subjects, particularly in game design, where, for example, having a good storyline for the game can form part of English lessons – as well as drawing on artwork, physics, maths etc. She made the point (again) about staff training. Getting staff on board can be part of the battle, especially as many schools are in a situation where they may have non specialists teaching ICT. Nicki’s Call to Action was therefore that, locally and nationally, more CPD events for both primary and secondary teachers are needed to train teachers who are worried about the curriculum changes.

In the subsequent Q&A session, we reiterated a few key points. The point was raised that there are few subjects that can actually develop children’s thinking and learning skills in the way that computer science does, which is why we believe that all children should have some exposure from an early age. It was also mentioned that we have many resources at our disposal and a thriving community of practice. To scale up, we need policy makers starting to pull levers.

Our closing “call to action” was as follows: ultimately we need to redefine the curriculum for the 21st century and to that end. Computer science (including programming) should be established as a school subject, learned by every child from primary school onwards: it is not just a specialist subjects for geeks! To that end, a national programme of training for our existing ICT teachers is urgently required, to equip them to teach Computer Science. It will need national funding, but Microsoft stands ready to play a leading role.

In other parts of the world (for example, New Zealand) computer science has been a runaway success. If we don’t enter the worldwide competition with energy, determination and zeal, the UK will be left out in the cold, vastly outstripped by countries like Israel and Brazil.

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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