GCSE computer science – can we look at “why” before we talk about “hard”

Today the latest TRACER report from Peter Kemp and colleagues was published. It’s excellent that the team have done so much digging into the data to be able to contrast different groups and show us where students are likely to be taking GCSE computer science and A Level. Some good news:

Increasing numbers of schools are offering computer science at GCSE (52.5%) and A level (36.2%), and so now there’s a good chance that a student will find CS on offer at their school (76.3% at GCSE)

GCSE computer science is a baby of a subject compared to everything else in the curriculum – having disappeared in the late 1980s or so to appear again just a few years ago. So it’s great that it is gathering traction in school now.

The report is great, but unfortunately instantly stimulated headlines by the BBC and TES, such as “Computing exam changes are a turn-off“. From my perspective it’s really disappointing to see more bad media press for computer science, and using “Computing” for the exams, when they are actually computer science.

For me, the statement that stood out from the report is that “GCSE computer science is hard“. The word “hard” appears four times in the report. There is a lot to talk about with regards to this one statement.  Perhaps we could look at this statement in more depth. I wanted to make 4 observations that describe why this data is telling us that the subject is ‘hard’.

  1. In nearly all other GCSE subjects students have been studying them since they were 5 and teachers have been teaching them since they were trained. Therefore, if everything else is equal, we should wait until 2028 to make this judgement – when Computing has been in the curriculum for a lot longer.
  2. Another reason it’s hard is that we don’t have experience of where children go wrong, how we best help them understand the difficult bits, how we differentiate, how we unpick the subject, etc. When we have that knowledge – called PCK (pedagogical content knowledge)  – embedded in the teaching and resources, perhaps GCSE computer science may not be as hard for students.
  3. But then let’s assume it’s 2028, that we have a fully-formed PCK, and still students still do not do better in CS than other subjects (and are still not choosing it in their droves). Then we may be able to say it’s a hard subject. Yes? Not really – the next step would be to look at what is actually covered in the GCSE computer science. What do we know about age appropriateness, development of cognitive skills, progression in computing and learning trajectories in computing? Relatively little. So there is still much more to learn about what we should be assessing at age 15 there before we condemn the subject. Again other subjects are way ahead here.
  4. Finally, is the GCSE content actually representative of ‘computer science’? What happened to the study of databases, modelling and simulation? Where is HCI? Sure there is a lot about algorithms – even a blank 3/4 page where you have to write one from scratch (hmmm…. ). Why do we have bubble sorts and no HCI? No usability? Limited study of ethics, AI and the implications of machine learning. Perhaps if we looked at these things we could think about why the subject is being described as “hard”.

However none of these points have anything to do with the removal of ICT. In a previous life, I taught ICT and yes, it had its merits, but we MUST move forward. Let’s make GCSE computer science better and not just give the BBC and TES another excuse to slam our subject.

One very pertinent issue is that we are still catching up with regards to the number of teachers teaching the subject – these numbers will obviously have a huge impact on the numbers of students who are able to study the subject. The DfE has committed to providing £35 million for the upskilling of current teachers so that  GCSE computer science will be available in all schools by 2022 (as I understand it).  Together with other funding, England will have £80 million spent on Computing education between 2018-2022. This is a reason to celebrate and I look forward to our subject moving forward.

Sue Sentance

(edited 19/6/18).