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The coding crisis in UK schools

Computing is an essential skill for young people, but few choose to study it. Will a £100m government investment be the solution?       

By Oscar Williams

In August 2011, Google’s then chairman, Eric Schmidt, made a rare intervention in British politics. Delivering the MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh, the Silicon Valley executive lambasted the standard of computing education in Britain’s schools.

“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in [the UK],” he said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage.”

Within six months, Michael Gove announced the most radical shakeup of IT education in a generation. Speaking in London in January 2012, the then education secretary described the existing ICT curriculum as “harmful”, before vowing to scrap it.

The hastily arranged announcement, inspired by Gove and his adviser at the time Dominic Cummings’ reverence for Silicon Valley, was calculated to preempt a Royal Society report that would also call into question the quality of the existing computing curriculum. The report was published just two days later.

“They knew what was coming and tried to present it as a government initiative rather than a response [to what we found],” says Steve Furber, a computer science professor at Manchester University who led the Royal Society’s review.

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His report made for damning reading. It revealed that just 35 per cent of ICT teachers were specialists, compared with 74 and 80 per cent of maths and English teachers respectively. “We heard from young people that they often knew more than the teacher giving the lesson,” the report’s authors said. “Action is needed not only on the curriculum itself, but also to recruit and train many more inspiring teachers to reinvigorate pupils’ enthusiasm for and interest in computing.”

Two-and-a-half years later, in September 2014, the government launched its new GCSE in computer science. The course was designed to be tougher than the original ICT curriculum, placing a greater focus on programming. The government’s intention was to equip students with the skills they needed to thrive in an age in which digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, would shape the future of work.

But despite the course being a central component of the overhaul of secondary education led by Gove, teachers soon began complaining of a lack of training budgets. Lucrative salaries commanded by computer science graduates made it particularly hard for headteachers to recruit the necessary expertise, making retraining essential.

In 2017, five years after plans to overhaul the curriculum were announced and three years after computing science was introduced as a GCSE, the Royal Society conducted a second review, “After the reboot: computing education in UK schools”. Led once again by Furber, the review reached some startling conclusions.

Over the five-year period from 2012 to 2017, English schools met only 68 per cent of their recruitment target for computing teachers. In Scotland, the total number of computing teachers had suffered a 25 per cent decrease, and nearly half of teachers across the UK surveyed by the committee lacked
confidence when it came to teaching the latter stages of the curriculum.

Uptake of the subject was also cause for concern. Only seven out of ten schools offered computer science as a GCSE in 2017 and adoption remained low. Just 11 per cent of students had decided to take the subject, a statistic the Royal Society called “disappointing”.

The review also revealed that the gender divide in the uptake of computing courses had been exacerbated by the decision to drop ICT, which had traditionally attracted more female students.

“Though many of the great pioneers of computing were women, across the UK computer science is an overwhelmingly male-dominated subject and workforce,” the report’s authors wrote. “At GCSE, there is a 20 per cent uptake from girls, while Scotland also had a 20 per cent female uptake at National 5 in 2017. At A-Level, there is only a 9 per cent uptake from girls, and this has not changed for many years.”

The new curriculum was failing. While a tougher course had been introduced, few students were taking it and even fewer teachers could teach it. In many cases, even those who could felt uncomfortable doing so.

In November 2017, just weeks after the Royal Society published its second report, the government took drastic action in an attempt to salvage one of their flagship education policies. During the Autumn Budget, Philip Hammond announced that the Treasury had allocated £100m to the launch of a National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) that would train 8,000 computer science teachers.

“It’s really not that often that a government takes a report like this and says we’ll make £100m available for professional development and training for teachers of a particular subject,” says Simon Peyton Jones, a Microsoft Research computer scientist who chairs the NCCE. “It’s quite remarkable and it’s having a kind of seismic impact. The new curriculum is about re-envisaging computing as a foundational subject like you might think about maths, physics, chemistry or natural science; that is, a subject that all children should learn to understand and have agency in the world that surrounds them.”

Peyton Jones describes the funding as “sorely needed.” In May last year researchers at the University of Roehampton revealed a “steep decline” in computing provision, “both in terms of hours being taught and
qualifications being sat across the country”. The number of hours spent teaching computing fell by 36 per cent between 2012, when the curriculum overhaul was announced, and 2017. At Key Stage 4, the fall of 47 per cent, equivalent to 31,000 hours, was even more dramatic.

In one twelve-month period between 2017 and 2018, the number of computing qualifications taken by students at Year 11 decreased by a 45 per cent. Roehampton’s Peter Kemp, the author of the report, said at the time: “The government clearly sees the importance of computing through the establishment of the National Centre of Computing Education, and it is encouraging to see a slight increase in number of students sitting GCSE computer science (CS) and schools offering the qualification.

“The overall picture is that young people are now less likely to access any computing education than they were before CS was introduced. If computing increasingly means CS, it looks likely that hundreds of thousands of students, particularly girls and poorer students, will be disenfranchised from a digital education over the next few years.”

Simon Peyton-Jones is optimistic that, eventually, the NCCE will begin to reverse this trend, but he warns that it will take time. “The new curriculum only started in 2014”, he says. “It’ll be 2024 before the first child falls off that conveyor belt and it’ll all take a while.”

Although he says he has concerns about the current Key Stage 4 offering, and particularly the low esteem in which technical computing qualifications are held, he adds: “We are doing something in this country that is the envy of the world. I am really proud of what we have chosen to do in our national curriculum to make computing a foundational discipline. It is a big change. It is being disruptive. It is a huge challenge for teachers who do not have a computer science education. They are stepping up to it, but don’t underestimate the scale of the challenge.”

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