Experts are urging the Scottish Government to take radical steps to boost computing science education to prevent the subject from being squeezed out of schools.
The teaching of computing in schools is in “crisis”, practitioners have told The Ferret, with classes shrinking and teachers in short supply. The latest official data shows that the number of children studying the subject declined last year, while the number of teachers has fallen over the last decade.
Despite a national focus on delivering science and technology education and economic development, schools are finding it increasingly difficult to teach computing science to young people, critics say.
Academics argue that more needs to be done to recruit more teachers, and they need to be given more support. The digital industry warns that the growing lack of suitable skilled people is “holding back” companies in Scotland.
One current head of computing in a Scottish secondary school – who asked not to be named – painted a grim picture. “My budget is almost exactly the same as it was a decade ago,” the teacher said.
“Departments across Scotland are in decline. Staff vacancies are not being filled. Students entering teaching are failing. Training is rare.”
Having to teach classes containing children taking two or even three different qualifications was “commonplace across Scotland”. The introduction of faculties covering groups of subjects has also seen computing science “sidelined and downgraded.”
The teacher added: “The axing, for arbitrary and financial reasons, of the information system higher has also slashed the number of females to pre-2000 levels in many cases.
“Computing is in crisis in Scotland and the SNP – which I support in all other things – and its education policy, is harming both the future of our candidates and the ability to provide quality computing education.”
Information from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) shows that 4,099 young people sat higher computing science in 2018, down from 4,476 in 2017.
At the lower national five level the decline is even sharper, with entries falling from 7,441 in 2017 to 6,441 last year.
Scottish Government data also reveals that between 2008 and 2017, the number of computing science teachers in Scottish schools fell by nearly 25 per cent from 766 to 582. There was a small increase to 595 in 2018.
In 2016 a report from a professional group promoting computer education, Computing At School Scotland, highlighted that 17 per cent of schools had no computing specialist. More than half of local authorities were affected by the shortage.
The report also said that the number of new computing teachers entering the system had drastically declined in recent years, with fewer than two dozen entering the profession in 2016.
Computing science also suffers from one of the largest gender gaps in Scotland, with boys outnumbering girls by 84 to 16 per cent at highers. Boys are much more likely to study the subject to exam level, despite girls being more likely to pass.
The proportion of girls taking computing highers increased slightly between 2017 and 2018. But it was significantly below the level for 2012, when nearly a quarter were female.
As a result the Scottish Government received an additional £11.6 million between 2018 and 2020. But because the money was under the so-called Barnett formula for Scottish expenditure it was not ring-fenced and was not specifically allocated to computer education.
Greg Michaelson, who recently retired as professor of computing science at Heriot Watt University, argued that more action was needed. “There is a strong case for providing additional teacher resources, in particular for the more technical and advanced aspects of computing,” he said.
“The world is utterly dependent on computing, and there are always far more skilled jobs than trained personnel, so schools’ provision is a crucial part of the people pipeline. Scotland currently enjoys a world class computing curriculum, but the field continuously develops and grows, at a pace quite unlike other disciplines.”
He added: “To ensure that all Scotland’s young people can access world class computing education, we need not just more computing teachers, but provision for them to acquire and deliver new competences throughout their careers, backed by consistent and sustained training and support.”
Michaelson acknowledged, however, that the Scottish Government was trying “in the teeth of austerity” to improve resourcing for science, technology, engineering and maths. “It is actively addressing teacher shortages, and computing education is benefiting from this,” he said.
There is a strong case for providing additional teacher resources, in particular for the more technical and advanced aspects of computing. Greg Michaelson, retired professor of computing science
Kate Farrell is director of curriculum development and professional learning for the University of Edinburgh’s data education in schools project. She has helped produced material to support the teaching of data and information handling in the classroom.
More support was needed for teachers in secondary, primary and early years level, she argued. Her project has worked with the SQA to design a data science award that could be taught across the curriculum to help compensate for the lack of computing science teachers.
“Teachers need more support to teach computing science in the broad general education (BGE), so that children have a better understanding and appreciation for computing,” she told The Ferret.
“Secondary teachers who are not computing science specialists but who find themselves teaching the subject in the BGE will also need support too. It would be good to see professional learning and resources for these teachers.”
Farrell added: “We also need to get more computing science teachers into the profession, and it is good to see more computing science students getting an experience of school education as part of their undergraduate courses at institutions across Scotland.”
Polly Purvis, chief executive of ScotlandIS, a trade body representing Scotland’s digital economy, identified a “significant and growing skills shortage” across computer science as a restraint on the sector’s continued development. “The lack of sufficient numbers of skilled people is holding our industry back,” she said.
“Despite huge effort by dedicated and passionate teachers and education experts, we have not been able to reverse the loss of computer science teachers. I think we now have to look at alternative solutions to the issue.”
If Scotland wants to create a science and technology based economy then it must invest more in our education system, she argued. “A possible way forward would be to combine the teaching of problem solving and computational thinking from early years, with the embedding of ‘digital making’ across the wider curriculum.”
She added: “Use existing computer science teachers as subject experts and ensure all young people have access to extracurricular activities in coding, digital making, robotics and data science. Digital skills need to be embedded in the teaching of all subjects especially mathematics, creative arts, psychology and physics.”
Despite huge effort by dedicated and passionate teachers and education experts, we have not been able to reverse the loss of computer science teachers. Polly Purvis, ScotlandIS
The Scottish Government has identified science, technology, engineering and maths education as requiring rapid development. It has introduced bursaries of £20,000 for people with professional expertise seeking to retrain as teachers.
The payments are intended to “help reduce the financial barrier for career changers who may be considering a career in teaching.” The scheme had 107 recipients last year, 11 of whom were computing science teachers.
A team of gender balance and equalities officers have also been appointed to “deliver gender training to schools and teachers, and develop and gender champion network and a gender kitemark to grow and spread best practice.”
“Data and digital skills are an increasingly prominent feature of education in the early years, primary and secondary schools, underpinned by our focus in the Scottish curriculum on numeracy and mathematics,” said a Scottish Government spokesperson.
“Through our digital schools programme, which includes the digital schools award, we are providing both primary and secondary schools with a framework to embed digital technology within learning and teaching.”
The spokesperson added: “Education Scotland are also continuing to provide professional learning opportunities for teachers in partnership with industry and professional bodies such as BT and the British Computer Society. This includes the establishment of computing science lead teacher networks.”
Graphics by Alastair Brian. This story was altered at 11.30 on 8 May 2019 to correct the figure for the number of higher computing science students in 2015.