SQA Update Event – a personal reflection
CASScotland, Curriculum Development, National 4 & 5, News
Kate Farrell
December 3, 2011

My head has been spinning since I left Stirling and I haven’t sorted my thought out yet but maybe blogging will help me with that.  On Thursday teachers from all over Scotland came together to listen to staff from the SQA and Education Scotland discuss the new qualifications and to feedback on them.

There are some positives about the new Computing and Information Science course.  There was a lot of discussion about more flexible assessment.  It will be a less prescriptive structure than the existing NABS.  They do plan to bring more rigour and quality control to assessments though in all three stages of assessment: setting, conducting and marking.  At  stage can be SQA-led, Centre-led or shared responsibility.  Centre-led activities are unlikely for National 5 and above.  There will be a lot of exemplification of assessments rather than the existing prescriptive NABS.  Specimen question papers with marking instructions will also be provided.  Most courses are hierarchical so that pupils can move down a level and don’t have to redo assessments at a lower level.

Some interesting questions raised were how do we have more active learning in the senior phases, how do we continue to challenge pupils coming back in S5 who are still at National 4/5 level, and how do we improve our partnership working and involve CLD and employers more?

Overall this seemed to be an event aimed at getting our responses to the documents and plans so far rather than giving us new information.

The SQA said that they were genuinely looking for feedback.  However many of the Computing teachers present didn’t feel that our feedback was going to make any difference.  In fact, when one of the development team was informally questioned about whether our feedback on the quantity of programming in the new course would make any difference, the response was ‘no’.

I was very interested to hear at the end of the event that every three months all the feedback they have received is put onto their website.  Looking at the page though it is just a vague summary of the key messages they want to show.  For example, in Computing there is no mention of the feedback about the two courses merging into one yet every Computing teacher I have talked to is greatly concerned about this.

The key issues that were brought up during the day were:

  • The lack of breadth in the new C&IS course.  We will be going from a Standard Grade course with an incredible number of topics in it to a course with just two.  Isn’t breadth what CfE is all about?
  • There is still huge concern from the teachers present about just having one course.  The reasons for this were explained by David Bethune.  The course development has been based on the Experiences and Outcomes and a lot of the content that was in the IS course is now included in Business.  Both the previous courses involved using analytical skills to develop a solution.  Also, there is government pressure on educating youngsters who can develop solutions on computers.  I know that HE want just one Computing course too.
  • A huge need for not only CPD but retraining (or in some cases training).  Many schools only offer either CS or IS at the moment so teachers will need training in how to deliver the other half (eg someone may have been teaching databases for 10 years but hasn’t taught any programming in that time or vice versa).  We will also have Computing teachers who have had minimal or no programming in their degree, depending on when they qualified.
  • About 50% of the course is programming.  Imagine you are teaching Nat 4/5 over two years instead of Standard Grade Computing.  You will need to spend a whole year on software development with the pupils.  What happens to the kids who can’t get their heads round programming?  They will fail.

I accept that we need more programmers in our society.  But we also need young people leaving our schools ready to do whatever career they choose – whether it be network security, sysadmin, project management, business analyst or whatever.  If we focus so heavily on programming and databases within a year or two we will only have the course being selected by the 5% of kids who ‘get’ programming.  Courses will not become viable and where departments survive the staff will be supporting ICT across the curriculum.

I currently have no kids in my school who have the aptitude to do programming in any depth.  I will be the first to admit that we are a small school and have a different cohort from most schools.  But can you imagine doing programming in the way you are already teaching for 50% of your time??

We need to change, I know.  We need the training to teach better, in a more engaged and active way.  Even still, if we spend next year training every teacher in Scotland how to do games development and mobile app development and web development, will we get more kids understanding programming??

We do have an alternative in the form of the National Certificates (NCs) and National Progress Awards (NPAs).  These are hugely flexible courses that can involve a great deal of software development depending on the cohort and skills in your school.  The NCs and NPAs offer progression too, from Int 1 up to Higher level.  They offer great progression on to FE college but they do not offer a good basis for progressing on to Higher Computing and on to University.

How do we nurture the few talented programmers in our schools without alienating the rest of their peers?  How do we develop Computing as a subject so that departments across Scotland are growing instead of dying?

I don’t have the answers, but we need to find them, and quick.  We need to all come together and have a dialogue about what will work in our schools.

Please join me in becoming a member of Computing at School Scotland and encourage all your colleagues to do the same.  We need to work together and we need to talk with industry, with our HE and FE colleagues and with our government …and we need to do it quickly.

15 Responses
  1. I feel that it is important that any Computing Science course must have elements that are unique to the subject and have some academic rigour. So at least we should be teaching the fundamentals of computer architecture and logic according to level. After that there should be considerable flexibility because the technology is so fast moving. But surely there must be a place for programming maybe in two parts, limited compulsory and more ambitious elective.

    I only became interested in computers because to me they are magic in spite of knowing how they actually do it all….just with 0’s and 1’s 🙂

  2. I must admit I’m very optimistic here. As someone quite new into teaching I was really shocked at the content of the Standard Grade Computing course and tend to agree with Bob here. I think the reason we are losing pupils is that we are not offering them anything unique, interesting or even relevant to the actual discipline of Computer Science. We should play to our strengths now that we’ve lost the shackles of mandatory ICT, CDP and office skills in our senior courses. We now have a chance to champion what we can offer that is unique, to sell Computer Science and to design a progression that prepares pupils for the new NQ4/5/6.

    I think the SDD and the ISDD Units offer a great deal of breadth in themselves. They let us focus on real Computer Science in the form of problem solving, designing, developing, user interfaces, web design, data structures, networks and researching new technologies etc. What’s missing? Furthermore, lots of introductory skills such as general multimedia editing and basic programming may get covered in junior school course to prepare the pupils for the senior phase. They may hit the ground running in S4.

    I may be being dangerously optimistic but I feel the way forward is to be upfront about what the subject actually is so that kids are in no doubt about what they are taking (and what guidance are advising). Stu.

  3. john said on 04/12/2011

    I share Kate’s concern and I have little optimism regarding the proposed content of these new courses.

    These courses do not do justice to the subject of Computing Science. There are two unique parts in Computing Science, which are unlike any other course. These are Computer Systems and Programming. Programming is certainly included in the new courses, but Computer Systems has been incorporated into Information Systems/Science, and a number of fundamental concepts appear to have been lost, for instance:

    Where is the fundamental information about binary?

    Where is operating systems?

    Computer Systems deserves a much better treatment than this. If Information Systems is considered by the course writers to be so important that its inclusion is mandatory (apart from totally distorting the name of the subject and potentially causing confusion with the now tainted ICT), then it should be capable of being studied as a unit in its own right, albeit within a Computing Science qualification as an optional unit, alternative to Programming. There is certainly enough potential within an Information Systems unit for coding and scripting of appropriate rigour to suit each level.

    Learners are asked to create reports on future technologies – it is essential they have an appreciation of current technologies, so that they can tell the difference. They will only appreciate current technologies if they have a secure knowledge of Computer Systems.

    Much is made of breadth at all levels of these courses. If a little more choice were involved at all levels then there would be sufficient breadth, increasing the integral value of the units. This would provide added value within the course units, rather than just as part of the assessment of the key purposes and aims of the course.

  4. I agree with Kate that there are plenty of roles in IT that would not be addressed in the CIS course envisaged by Education Scotland such as Systems Admin, Cyber Security, Web Designer and Games Developer. There is however plenty scope to create a second and/or third course that covers them. To adopt the emerging standard of 2 Courses and a Value-Added option we could have..

    Course: IT Management
    Unit 1 – Network Management
    Unit 2 – Cyber Security
    VA – Project of some sort or extended case study.

    Course: Digital Design
    Unit 1 – Digital Media
    Unit 2 – Computer Game Design
    VA – Project, website creation, Game, etc

    I don’t see what the SQA could possibly have against these as courses other than general intransigence and saying “Shan’t!”

  5. I placed a FOI request to the SQA some time ago:
    A request for the criteria and justification used to develop a single course – ‘Computing and Information Science’ – rather than maintaining ‘Computing’ and ‘Information Systems’ as separate subjects.

    See how they responded here….


    As far as I can see they have no real solid reason to change to 1 subject – there is no minutes in any meeting that states this will happen. It just happens! No justification.

  6. I think it is too simplistic to say we have been cut down to two topics when, essentially, two whole courses have been crammed into one. My concern would be that there is still an awful lot of content and, if Nat5 or Higher are to be delivered in a year, we will be covering a lot of these topics in a cursory fashion.

    We switched to Int2 in S3 and S4 several years ago so perhaps I don’t see the removal of topics such as GPP and CDP as significant as the addition of Information Systems content to the existing Int2/Higher course.

    In Software Design and Development, the proposed Nat5 content is virtually identical to the current Int2 content. There seems to be elements of Intelligent Systems added to this unit at Higher. In Information Systems and Design, there seems to be a lot of work with Databases, but there is also a lot of content coming from Networks and Multimedia in the creation of websites. The existing Computer Systems content is slimmed down but still covers the main ideas of Computer Structure, Peripherals and Networking with a lot of focus on Security. The main omission is data representation and I would argue that should be retained. The value of the assignment has gone up to 40% indicating that more time must be spent on it.

    I am happy with Software Development at the moment and have few concerns over the new specifications for Software Design and Development. My main concern is with the other unit and particularly the focus of the practical work. The thought of making small Access databases and designing static, HTML based websites does not inspire me but how many of our current S4 pupils would be up to the challenge of, for example, creating a dynamically driven website using PHP/SQL?

  7. I agree with the last comment (Tony Harkins). The Standard grade course has past its sell by date by some length. Some of us have argued for a long time that cutting content down and focussing on the fundamentals of Computing was necessary. The new arrangements go some way to doing this though I admit to being disappointed and slightly confused by the content of the Information Systems Design and development unit.

    Data driven websites are a massively important area though I agree with Tony H when he asks how many of our students are up to designing these.

    Giving more time to programming will itself improve learning of these concepts. Standard Grade devalues programming by not examining it and it is often rushed and done in a superficial way.

    I think it is also important to get away from thinking about programming as the old fashioned top down stepwise refinement process we have struggled to teach for decades. New environments like Scratch , Gamemaker and Greenfoot allow rapid development and encourage exploration. The tools however are not a panacea and we as teachers must invest time and effort as individuals and above all cooperatively to develop teaching strategies to exploit these environments.

    I for one don’t mourn the passing of Information Systems as a subject. It didn’t help us to establish an identity for Computing and played a part in the subject’s slide into “ICT”.

    Overall the new arrangements are a step in the right direction but courses more clearly designed to articulate with the outcomes and experiences defined as Computer Science at levels 3 and 4 would have been better.

  8. We cannot continue to have programming in our courses which is defined as an activity which is analysis, design, implement, test etc. This just isn’t how programming happens today. We need agile methods, rapid iterative prototyping to be the main focus. As Facebook say “Move fast, break stuff” – it’s a wonderful way to discover what works and what doesn’t!

    Our pupils will learn far more from experimenting with code than they will from slavishly writing algorithms which will all change as soon as they get on a machine! I do a lot of programming outside of teaching and I never write an algorithm. My design is more often a flow chart style diagram of the user experience which I then map on to the coding.

    I blogged (http://charlielove.org/?p=6523) back in May about my feelings on programming and some of this has been reflected in the new Computing courses but there is still this Waterfall model throwback to 1970s programming. Let’s move forward!

  9. Neil said on 06/12/2011

    Charlie, there’s a lot of truth in what you say. The comment on your blog regarding the insistance of the preservation of the waterfall approach where “these methods put the emphasis on documentation and process rather than on programming skill and problem solving” is a key point.. Documentation and process have their place but I fear that the timescale for producing course documentation – especially given the need for rigourous internal/external review and so on – the time we have available is too tight for major (or maybe even moderate) changes to be made. This is no reflection on the hard work Derek and David have put in but is regrettable given the feeling in the profession and the contributions from yourself and others eg Quentin Cutts with his thought provoking take on the ‘understanding vs doing’ aspects……….

  10. derek said on 06/12/2011

    I agree with Katie. I also agree with computing having its own identity, however it can be achieved without the need for half of the course being filled with programming, I do agree that programming is a fundamental of computing and I am not against programming, what I am against is the amount of programming. So what we are saying to kids is that if you can’t grasp the concepts of programming you have failed the course and you are no good at computing?

    I have asked my current 4th year (40 pupils) “how many of you would take on computing if it involved half the year programming” I had 3 pupils who would take it on, does this not indicate we are going to make this an elitist subject, not a unique subject.

    Pupils like scratch but remember pupils loved creating presentations and now?

    If pupils leave your subject unenthused and find the subject near impossible, this will be transmitted on the playground radio and you will have no one in your class. Schools will not run a class that contains 5, 6, 7 kids

    • Jobs in programming do not equate to 50% of the current market place in computing.

    • University degrees in programming contain on average a third of programming in the whole course.

    • UWS 3 out of 11 computing courses are programming based (Not 50%)

    If the above model of 50% programming was replicated in Maths or any other subject there would be an outcry from parents and teachers. Example if maths contained 50% trigonometry and pupils could not grasp it or found it near impossible to do, does that mean they have failed maths?

    I thought the principles of CfE was all about choice and not for subjects to be narrowed down. Computing decided to go from 2 subjects to 1 subjects how is this giving pupil’s choice?

    Suggestion: Why can’t we have something like “Information systems design and development” 50% of the course, “Software development” 30% of the course and one of three elective topics equating to 20%. One of these may be a continuation of programming, Networking, AI, Computer architecture Etc, this would make the current suggestions of National 4, 5 and higher less prescriptive and also accommodate our learners. Pupils who are really keen on programming can do 50% of the course programming and those who find it near impossible can choose another of the electives, at least this way pupil who can’t program can still pass the course with a relevant computing elective. I think this is only fair as one of our courses has already been killed. Remember CfE is all about choice!

    I was also at this conference and the feeling I got was that the DRAFT course for computing was not Draft. It was very disheartening to feel that many concerns were being over looked just as Katie highlighted.

    This course in my opinion is going to reduce the number of pupils taking on computing. You may find that computing departments will shrink in size. The surplus class teachers will become the floating ICT specialists which none of us want.
    SQA needs to get this right!


    I would also like to draw your attention to the entry requirements for becoming a computing teacher in Scotland.

    “Computing: You must have three TSQCs (120 credit points) made up of modules or courses in the subjects below in list A and list B. Across the three TSQCs (120 credit points), your degree should have enough modules or courses to make up the equivalent of two TSQCs (80 credit points) covering two or more of the subjects in List A and one TSQCs (40 credit points) covering one or more of the subjects in list B.

    List A: Computer systems, software development, databases
    List B: Multimedia computing, information systems, computer networking, artificial intelligence.”
    Source http://www.scotland.gov.uk/publications/2002/09/15501/11387

    As you can see from the above a qualified computing teacher in Scotland need not have ever studied software development. Yet the proposal is to ask all teachers of computing in Scotland to teach a course where pupil success is dependent on their ability to program and the teacher’s ability to teach programming. Does this mean any current teachers who have not got programming in their degree needs to be retrained at what cost and how long for?

  11. Hello,

    If you are interested in discussing this issue further then there is a meeting arranged. This is purely a strategy/planning meeting, although it is open to anyone who would like to attend. Please feel free to pass on to others.

    Sunday 11th December, 2-4pm
    The Yard Leith
    2 Bonnington Road Lane
    EH6 5BJ

    I have got a room arranged upstairs in The Yard Leith. There is on-street parking, particularly on Anderson Place. The number 11 bus comes from the station to nearby Pilrig Street / Bonnington Road.

    Sorry, I would have tried to get somewhere more central but I know this place, its quiet, plenty space and free! They also do lovely food 😉

    I look forward to seeing you on Sunday if possible. If not, we are planning another, bigger meeting in January.

    Kind regards,


  12. Sent my letter to Mike Russell a couple of days ago, had my acknowledgement. Lets see how they reply!

    I would encourage every Computing Teacher with a concern to make their voice heard. Too few people gave feedback to the SQA and look how things developed. If we get enough people to make a noise the government will have listen. We may be small in numbers but it seems that a large %age of teachers feel that the proposed course structure will be detrimental to computing in schools, if not kill it.

    Let hope we can, as a collective, promote a more positive future and achieve the aspirations set out many computing experts in recent papers and speeches.



  13. I’m interested to hear colleagues sayting that the content change doesn’t both them as moving from Intermediate2; my reaction when I read the documentation for National 5 was that it would be less of a leap for people already teaching Int2 than for people teaching SG. I guess the breakdown will come on whether you are teaching Info Sys or Computing at the moment; the IS people will probably be quite happy with the DB stuff while the Computing people won’t be too phased by the programming! But of course we’re now all going to have to do both, which will leave almost everybody with something to learn!

    Even coming from SG I don’t have huge concerns about teaching the new content. What I do have concerns about are:
    (a) There is a vast amount of content. The programming alone (done in 2 environments) could easily take over 6 months, plus the coursework, plus the holding-pen-for-everything-else that is the “Information Systems Design and Development” unit. We are planning to replace SG with Nat 5 and teach it over 2 years here, which is probably do-able… but I honestly don’t think you could do it in a year.
    (b) There are things in draft unit specs that don’t appear in the assessment specs (for example – Nat5 SDD unit spec lists things under outcome 3 none of which I can see anywhere in the assessment specs). Are these going to be examined in the coursework? Or are they not actually going to be examined (in which case why include them in an already bulging course)? Or have they been quietly ditched?
    (c) There is very little indication of how much detail we are supposed to go into. There is stuff in there (particularly in the ISDD unit) that has come from Higher; are we supposed to teach it in the way we formerly did at Higher or, since this isn’t Higher level, is less required – and if so, how much less?
    (d) Is this a course that is going to be attractive to pupils? We seem to be left with a lot of the bits that kids describe as “boring” and “difficult” (but maybe that’s just my teaching!). I have no problem with ditching ICT elements (eg GPPs from SG), but other good things have gone too; Automation, AI etc. I agreed with the point that was made elsewhere on CompEdNet that reducing the range of content (and hence the field of potential candidates who might be attracted by the course) at a time when it is nationally accepted that there is a shortage of people with computing skills is silly. It would be better to retain (at least) “pure” and “applied” (in the Higher Education sense of the words) courses to attract more pupils.
    (e) … and all that’s before you get to the perenial issue with any computing course about how to keep it up-to-date when some of the content looks like it’s already out of date 6/12 months before it reaches a pupil…

  14. The new course will make the subject completely marginalised; we will be elitist and certainly not unique. Finances will not allow classes of 2 or 3 pupils to run, my HT has already intimated that ICT is off the menu for S1 and S2 next year (giving more time to science I hear).
    Pupils at my school will not sign up for hours and hours of boring programming, you do not have to be a geek to enjoy computing.
    For my part I do not want to teach programming for hours on end. I am seriously considering my future because of all this. We are the turkeys voting for an early Christmas for sure.

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