Is CfE Computing flawed?

  • Richard Scott
    I started teaching Mathematics and Physics 18 years ago. For the past 16 years I have taught Computing and have seen the subjects make many changes, none of them very dramatic. I have developed units for the SQA and am in charge of Computing at Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline.


    I have been buoyed by some of the excellent elements within Curriculum for Excellence and feel that in many ways we will be improving the education and educational experience of young people under our wing.


    However I have deep concerns over the future of Computing as a subject. I am left shaking my head in disbelief at some of the decisions that are being made by short-sighted ‘educationalists’. To keep Scotland string going forward we need to develop a strength in many areas of Computing. Yes, Computing plays a role throughout life and throughout the curriculum but this should increase its prominence as an individual subjects even more (compare it with Mathematics or English). You are no doubt aware of the ‘NextGen’ report in England and of industry crying out for qualified people to fill the vacant roles in Computing.


    In my opinion these proposals to the change of Computing could kill it as a subject.


    This proposed course is a ‘jack-of-all’ yet ‘master-of-none’ course which will disenfranchise pupils undertaking it and not prepare pupils for their relevant futures. This will neither be valued by Higher Education nor employers. We have a great opportunity to place Scotland at the forefront of Computing education and yet I see a proposed step backwards.


    Computing should be the fastest growing subject. Uptake should be ‘through the roof’. Pupils should be excited by the subject and able to apply their knowledge from home in the classroom and to extend the limits of their knowledge in many directions.



    If the subject continues in decline then it will be to the detriment of the Scotland – industry needs people with high quality and relevant Computing skills.


    The Livingstone (Next Gen) report covered some of the issues. As an experienced teacher of 18 years here is my view of the predicament.

    • The current curriculum is neither meeting the needs of Higher Education nor industry. As evidenced by the fact that ‘Computing’ is regularly not a required subject for Computing courses in HE.
    • The current curriculum is not meeting the perceived needs of the pupils. As evidenced by the fall in uptake of the subject.


    In my opinion we need to:

    • Have a rigorous Computing qualification that meets the approval of industry and Higher Education. Based on hearsay this must involve programming and application of mathematics.
    • Have a general ICT qualification that is rigorous and accepted for those candidates that are not going onto HE to undertake a specific Computing qualification. This should provide broad and general skills in common software as well as incorporating basic hardware knowledge.
    • Have an arts based Computing qualification that focuses on development/manipulation of media elements and on the design of interactive applications (e.g. web site development). This course should have elements of scripting but not enough as to be off-putting for students with a deeper interest in design.


    This would provide 3 clear routes of progression, would provide our country with the skill set required to apply Computing in a variety of contexts and would help place an emphasis on the subject Computing that I feel it deserves in our modern world.


    It is perfectly feasible that all 3 routes go through from Level 4 to Advanced Higher and that they could be taken in tandem for pupils with a deep interest in the subject.


    There has been talk of teacher skills and the worry that introducing any new content would require (re)training. This should not be a concern – letting the existing content direct the future of courses would be a mistake (akin to the ‘tail wagging the dog’). It is generally (or should be) accepted that Computing of all subjects is the fastest changing and generally requires the most work to keep up to date with it. Pupils should not feel that they are progressing faster and in more relevant ways at home than they are in the classroom. Computing as a subject should generally be exciting, relevant, stimulating and be providing an appropriate challenge.


    Factors affecting the subject of Computing:
    -out-of-date content
    -irrelevant content
    -trivial content
    -school networks blocking web 2.0 technologies
    -poor staff skills (not knowledgeable in latest technologies)
    -staff skills out-of-date – focussing either on old methodologies or old software/applications
    -boring or irrelevant contexts used for delivery








    **********Computing Science:

    • Software Development:
      (including implementation of mathematical algorithms – any algorithm IS mathematical and maths is really just learning algorithms anyway). Poll HE/industry to get a starting point for this. Some examples might include transformation matrices, fill algorithms, collision detection and so on.
    • Information systems:
      These should include multimedia content, relational databases, web development and scripting. There should also be some content relating to design issues.
    • The integrative element could involve (for example) incorporating programming into a website or interfacing with a database and displaying results on a web-page or application. Many games require databases to store gameplay information, so there are no end of contexts available. Databases can store multimedia data so this can be an exciting project.


    **********Computing Technology (ie ICT):

    • Software:
      (Operating Systems, utility software and a smattering of applications software) Multimedia elements should be touched on (e.g. file formats). Emerging (software) technologies could provide a stimulating glimpse into the future.
    • Hardware: (
      Core components of computers systems, peripherals and types of computer). As in Software there is plenty of scope for looking at emerging technologies.
    • The integrative element could involve specifying hardware and software to meet the needs of a company or individual (ie a shopping task involving technical, reasoned recommendations). Alternatively it could involve candidates selecting the appropriate software to meet the needs of a particular task – the actual content of which may involve technical details of some item of hardware.



    **********Computing Arts:

    • Media elements:
      This unit should examine the individual media elements in depth. E.g. 3D objects, animations, video, photography. A stimulating look at how these elements are captured/created and edited.
    • Interactive applications and design:
      Using an environment to integrate the media elements and to use scripting (lightly) to provide further flexibility (e.g. for simple games). Games development, presentation, Flash, web pages – there are many contexts that could be drawn on for this. This should also cover aspects of design or HCI theory.
    • The integrative element could involve the creation of a website, computer game or even a presentation. Again there are a long list of possible and exciting contexts for this course.



    My suggestions will not be perfect but having 3 courses is more likely to meet the needs of industry and the candidates concerned.  At present the proposed course strand focuses on the purely technical aspects of Computing and yet does not address the real needs of these courses as it dilutes it by dropping in seemingly random elements from multimedia, networking and computer systems. This is a jack-of-all course which will please no-one. Individual pupils will find it too difficult and boring, HE do not get the rigour nor maths skills desired and there is no room for the creative individuals that have an interest in Computing.


    This was all ‘off-the-top-of-my-head’ so will surely need further thinking about and tweaking BUT I cannot help feeling that (in a few minutes) I have come up with a better plan for the future of Computing than the proposals from the government, LTS and the SQA!


    I know this is probably a case of too much and much too late – but I do not feel able to criticise the current proposals without stating exactly what I feel is actually needed.

    I am deeply worried in the direction chosen by the proposed course of Computing. This proposed course is fixable with some ‘smallish’ tweaks but I think we will still not be meeting the needs of the majority of young people. Everyone is an individual and our courses must reflect that. To that end I urge everyone to support the implementation of a wider range of appropriate computing courses before it is too late and Scotland is left behind while we out-source all our IT needs or rely on migrant job-seekers that do have the necessary skills.


    Richard Scott

    Principal Teacher of Computing

    Queen Anne High School




    I am most impressed that you devised all these courses in a matter of minutes.  Had I been given a matter of seconds to do likewise, then I would have proposed one course – take the ‘best’ (my opinion) of Computing and Information Systems and my course would have been your Computing Science course – relevant, fresh and ample scope for an exciting, dynamic  and relevant computing and information science course.

    I see relevance in your other courses also.  However, in our authority we are considering curricular models whereby Computing and Business Education courses (which I must consider as a faculty head of C and BE) are being shoe-horned into one Technologies column for pupils to pick one.  I’m simplifying things here somewhat, but that could leave 6 subjects in a column where one is picked.  The dilution in uptake could leave all courses unviable.


    I think it is too late to push for your 3 subject model.  Not so, though for a single course that computing teachers, never mind further education and employers, see as a suitably relevant, challenging and stimulating experience.


    Nice post.


    John McGivern

    PT Computing and Business Education

    Johnstone High School



    Peter W Donaldson

    I think that it was the decision making process for some of the other subjects that was flawed and has lead to other groups of subjects specialists in the choice columns we normally inhabit being able to flood the option sheet, if they’re allowed to, with a range of different courses. This will have the effect of reducing class numbers for Computing and lead to Senior Management Teams being reluctant to replace our retiring staff as we can only offer 2 school specific qualifications instead of the 7 that Technical teachers can offer, 4 that Business Studies teachers can offer or the 4 that Home Economics teachers can offer. I know that we have a range of NPA’s, NC’s and NGA’s that we could offer as well but they just don’t have the same level of understanding or value in a school context that the National Qualifications do.


    This wouldn’t be so bad if the Government, Colleges and Universities gave our courses the same highly desirable or necessary status as English, Maths or the Sciences but that hasn’t happened yet and would need a coordinated campaign across a range of different media to explain to everyone why that should be the case.


    The CS Matters campaign and the work that Computing At School’s is doing down south is a good start but we’ll need to get the Scottish media on board to start having the same kind of impact north of the border.



    CAS Scotland

    Richard Scott

    There is still an opportunity to produce the additional courses that I feel are needed for Computing.


    The proposed course (with my suggested alterations) provides a rather specialised ‘nerdy’ course. I feel positive about the content and that the proposed course can form a solid core at the heart of Computing Departments. I suggest that it needs to be more focused and that the Programming unit should be just that with the addition of more maths (functions, arrays (matrices) & algorithms). Also the Information systems unit should be databases, website development, SQL programming and a smattering of relevant technology. There should be no place for the network, security or hardware aspects that have snuck in from the abandoned Computer Systems units unless directly relevant to the content.


    These alterations would focus the suggested course and provide a strong basis for candidates that wish to progress through to CS in FE or HE.


    However there are many candidates for whom this course would not be suitable and who would not be progressing onto CS but would require perhaps a more Arts based or general ICT basis. These courses would not have the maths content nor be as heavy with any programming but would better suit the needs of these pupils and may actually grab the largest cohort in Computing Departments.


    The main Computing Science course (as I propose it) could continue through to implementation next year and the other courses could follow the year after that.


    As it stand the proposed course, without alteration, would suit no-one perfectly and could spell disaster for Computing Departments, with my suggestions it should appeal to the academic hardcore computing enthusiasts that know their future lies in CS in FE/HE but would see a drop in the numbers coming into Computing. We need a more focused course and additional courses to better suit the need of others that can benefit from an alternative experience of Computing.


    The draft course arrangements for Nat4/5 have only just been released to us so surely there is still an opportunity to influence their direction?


    Richard Scott

    PT Computing


    I think it’s a fair criticism of the proposed set up. We thought to mitigate with NPA Computer Games but the problem with that is that the school/careers service/parents don’t really understand the value of an NPA in relation to an NQ. Also, it is true that there would be no generic ICT type course. I think though, these days, it would be hard to argue that there is a need for ICT lessons at level 4/5/6 – unless this is seen in the same way as literacy (being a core skill and all!)…



    Richard Scott

    Thanks for the comments Peter. But there have not been many comments.


    Maybe people think…

    1. it is too late to make any changes to the Nat4/5 courses
    2. they won’t be listened to
    3. the draft course is perfect
    4. Computing only needs one course
    5. my suggested amendments & proposals are rubbish
    6. this is the wrong forum to discuss such matters

    I wish people would make their feelings known. I could quietly get on with preparing for the impending courses then, in the knowledge that I have been making a fuss over nothing!

    Peter W Donaldson

    Hi Richard,

    it’s a shame that you weren’t able to make last Sundays CAS Scotland open meeting as we did discuss issues relating to the current National Qualifications. With the timescales involved we really need to concentrate on making sure there isn’t a catastrophic collapse in Computing by focusing on the quality of what we will be teaching and working to change public perception’s of Computing in the short term. 


    The biggest single issue is that we’re currently not seen as a core part of every pupils educational entitlement instead of an optional extra and part of that reason is that school leaders, the public, and government officials at all levels have only a vague understanding of what Computing Science is.


    The discussion will be posted to the CAS Scotland private group along with details of specific actions we will be organising over the next 6 to 9 months. As a group of teachers on their own we can be ignored but one of the strengths of Computing at School’s is that it has strong links with the BCS, industry and further and higher education. We will be using these links as much as possible and hopefully helping to crack the wall of indifference that Education Scotland and SQA have shown towards our subject area.



    CAS Scotland



    I think there is a lot of merit in Richard’s views of having more, not less courses in Computing. We currently offer Higher Information Systems and Higher Computing as well as Int 2 Information Systems and Computing. We find that pupils want to choose our subject and where pupils don’t want to do programming we have an alternative in Information Systems. There is the risk that our numbers might fall in the future.


    We currently have 1 period (60 minutes) for half a year in S1 and 1 period for a full year in S2. Subject choice is at the end of S2. We can’t complete all the Technologies outcomes. We have made significant changes to our S1/2 courses and feel that they are certainly more appealing than they were. We can only complete the C for E course as far as the outcomes are concerned if pupils choose to take computing in S3/4. I know of other schools that make there subject choices at the end of S1. Is the completion of C for E outcomes optional? What time allocation do other schools get to complete the Technology outcomes? Do other schools follow the S1/2/3 and S4/5/6 model or S1/2, S3/4, S5/6 model?


    Harry Perston

    Principal Teacher

    TheJamesYoungHigh School

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