Higher Entries Down 21%

  • chalove

    See from TES (https://www.tes.com/news/sqa-results-2019-higher-computing-entries-fall-21) that entries are down. Not good given the push for young people to enter STEM careers.

    Computing had an A to C pass rate of 69% for 2018, this was lower than every other mainstream subject. The percentage of candidates (from entries) passing a Higher in History, Business Management, Admin & IT, Chemistry, Modern Studies and many others is more than in Computing Science. Do we need SQA to look at the standards to ensure that there is equity across Highers?

    Is this the staffing shortage + lack of CS in BGE + low pass rates for CS SQA Courses impacting on entries? What do you think?

    What do we need to change to improve this and how do we lobby for this? Should we look to campaign for CS with John Swinney, Education Scotland, SQA, ADES and COSLA? What would you want to see as improvement?

    Chris Wilson

    Certainly is a concern for both the subject and the wider economy.

    I’d like SQA to ensure equity across all levels – certainly not there just now. Where some subjects enjoy very high pass rates nationally each year it is very tempting for schools to ‘push’ pupil course choices in that direction.

    I also suspect that our assignment is stressful enough for pupils to be put off H Computing – a course choice we ask them to make at about the same time as undertaking this assignment.

    My own son sat his N5 exams this year. Despite teaching for 25 years I learned a lot about the lack of equity at this level I had been hitherto unaware of.

    Just my 2 cents.


    Darren Brown

    It was loudly stated by many when our changed N5 course came in that it was much harder. Pupils had almost finished a BGE course tailored to the previous version (in most cases a patchy amount of time in BGE).

    We raised the bar for N5 and H for a perfect world and “aspirational” CS course when we know no-one gets the full BGE. A BGE that even though was changed a few years back is still not being implemented/given time or staffing.

    There is still too much to cover in courses, up to the summer we had 4 weeks of hard pushing of pupils as they need decent knowledge of about 4 programming languages in 2 and a half terms. Many pupils are quickly put off the subject more than ever.

    We have somehow taken a subject that was seen to be for a “computing genius” minority and made it even more niche. Even a few of my keenest H pupils this year got Bs, a few others not as good at CS but better at English got As. The keen pupils last week we’re even doubting their future in CS as “got As” in other subjects. We are chasing and scary the majority of pupils away.

    CS needs special protection in schools to not shrink further. All levels N4 upwards are offered through Virtual School up here so seen as a free shot for a school to offer to the tiny number of interested/often self taught pupils they have and not need to offer any CS themselves.

    I do wonder if this is all part of the “plan” so schools stop the full CS courses and start doing the many new units appearing to fit the modern digital world. I am tempted to do units instead of full N5/H but I hate the fact I’d have to cut off the full academic path to do units due to staffing. Maybe these units are more useful to pupils wanting to work in CS?

    The talking has to stop and action taken to at least give all pupils access and experience of CS. CS should not just be seen as a bonus and hidden after thought of STEM and Digital Literacy. The curriculum from early level should be funded, pushed and supported to the level of the 1+2 languages project starting age 5.

    My concern is even if we start now it may take a generation through BGE to see CS experience for all – will our subject survive until then? Will the government actually ever take action?

    Enrico Vanni

    It pains me to say, but I told you so. These very concerns were articulated by me and my colleagues in Glasgow schools in a letter to John Swinney two years ago. We stated then that a progression of Computing Science courses starting from N5 upwards disjointed from N4 and tailored to a then as-yet unimplemented BGE was folly and would prejudice against students choosing to do CS.

    Our predictions in that letter have come true (and I hope that some of those who were critical of me for saying it at the time will be forgiving in hindsight).

    Unfortunately now the die is cast, the tanker is pointing in entirely the wrong direction and will take years to turn around, yet more change and distruption will only serve to make things worse before they can get better.

    I, like Darren, hope that the condition is not terminal.

    Lee Murray

    It’s far too narrow a subject now, and many see it as a whole year of programming in different environments, which is exactly what it is.

    There’s nothing about the Internet of things, nothing about artificial intelligence, nothing about robotics, nothing about what is current and interesting.

    It’s all code, code, code. If you can’t code, you can’t pass computing. If you don’t like code, you won’t like computing.

    So many of my pupils switched subjects in the first week of the new timetable because of the course content.

    If only people had mentioned this hundreds of times in multiple threads and sent letters to John Swinney and complained directly to the SQA and voiced their concerns over the years…

    Enrico Vanni

    It is ironic to ask what we need to do to resolve the situation when it was obvious at the beginning that the answer was not to put the subject into this state in the first place, but we are where we are and we need to move forward.

    Obvious issue number one is that we need updated N3 and N4 courses that articulate with N5/H/AH, but that is of course mired in the bigger political issue of N4 reform. Raymond Simpson identified this as a concern years back, yet instead of avoiding the obvious incongruity we placed ourselves squarely at the mercy of it in the hope something would happen down the line. It hasn’t!

    Articulating N4 to N5 does not necessarily mean changing N4 to match the current N5/H content either. I agree that CS has become code, code, code, with some added code and a little more code, with the analyisis and design being just thinking about code before you write it. I would want to see some of the topics that exist in N4 but were culled from the later levels make a return, and if it has to be at the expense of something then it should be the database and SQL content (which was from the beginning a controversial addition). Give it to Business Education – let them have it. We have enough on our plate (and it is IMO more ‘computery’) when we do web coding.

    Also, the ongoing issue of CS being treated as a third class citizen in the BGE by too many schools’ management does not seem to have improved much in over a decade, so clearly the existing approach to lobbying isn’t working. The time for pussyfooting has passed. Surely as teachers we should have learned this year that more forceful and considered action is needed if we feel strongly enough about an issue?

    Chris Speirs

    The ambiguity of the course is a massive issue. The time has long since passed to standardise the programming element of the course so everyone is teaching(and more importantly marking) the same thing.

    SQA reference language is a huge burden, having to ensure students are capable of reading and understanding a language with no practical applications wastes so much time, and in my opinion the course would benefit hugely from being taught in python(or similar) to remove the ambiguity and allow better sharing and development of resource.

    Just look at posts on here from last year about how questions about records would be marked for an example of this; unsure we ever got a straight, clear answer about how these questions would be marked in various languages.

    Chris Wilson

    Me again…

    Before we beat ourselves up or be tempted to divide and conquer ourselves I think we should consider taking a step back.

    I suggested before that the problem may be with other courses by comparison.

    IMO it should be these other courses that are ‘strengthened’ and not ours any further. When you look closely at the attainment data and component marks analysis of other subjects you could begin to wonder why some components are even assessed in these courses – the marks gained by pupils nationally are so high (towards full marks by all) you could argue that these components become irrelevant – until you then look at the grade boundaries and pass rates for these courses and see that they aren’t adjusted to compensate for this at all.

    I personally don’t believe our courses are too hard, it’s some of the others that are too easy.

    I do share the concerns mentioned re equity in the BGE phase. We’re fortunate in my own school that we have a discrete course in Computing Science right from S1 and it’s only taught by qualified Computing teachers. Without that I could very well feel differently about the whole issue.

    Chris ‘another-2-cents’ Wilson

    Verena Gray

    There are very few schools now that have the ‘luxury’ of a discrete BGE Computing course. Many schools don’t have any CS at all.
    In my own school I can fit one period of S1 on my timetable and one period of S2 (out of 3 periods a week but it is an option choice rather than compulsory). The course is mostly taught by Business Studies teachers and must cover Business, Computing and Enterprise outcomes. The Business teachers are at least willing to do some Scratch but not in any depth. The only other aspect of CS we cover is Internet Safety/Security. They don’t feel comfortable with actual coding, or hardware in any detail.
    Due to the lack of BGE content I need to start teaching basic coding skills in S3 rather than have pupils who have 2 years exposure to programming.
    By S4 they need to be coding in 3 different languages, plus the joyous SQA reference language for design. A pretty rubbish and annoying assignment (where they actually be penalised for writing an efficient program!) followed by a long written exam where they need to do even more code without access to a PC.
    Its one thing that Standard Grade did well – Programming was important, but it wasn’t the be-all and end-all of Computing.

    The course is very hard, its hugely off-putting to anyone who isn’t a ‘Coder’ and yet it actually only covers a small part of what Computer Science should be about in the current technological climate. Wheres the Networking? Wheres the VR? Wheres the AI? Where is the Computer Architecture?

    It’s all in the NPAs – and don’t get me wrong the NPA options for Computing are pretty fantastic, but they won’t get you a place in University.

    Donald Drawbell

    Unless I was dead keen, if I was a student looking for a good pass at either H or N5, then I would be looking for an alternative.
    As others have said, it is too focussed on coding. I don’t feel coding itself is the issue, but they’ve got SQL, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Haggis and whatever HLL they use. In other subjects they get formula sheets, but in CS all has to be committed to memory.
    How often do we actually do that in practice? I can’t guarantee that I could do all of the above under exam conditions. When we write code, we look at and edit previous examples and correct errors by testing. Reading code in the exam is different. I have no issues in asking them to read a query in SQL, for example, and then to state what the output would be – even to be able to state what changes could be made to give a different output.
    Given that a lot of schools don’t have a dedicated BGE CS course, the SQA should be taking this into account and not trying to make life as difficult as possible for our students. Our ‘old’ BGE course allowed our pupils to experience various aspects of CS and its applications. It was fun and attracted folk into it who wanted to learn about the creative side, from graphics manipulation to 3D modelling. Now, our S3 has become a feed for N5 and our numbers are decreasing.

    Enrico Vanni

    I am going to hark back to a meeting held in the SQA’s Glasgow offices in February 2017 when their Subject Implementation Manager for Computing Science proclaimed to a packed room what a wonderful opportunity the government mandated changes to National 5 and Higher Assessment were to strip piles of content from the CS courses and replace them immediately with content that would align the courses with the forthcoming (and still at the time in draft format) Benchmarks of the BGE. We told him and everyone who was prepared to listen at the time that what he thought were good intentions were at best naïve and at worst totally hubristic. We even put it in a letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

    The consequences were obvious – the BGE wasn’t finalised and even when it was it would take ten years for it to be fully embedded in the education of every child entering into the National 5 CS course assuming (a)the draft they had worked to went to finality unchanged and (b) every primary and secondary school implemented it in full from day one.

    We are now two years on and even assuming the best case it would be another eight before pupils were properly prepared to enter our course. The problem is of course we are not even close to the path of the best case – the Digital Literacy Benchmarks were not tied down until much later and because of resourcing and staff training implications leading to a political decision to ease-up on the need to implement them fully most schools are currently paying little more than lip-service to them.

    So Computing Science is screwed as a subject until someone admits jumping the gun was a bad idea and (a) re-aligns N4/N5/H/AH Computing more closely with the reality of BGE implementation, and (b) accepts that the course is flawed because the rationale by which it was constructed was not sound – it was a rush job, it lacks variety in terms of skills (assessing the same skill ie. coding several different ways repeatedly using several different languages does not constitute variety) and the evidence shows it is being marked too prescriptively because students are being assessed under artificial constraints, measured on how well they follow a set of instructions and how close their answers align to one or two peoples’ interpretation of the solution, failing to take into account that programming is a creative process that can result in many correct solutions.

    Which leads me to another point. It is still very apparent from the marking instructions for this years’ N5 and Higher Assessments (and this has been a problem with Computing Science Nationals since their inception) that students are still being penalised for not ‘doing it the way they were expected to’ by the person writing those marking instructions even though it wasn’t expressly stated in the question it had to be done that way. I have said before that we should not be assessing mind-reading skills, and it grates on me as a professional and former practitioner to intentionally teach bad practice, or train students to always follow orders unquestioningly even if it leads them to doing something they know is wrong, as it seems from this year’s N5 Practical exam we were supposed to.

    Two years ago I took a lot of stick for predicting it would happen. I take no satisfaction whatsoever that it did, because it is our students and potential students who have paid the price.

    PS. The point that Chris has made that there is inequality across subjects is wholly valid and is something that needs addressing, but it would not address the issue of the misalignment our subject has between BGE and Senior Phase and the practical problems that causes, and expecting every school to eventually fall into line with the better conditions some enjoy as a result of some hoped-for political pressure just isn’t going to happen. I have been at both extremes – in a school that supported CS with both staff and resources (monetary and time-wise) and another where the head teacher saw no value in the subject and starved it to the point the department shut down. It is easy to become complacent and be more forgiving of issues when you are in cushioned from them in one of the ‘good’ schools.

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