Preparing for computing and science

Written by: HTU | Published:

With September only a summer holiday away, time to prepare for the new national curriculum is running out. In the third part of our four part series, Suzanne O’Connell looks at preparations for the new programmes of study in both computing and science.

In some subjects, the new programmes of study prescribe very little. However welcome this freedom to determine the detail might be, many schools still feel the need for some direction and advice on how it might be implemented. 

With local authorities having fewer subject specialists available to guide them, subject associations are helping to fill the void. The Expert Subject Advisory Group website is providing some support and ideas for schools as they prepare for September.

Alison Peacock, member of the strategic committee for the advisory group and headteacher of Wroxham School in Hertfordshire, describes their composition: “Membership of these groups is drawn from subject associations, higher education specialists and school leaders. They report to the Strategic Committee chaired by Jo Palmer-Tweed. A new web resource to support the implementation of the curriculum is currently under development.”

Below, Headteacher Update looks in more detail at the programmes of study for computing and science and Ms Peacock shares with us how Wroxham School is preparing for the new curriculum in these subjects.

Computing

Prior to the launch of the new curriculum there had already been a number of indications that ICT was to change radically. In Shut Down or Restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools, the Royal Society reported that the current national curriculum in ICT can be very broadly interpreted and may be reduced to its lowest level where non specialist teachers have to deliver it.

Education secretary Michael Gove endorsed the report’s recommendation that the ICT brand be reviewed and the “computing” curriculum emerged. In May 2013, the Department for Education said: “ICT as a subject name carries negative connotations of a dated and unchallenging curriculum that does not serve the needs and ambitions of pupils.”

Most primary teachers’ delivery of ICT has been based on the view that you don’t need to know how a computer works just how to use it. Now teachers are required to introduce a curriculum that turns this orthodoxy upside down. 

“Computing” includes the three elements of computer science, information technology and digital literacy. The new curriculum focuses on computer science and aims to bring a greater depth of understanding that includes the concepts of abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation. 

The challenge of engaging pupils in analysing “problems in computational terms” and having “repeated practical experiences of writing computer programs” sent a shiver of panic down the spines of many when the computing programme of study was first released. The programme of study might have sounded complicated, but schools were soon being reassured. 

The Primary and Secondary National Curriculum for Computing in ITT Expert Group emphasises that teachers are already teaching many aspects of the curriculum, such as “the use of programmable toys, logic activities, sequencing of materials, reflecting on out-of-school experiences and presenting complex ideas in simpler forms, in particular, the visual form”.

For a subject like computing, where requirements and technology change so quickly, this basic curriculum provides plenty of opportunity for adaptation. However, the absence of detail does not help those without expertise. The experience and confidence of the staff who will need to deliver it is a major issue. The weaknesses of the ICT curriculum, identified by the Royal Society, won’t disappear by change of name alone. 

The challenge for schools is to find ways of equipping practitioners with the knowledge they need. At the same time they must not lose sight of the fact that other subjects and ultimately employers still need young people to be equipped with the basic skills more traditionally taught as part of the ICT curriculum. 

At Wroxham School

Headteacher Alison Peacock explained: “We have welcomed the new curriculum guidance for this subject. The three core areas that we will focus on are computer science, information technology and digital literacy. 

“We have begun to review what we currently teach across the curriculum to see how we can encompass these skill areas throughout our teaching. Naace recommend appointing Digital Leaders from children across the school who can support both peers and staff. This is an idea that we intend to put in place with our new year 6 from September.

“We had not previously used the term ‘algorithm’ in key stage 1 but we have plenty of work to build on with regard to following and giving precise instructions and our children have enjoyed providing instructions for their class puppet, Trevor Toucan. 

“Children in our Foundation Stage love using resources such as our ‘Bee-Bot’ programmable floor robots. We have found the teaching examples and resource ideas on the Naace website very useful.

We have joined the Computing at School initiative (see further information) and receive regular advice, blog posts and CPD opportunities from this online community. Our year 5 children have also taken part in the Apps for Good initiative in partnership with our local secondary school and have designed some innovative apps. For example, Charlie has designed a pocket/holiday money calculator to ensure that dad does not get away with short-changing him. Children have loved using Scratch to design computer games and our year 6 children have tussled with trying to program traffic lights using Flowol.com (see further information).

“We are very fortunate at Wroxham as we have a member of our support staff who is confidently able to support the teaching of computing across the curriculum. We are inspired by the opportunities that the new programme of study offers as a springboard for further innovation.”

Science 

In comparison to other national curriculum subjects, there has been less controversy surrounding the new science curriculum. However, that does not mean that there aren’t changes for schools to come to grips with.

The National STEM centre identifies the main changes for science as being the inclusion of evolution and inheritance, digestion, fossil formation, the digestive system, gears, levers and pulleys, and a greater emphasis on classifying plants and animals. Micro-organisms have been removed and so has “physical processes” at key stage 1. 

The range of science enquiry has been increased to include: observing over time, pattern seeking, identifying, classifying and grouping; comparative and fair testing (controlled investigations); and researching using secondary sources.

This emphasis on enquiry has been welcomed. Liz Lawrence is an advisory teacher and immediate past chair of the Association for Science Education: “Although perceived in some quarters to be an overly knowledge-based curriculum,” she said. “The inclusion of a strong working scientifically section in the programmes of study highlights the central importance of enquiry.”

Ms Lawrence reminds teachers that they should take note of the introduction to each key stage programme of study, as this is also statutory and makes clear the requirement for children to ask their own questions and learn science content through answering them. She is also optimistic: “Many schools are modifying what they already do and finding that, once they have invested the time to identify the big ideas and the progression of the content knowledge in the new curriculum, they can successfully update their current schemes.”

Ms Lawrence feels that on the whole, the practical demands of the new curriculum are very similar to those of the old one, although there will be challenge for schools with limited outdoor space and in urban surroundings with the increase in emphasis on exploring habitats, observing seasonal changes and growing plants. She also recommends the SCORE benchmarks site for guidance on resourcing the new curriculum and the Association for Science Education for advice and publications. 

In the end, for all subjects, assessment will remain a defining factor in the new curriculum. Ms Lawrence hopes that, for science at least, it will not constrain it too much: “I very much hope that the new curriculum will be an opportunity for science to move away from test dependency and reassert the value of assessment through carefully considered classroom activities which promote as well as capture learning.”

At Wroxham School

Ms Peacock explained: “Our staff have really enjoyed reviewing our science curriculum in the light of the new programme of study. We have always put children’s questions and engagement at the heart of our curriculum and the new programme of study emphasises the importance of authentic learning through working scientifically. This takes teaching beyond ‘fair testing’ to a broader and deeper approach.

“We are very lucky to have an extensive outdoor environment at our school. We have a pond, wildlife area, vegetable garden, fruit trees and a large forest school woodland. The new curriculum enables us to encourage even more outdoor learning. One of our classes, for example, spends nearly an entire half-term conducting an enquiry about snails.

“We are working with the Bayfordbury Science Learning Centre to provide CPD for colleagues at our Teaching School. We also use the Science Learning Centre to resource some aspects of our teaching. We have recently borrowed several model human skeletons to support our study of Humans in year 6. We are very keen to support enhanced scientific subject knowledge throughout our own school and across our alliance. We are members of the Association of Science Education.”  

  • Suzanne O’Connell is an education writer and former primary school headteacher.

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