This case study is part of a series examining computer science education programs from diverse regions and circumstances that have been implemented to varying levels of success.
Computer science (CS) education helps students acquire skills such as computational thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration. It has been linked with higher rates of college enrollment (Brown & Brown, 2020; Salehi et al., 2020), and a recent randomized control trial showed that lessons in computational thinking improved student response inhibition, planning, and coding skills (Arfé et al., 2020). Since these skills take preeminence in the rapidly changing 21st century, CS education promises to significantly enhance student preparedness for the future of work and active citizenship.
CS education can also reduce skills inequality if education systems make a concerted effort to ensure that all students have equitable access to curricula that provide them with the needed breadth of skills, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.
This study will examine how England developed its CS education program. CS concepts have been part of the official English curriculum for over a decade, but reforms have encouraged wider participation in the last six years. Given that this is a relatively long period of implementation compared to many other countries’ CS activities, this England case study can give us an understanding of how CS education activities can be improved over time.
An overview of CS education in England
For the purposes of improving teacher knowledge and expanding the scope of the curriculum, a nonprofit organization called Computing at School established a coalition of industry representatives, teachers, and parents in 2008. The organization would go on to play a pivotal role in rebranding the information and communications technology (ICT) program of study in 2014 to the computing program that placed a greater emphasis on CS (Royal Society, 2017).1 By changing the program, the government instructed schools to provide more rigorous instruction in CS concepts like Boolean logic and programming languages.
Executing the new computing program was a great challenge. Many teachers immediately felt uncomfortable with the new material (Brown et al., 2014; Sentance et al., 2013), regarding it as an exceptionally difficult subject to teach and learn (Royal Society, 2017). Before the new computing program, teachers were offered training only in ICT. From 2014-2018, the Department for Education (DfE) allocated modest funding for this purpose, and then fell short of its targets for training CS teachers, leaving schools with an insufficient number of qualified teachers (Staufenberg, 2018).
To improve teacher preparedness, Parliament and the DfE made significant investments in training CS teachers. In November 2018, they allocated 84 million pounds to establish the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) to train teachers (Cellan-Jones, 2019). Drawing on help from nonprofit organization partners, the Centre creates lesson plans and resources, runs training programs, and offers certification for preservice and in-service teachers. Since the Centre’s opening, it has engaged 29,500 teachers in training, 7,600 of which have benefited from continuous professional development.
England’s experience developing its CS education program of study highlights four important lessons:
- The technology industry is an obvious resource for subject matter and pedagogy expertise that can help design an effective CS program of study. Yet, the government must also understand and incorporate teachers, who act as gatekeepers to the lessons taught in the classroom.
- Teacher training should be an immediate priority that requires ambitious funding and long-term planning. England took a modest approach to teacher training for the first four years, discovered that its strategy fell short of its original ambitions, and later opened a large center for training with much greater funding.
- Unequal access to quality CS education can persist despite a mandate that all students participate. Unequal opportunities to develop an interest in CS persist along racial, gender, and geographic lines, though it is possible that this will diminish over a longer time period.
- Issues around what and how CS education should be taught to make it accessible to all students still exist. CS was a self-selected subject until 2014, but making it mandatory means that more research on how to teach it effectively must be carried out.
- In this case study, the term “information and communications technology” refers to the program of study that had been implemented before 2014. “Computing” is a program of study that the DfE started to implement in the 2014-15 school year that incorporates topics like digital literacy, digital ethics, and security, but emphasizes CS as its principal component.