Computer Science courses should be left to the experts: teachers

It’s astonishing how everyone is an expert on school education these days. Everyone, that is, except the people who actually work in and with schools. The latest half-baked idea appeared in the BETT opening speech by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary for England & Wales. Here’s what he said:

Universities, businesses and others will have the opportunity to devise new courses and exams. In particular, we want to see universities and businesses create new high quality Computer Science GCSEs, and develop curricula encouraging schools to make use of the brilliant Computer Science content available on the web.

This is a dreadful idea for several reasons.

Michael Gove at Chantry High School.Photo by Regional Cabinet,, in my experience, nothing produced by universities or businesses for schools is remotely engaging or useful unless it has been mediated by a teacher. I cannot think of a single case of business-produced resources that I felt able to use as is in one of my lessons. Now, I know that all teachers feel the compulsion to tweak everything, but there’s a difference between tweaking and undertaking a major overhaul. So, by all means let universities and businesses suggest topics, and even provide the raw materials, but make sure that the stuff which finally ends up as a syllabus and/or course materials has been produced by the people who have been trained to understand how students learn, ie teachers.

Second, I think there is a real danger of putting such courses in the hands of businesses. My original subject was Economics, and so I did my MA in Economics Education. As part of that I looked at business-sponsored Economics courses in the USA, and was horrified by what I saw. They all seemed to be bent on making sure that students came out of the course with a thorough understanding of why the market system, ie capitalism, is the most wonderfully efficient one there is. Now, I’m not anti-capitalism, but if anyone seriously thinks that it’s an unequivocal success story they should take a stroll down the Strand one night or early morning and count the number of people sleeping in doorways. They can’t all be benefits scroungers with a Rolls Royce parked around the corner.

If, like me, you believe that education should enable people to become masters and mistresses of their fate, which must entail being able to think critically and ask the right questions, you would have to feel uneasy about any course which didn’t even hint that there might be an alternative viewpoint.

Now, what would be the equivalent type of computer science course produced or sponsored by a big corporation?

Third, and this is related to the previous point, would computer courses devised by businesses and academia be truly educational, or merely an intensive training course? There’s nothing wrong with an intensive training course, as long as it’s not presented as purely educational. In this context, I feel somewhat uneasy about the possibility that Computer Science might be included in the English Baccalaureate.

In my opinion, schools, universities, businesses and anyone who wishes to get involved should work together. But businesses and universities should not be allowed a free hand.