Is there a place for specialist teachers of computing?

After hosting a twitter chat, bringing together computing specialists and primary teacher recently it became clear that teaching the computing curriculum is a challenge.  Unlike secondary teachers who train and often have high-level qualifications in their chosen subject, primary teachers are expected to teach all subjects.

While the curriculum is taught at a more basic level across primary schools, some subjects require specialist knowledge.  Historically Music and Physical Education are the lessons, which are most often taught by peripatetic teachers and coaches.

After the introduction of the new Primary computing curriculum in 2014, the bar was raised considerably with few teachers at the time having the required subject knowledge to deliver the new curriculum.  There are groups such as Computing at School who offer free training for staff, but with many schools focussed on English and Maths; these are not taken up as much as they should.

Pair this with commercial schemes that give teachers a script to follow and the issue of subject knowledge becomes compounded.  Can you teach effectively without a sound subject knowledge?  I would argue not.

Is there in this case a need for specialist teachers for computing in primary schools, at least until training has been provided for staff to raise their subject understanding?  This in itself comes with the implication of funding for specialist teachers.    With money no issue, I believe all Headteachers would seek to employ the most qualified staff to deliver the highest quality input.

My computing colleagues are split on the issue of specialists with some feeling it the most sensible way forward.  Others like myself see the value of the specialist for teaching computing but worry about the deskilling of staff in the teaching of some subjects.  I know for myself that no longer teaching PE and music regularly has definitely reduced my skills and ability to teach it in the future.

So how can we move forward?  There is a place for a subject co-ordinator with a clear and detailed subject knowledge.  They can support staff school, sharing their expertise and provide training where needed.

My personal feeling is that the curriculum was possibly introduced at the wrong time.  Had it been introduced a year later, there would be more money, time and appetite for training by staff.  As it stands, they are trying to catch up with a new curriculum for English and Maths.  In this situation, Computing is always going to lose out, due to the emphasis placed on SATS.

The model Code club use is an interesting one.  They match up experts from business and industry with coding clubs in schools and libraries.  Could we go one-step further with is model?  If the computing industry wants, schools to raise attainment in computing to build skills for the future, could they do more to help? Some companies encourage staff to use some of their contracted time to give back to the community.  Could tech companies send staff to work with schools, using the Barclays Bank model?  The ‘expert’ can deliver the lesson in conjunction with the teacher, while having the teacher on hand to provide the discipline and classroom control that no teachers do not always have.

Secondly, industry could fund courses for teachers to provide the essential training needed for teaching staff.  There are projects linked to science where multinational companies in the fields of pharmaceuticals and Aeronautical engineering contribute to funding awards to provide staff places on training courses.  Having been in receipt of such awards on the past, I can confirm it allowed the school to send me on extremely high quality development courses.

CAS (Computing at school) have a bank of master teachers that deliver training.  These teachers have qualifications in computing at degree level and a secure understanding of how the curriculum is best delivered.  They can go into schools to support, but do so on a voluntary basis.  They are also limited in number and do not have representation in all areas of the country.  CAS are working hard to set up clusters to support teachers in areas where help is most needed.  This is also on a voluntary basis.

Some families of schools operate similar schemes where teachers can meet to discuss and gain support.  The effectiveness of these links greatly to the pool of subject knowledge within the cluster.

Do all teachers in primary school need to be specialists in computing?  Not necessarily.  Do primary schools need to have at least one specialist?  Absolutely! This does not need to be an external bought in specialist, but a teacher with deep subject knowledge and the ability to disseminate to other staff.  They also need to be passionate and innovative to show what can be achieved.

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