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Why Computer Science should get 'core' status in the English Baccalaureate



A decision from the UK government is expected soon on whether equal weighting should be given to Computer Science as the more 'traditional' sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

The EBacc is not a qualification in itself, but is used to measure how many pupils have secured a C grade or better across a core of academic subjects - English, Maths, Science, Humanities (History and Geography) and Languages. Once introduced, only these subjects will count towards the EBacc league table, which is used to rank schools in the UK and compare them with others abroad.

The EBacc also adopts a recommendation from the Wolf Report, published in May 2011, which says that study of these 'core' subjects should take up 80 percent of a child's time at school, with the remaining 20 percent given over to other options, including Art, Drama, Music, Sport and vocational learning.

The measure has been met with furious opposition from the creative industries, which claim that the omission of a “Creative” pillar in the EBacc will deny children a rounded education. As these non-core subjects do not count towards a school's overall ranking, they are unlikely to get an equal share of investment.

Schools are already cutting courses as a direct result of the EBacc measure. A recent poll by Ipsos Mori shows that over the last year alone, 27 percent of schools have cut courses, with Drama, Performing Arts, Art and Design and Design and Technology being the worst hit.

Jonathan Ive, Apple’s lead designer, recently joined Stella McCartney, Sir Terence Conron and many of the UK’s other leading designers in writing an open letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove, warning that he is “jeopardising Britain’s future prosperity”.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether Computer Science will be included as an optional subject within the EBacc as part of the Science pillar, or whether it will be classified as a non-core subject, and therefore have to share 20% of the pupil's time (less than a day per week) with other non-core subjects.

When the EBacc was introduced in 2010, Computer Science did not exist as a separate GCSE subject. But since then the Royal Society and Next Gen reports have been published explaining that Computer Science is a rigorous, intellectually challenging subject, and four new Computer Science GCSEs have now been created by the leading exam boards.

michael-gove.jpgAt the BETT show in January 2012, Michael Gove said: “If new Computer Science GCSEs are developed that meet high standards of intellectual depth and practical value, we will certainly consider including computer science as an option in the English Baccalaureate.”

The BCS (British Computer Society) has therefore published a report entitled: “The case for computer science as an option in the English Baccalaureate,” which claims to provide convincing evidence that some of the new GCSEs in Computer Science require a higher degree of intellectual depth to achieve grade C than is required by some Physics GCSEs.

The industry is now awaiting a response from the government. It is thought that Michael Gove may announce his decision at this year's BETT show, which takes place between 30 January and 2 February, and those involved are quietly confident that Computer Science will be given EBacc status, putting it on a level pegging with the other sciences.

This would be a tremendous victory for the technology industry, but it is likely to further aggravate the creative industries, which feel they are being sidelined. It also raises questions about whether the study of Computer Science - which many view as a vocational subject - should come at the expense of another scientific subject such as Chemistry or Physics.

Computer Science would not be mandatory of course, but most schools only require students to pick two science subjects at GCSE. So they might choose to study Physics and Computer Science, for example, rather than Physics and Chemistry.

This will no doubt lead to heated debates around the dinner table, but the fact is that children are now digital natives, and technology underpins much of the world in which they live. That is why they should be taught to create technology as well as use it.

Previously, ICT lessons have taught children basic office skills, such as how to use Microsoft Word, Powerpoint and Excel, but these new Computer Science GCSEs empower children with digital skills so they can create applications and content, and help to close the gap between the Arts and Sciences.

“Computer Science is not just about coding, it's a system of understanding the world and how it works - problem solving, computational thinking, algorithms,” said Ian Livingstone, who co-authored the Next Gen report and was recently awarded a CBE in the New Year Honors List.

“With so much youth unemployment, if you give them this basic skill which they can learn in school as opposed to outside of schools, it's going to enable them and empower them to succeed in the digital world and help drive the digital economy. For me it's just common sense.”

Livingstone pointed to Finland and Israel as examples of countries where investments in digital education, as well as high-speed network infrastructure, has resulted in some of the best high-tech intellectual property in recent years.

“We're very good at creativity in this country - our fashion, our film, our IT, our music, our games. But in the world we live in today we need to match that creativity with technology skills,” he added.

If the government is serious about its intention for the IT sector to drive economic recovery, then the education system will inevitably become a feeder for the industry. Computer Science therefore needs to be given as much promotion as possible within schools, in order to drive engagement and uptake of the subject.

In this context is is essential that Computer Science is included in the EBacc, because the alternative is for it to become relegated to the second tier of non-core subjects. This will deepen the skills deficit within the digital industry - something that neither the country nor the economy can afford.

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Tags: bett, computer science, ebacc, english baccalaureate, general certificate of secondary education, humanities, ian livingstone, michael gove

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