Questions for Leighton Andrews

Formulating good questions is something we teachers are generally good at, and something we try to develop in our pupils.  Unfortunately, outside of a classroom there is often a delay between hearing someone speak and thinking of a suitable question to ask or witty ripost to make.

I was reminded of this on Friday at the Computing at School Wales / Technocamps conference in Swansea University (#caswales) after Leighton Andrews AM gave his speech. As is the nature of all good political speeches it was well tailored to his audience.  There was an expectation of a big announcement but not of much detail.  Infact we got more detail than expected and I suspect this was the reason why there were so few questions afterwards.  For those who missed the event and the brief coverage on BBC Wales Today in the evening the broad outline is on the DfES website.

I was very encouraged to hear the Minister talk in such positive terms about all pupils in Wales having the opportunity to learn Computer Science in school but probably the most exciting part (and the bit that shut me up) was the announcement of £3 million investment in the professional development of teachers to support the teaching of computer science and IT.  Wow!  Hurray!  We’ve got £3 million quid let’s go and produce a load of computer scientists!

On reflection, I have a few questions I wish I’d asked Mr Andrews at the time.

  • How will the £3 million be broken down?

Is this going to be spread out over a number of years?  Will a portion be assigned to primary / secondary / HE?

  • Who do you think will be delivering the CPD?

There are proposals in the pipeline but I’d be interested in hearing his opinion.

  • Will schools have to bid for the money / opportunity for CPD?

The Welsh Assembly Government has launched many funding streams in the past but schools usually have to bid for the money.  It’s often a complex process which I won’t pretend to fully understand.  Schools have to give explicit details of how they will spend the money and explain how they will meet national priorities.  Theoretically this is No Bad Thing.  Giving thousands of pounds to a school for a project to teach spreadsheets through the medium of expressive dance in the foundation phase would probably be a waste of money (apologies to any schools running sector-leading projects along these lines).  However the bid process can be time consuming and incurs an admin cost to the school.  It also means some schools / teachers miss out if their Senior Management do not see this is a priority.  Despite the CAS information pack having gone out to headteachers of secondary schools in England and Wales in March / April this may still be the case.

  • What restrictions will be put on schools or delivering organisations (such as CAS Wales and Technocamps)?

Many of the funding streams we have had access to in the past have had restrictions on how the money can be spent.  For example: can only be spent on software, or hardware, or with specific organisations.  Some people have objected to the top-down nature of the money in this announcement.  Under these specific circumstances (lots of ICT teachers in Wales need to be trained to be able to teach Computer Science effectively to A-level) I think some top-down spend is appropriate.  BUT every school has different needs.  Here is where I think schools may need to spend the money:

Taking teacher(s) off time-table for a short period on a regular basis to attend a training course run by a delivery organisation.

Taking teacher(s) off time-table as above but to attend internet-based live training.  Given the distances between some rural schools in Wales as explained by Hannah Dee from the University of Aberystwyth, weekly training at a bricks and mortar location may not work for some places.

Giving teachers time to spend bringing their skills up to a decent level with practice.  All teachers get 10% of timetable time for planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) – usually in school.  All teachers do work outside of this as well in order to do their jobs effectively. Some of the skills we will need to teach CS will come, not just through training courses but also through time spent practicing alone.  Programming is the main area here.  I can see that having attended a number of training events to learn about the many constituent parts of Computer Science covered by the CAS Curriculum teachers will need time to assimilate this information and practice their coding skills.  We’ll still have our day jobs to do on top of this.  At the moment I’m trying to fit in learning python (from a book) and javascript (from Codecademy) as well as planning lessons and writing reports.  It’s time consuming and needs my attention for a decent stretch of time – so right now isn’t happening.  Maybe it will happen in the summer holidays – but then family life should take priority!  An hour a week to dedicate to this would make an enormous difference.  I need it to do my job effectively and it’s over and above my normal PPA requirements – I don’t need it forever.  (I’m fully signed up to the notion that CS does not === programming but I think programming is the bit that will take us most time to learn).

Buying hardware / software and installation requirements. Most schools have pretty locked-down networks as far as students are concerned.  One of the requirements of learning computer science is that pupils will have to create and run programs.  Network technicians MAY need support and guidance to make sure this happens safely and effectively on the school network.  Will there be training available for them?  I don’t think software purchasing will be a big issue as this is an area where there are so many free resources but some schools might want to purchase something – will they be able to?  Conversely if some of the budget is ring-fenced for software and we don’t want/need to buy it – will it be wasted?  Some schools might need to upgrade hardware to run some of this free software.  Some schools might want to buy kit such as cheap Android tablets to let kids really experiment with App Inventor.

So Mr Andrews – these are the questions I should have asked – what’s the answer?

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