Challenges of Teaching GCSE Computer Science

Since I joined Exa in October 2015, I believe I’ve supported as many teachers as in the previous 5 years with the development of GCSE Computer Science.

Through my work with exa.foundation I’ve been able to visit teachers in their schools as well as leading CPD events in regions around the country. One of the three aims of exa.foundation is to “support the outstanding teaching of Computing”. I’ve seen a variety of barriers that teachers in England face and I’ve summarised them here in 14 bullet points. I hope over the next 12 months, to continue to explore the many ways I and others may be able to support teachers to overcome these barriers.

If you can think of any I should include or expand upon, please comment below.

  1. New Qualifications – Although GCSE Computing has been available since 2010; 2016 brings introduction of new qualification with new assessment model/weighting, with new rules. Lack of familiarity leads to lower teacher confidence and ability to spot problems ahead.
  2. SLT Support – Senior Leadership colleagues who fail to comprehend the challenges you face (show them this list!). “Yes, but we’ve all got reformed GCSEs” – not like this you haven’t! As a result, teachers may be denied time or finance to facilitate attending in-service training (CPD)
  3. Teacher Confidence – Lack of teacher experience with CS. Teachers new to the subject and/or qualification. Those who do have a CS degree may not have used it for 5-6 years.
  4. Homework – Setting appropriate homework, and measuring & tracking efficacy of homework.
  5. Content Overload – Too much content to fit in to the contact time available, ‘specification overload’.
  6. Software Issues – Compatibility/availability, locked down network in school, managed service. Over-zealous network support staff and policies.
  7. Hardware Issues – Resourcing with the most appropriate hardware, 1:1 tablets, Chromebooks. Over-zealous network support staff and policies.
  8. Programming – How to best teach programming, algorithm design and problem-solving.
  9. Assessment – how to track, measure and assess learning progress against the Assessment Objectives.
  10. Resources – Embarrassment of riches – due to abundance of free, paid for, subscription resources. “Off-the-shelf lesson plans” that don’t deliver. Choosing and using the best resources.
  11. Differentiation – Class groups with broad range of ability, pupils have a variety of prior experiences and Computer Science backgrounds.
  12. Pupil Expectations – Pupils not sure what to expect, leading to misguided choices based on the understanding that the course is all theory, all programming, building computers or games.
  13. Lack of Diversity – Under-representation of gender, ethnic, cultural and social in CS groups, eg. in some cases leading to groups dominated by low-achieving boys which may lead to classroom management issues.
  14. Experience (Pupils) – Pupils’ lack of previous experience of CS, due to not having a firm foundation in KS3/KS2 a feature of other NC subjects, eg. Maths, English, Science, Geography.
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10 Comments Add yours

  1. I think these are all real challenges. I guess for my school the biggest challenge to teaching GCSE CS is having no IT teachers at school. Again, this comes back down to SLT priorities.

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  2. Getting my head round thing such as Cybersecurity in new GCSE is challenging. However I am glad it is there as it makes the new GCSE mor e up to date. Richard http://www.amazingict.co.uk

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  3. David says:

    Question:- we were told by my son’s school that they would not be accepting pupils on to the GCSE Computer Science course unless they had very strong maths ability – i.e. top set.

    Do you agree with this approach? Is it true that CS would be very difficult for a child without strong maths ability?

    I have had a career in IT, which I would trace back to my decision to take O level Computer Studies in 1985, which then led to a BTEC ND, which led to a job as a junior programmer, which has led to an enjoyable career in other areas of IT. My feeling is that if I was at school now such a path would be closed to me. My son now feels IT is only for the super-brainy kids in school.

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    1. teknoteacher says:

      That’s a real shame for your son if he’s not in the top set for Maths. I can understand why a school might make this choice, but do not necessarily agree with this requirement. There are some similarities between Maths and Computer Science, but they are not the same.

      Over the years I taught GCSE Computer Science I had classes that included students from the top sets and bottom sets too, it certainly made teaching the whole class more challenging, but not impossible. It meant I had to put a lot more effort and energy into designing learning activities to ensure that all learners made progress at an appropriate level. While Computer Science should not only be restricted to pupils who are going to achieve the highest exam results, it’s one strategy that schools use to meet their performance targets and reduce the burden for less-experienced teachers.

      I didn’t use a ‘cherry picking’ selection policy, so my classes included some bottom set students who did not fully appreciate what Computer Science involved until it was too late for them to choose an alternative subject where they might potentially achieve more; they enjoyed using computers but did not enjoy the problem-solving elements of Computer Science. This can lead to additional challenges of managing the behaviour of a group of disaffected students.

      I would like to think that if your son could demonstrate an interest and aptitude for Computer Science that they would reconsider this decision and offer him the opportunity.

      Also, if your son would like to follow a similar career path to your own, GCSE Computer Science is not necessarily going to be a significant contributory factor. With all of the support and resources available online, he could learn an awful lot more relevant skills and knowledge. I taught one 12 year old student who was already running his own successful online game business with a 5 figure annual turnover, he elected not to study GCSE Computer Science as he didn’t think he would learn anything relevant from it.

      If you fancy disrupting things a little, perhaps ask the school if they have a similar policy regarding selection for GCSE Maths, ie. do they only select the top set for GCSE Maths? 😉

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  4. Tanya says:

    As a lead computer science teacher I do feel that it is important that students are placed on a course which is right for them both in the respect of something they want to do and something they are academically capable of coping with. Just out of interest what levels are they requesting? I think it is also important that students are fully aware of what the course entails in respect to how theory based a course is and how mathematical a course is. Computer science does involve some complex mathematical equations, if a students math ability is unlikely to be able to cope with these equations then it is perhaps best not to set that student up to fail. We offer imedia as an alternative but again students need to be abe to interpret client briefs and if their literacy skills are not able to cope with this then we would be setting them up to fail. Speaking in the role of a parent it is sometimes hard to accept that our children may not get to follow the path which they would like to as all you want is for them to be happy in what they do, but at times the thing they want could make them unhappy as they are unable to cope with it. I think if your son is set on it you might see if the school will let him complete some form of assessmental which involves the mathematical elements which they are requiring to see a) how he deals with it and b) if he is likely to succeed in the course in respect to the ma thematics. We are requiring a level 6 in maths and English for gcse computer science due to the theoretically heavy new spec and to ensure that we are not setting them up to fail. That said if I had a student who was just under the threashold I would not be adverse from further assessment to see if they could cope with the demands of the course and would explain fully what the course entails. A lot of students are still under the impression that it is just about programming games when in fact there is a lot of theory. Hope this helps.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kat says:

      Yes lets get children take the easy option rather than try hard. Don’t you get it that even if they fail they still learn more than in the karaoke GCSE you suggest they do? I was told by my head of year that I am not good enough to do what I wanted and I proved her wrong. I got bachelor and masters degree in computer science and maths is not important. I was never good at maths and if I was denied the chance I would not be where I am now.

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  5. Frederique says:

    GCSE Computer Science is probably the hardest GCSE at school now. It takes a massive effort to do even remotely well in and students who are not A grade students confident in Maths, self-starters and well-behaved are unlikely to do well. Many schools have now excluded all but the very best students. Some are up-front, open and transparent about selection whilst others do it in far more subtle ways. To be absolutely honest with you, as a teacher of Computer Science, I would consider it a lucky escape. Many Computer Science teachers are bitterly complaining and very angry about the huge amount of work needed to complete the GCSE and the complexity of many topics. It is frankly, a badly designed GCSE.

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    1. Kat says:

      Exclusion and selection is not the way to teach the next generation. Even if they get lower grade it’s still far more useful for their future than some idiotic subjects like RS or cooking. I think it’s absolutely disgraceful that students are denied education and pushed out into crappy options leading nowhere. Teachers need to be able to control and get students attention. Not just try to achieve targets, but actually teach the something useful.

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  6. Kat says:

    Why are girls especially and students with lower maths skills being denied computer science GCSE option? This is ridiculous. Computer science should be core science subject and everyone should be studying it.

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