When the Computing at School (CAS) initiative was formed around 11 years ago, it was with the sole aim to give every child a world class computing education through supporting teachers and educators with a Community of Professional Practice.
The organisation was borne out of a small number of people who had the vision to see that IT was no longer a niche, standalone subject - it would be essential to life in the twenty first century and the driver behind what would become known as the fourth industrial revolution. One that would drive everything from robotics to AI and IoT to 5G.
IT teaching, an ever-moving goal
While the acknowledgement that Computing and Computer Science needed to be added to the school curriculum was not a big mental jump, practicality-wise, training teachers of all ages would, in itself, be the first challenge. Joining the BCS CAS team in 2019, after a career in IT and teaching, Beverly Clarke picked up the reigns and began to steer CAS in the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) campaign that promises to train 8,000 new teachers by 2022.
‘My responsibility is looking after the CAS Communities of Practice, which are our volunteer community of primary and secondary school teachers and other educators across all of England. So, a CAS community leader is essentially someone who's interested in meeting other teachers and is happy to hold their hands up in their community to say, "I'm interested in computing, my school teaches computing, I'm passionate about computing,” and sharing that knowledge.’
Creating a dynamic curriculum
While sharing a defined curriculum was certainly the way forward in 2009, the ever-changing landscape of IT makes it a challenge to keep the syllabus relevant to tech advances, which are constantly happening in leaps and bounds.
Beverly admits: ‘it does take a bit of skill to look at the National Curriculum to see where you can include advances in tech and some of the new technologies. So, for example, with AI at the moment, we are developing some AI resources for primary and secondary teachers because we know that it needs to be in the curriculum. I have a personal interest in AI because I recognise that it is here, it isn't something we can wait to teach.
‘In essence, we inspire our teachers at a community meeting or conference, to take away snippets of information to include within their teaching. I’ve written two AI curricula, one for AI in Schools and the second for exploring Computer Science.
‘There’s also the challenge of creating resources, so we have CAS in a Box which are resources that support our community leaders in delivering CAS Community meetings, so teachers attending meetings can gain information to help them lean forward and prepare students for the future. In a lot of cases, CAS goes beyond the National Curriculum for the teachers and the students.’
IT - a standalone subject, or part of many?
As pre-school children use apps on the iPad and most 11-year-olds now own a smart phone, the rise of the computer has gone beyond the computer lab. As IT touches every aspect of our lives, across generations, is there an argument for it to cross the borders of teaching into other subjects?
‘Absolutely, I am a firm believer through my own experiences of the cross-curricular element of teaching. So, there is no subject which I believe stands in complete isolation and I think to make things relevant we need to show that every subject is interconnected and relevant to our everyday lives.
‘So, one of the things we recently did to support parents in teaching their children computing in lockdown was CAS inspire and the videos for parents to complete with their children. It was a series of activities that parents could do with their children at home, in which computing concepts such as computational thinking and problem-solving skills were all embedded. So, things like cooking, music, geocaching, a bit of gardening, recycling... there is computing in all of those things.’
‘The skills of being able to sit down, look at a problem, imagine solutions, discuss them and all the things within computational thinking, like working through algorithms, abstracting problems, finding patterns throughout and then making decisions, are all more important than being able to code. So, I would say that it’s that creativity that’s most important.’
A new way of thinking to redress the balance
The statistics for women working in IT has been between 14-17% for a generation. While everything from job adverts on LinkedIn to AI bias in CV sorting has been blamed for this imbalance. The fact is, there needs to be a new way to attract new talent to the industry. Not just to benefit individuals, but to benefit society. Creative, diverse teams create better, more in-tune products. So, will a new way of working be what eventually unlocks a better balance?
‘I think there is certainly some more positioning to be done to remove computing from being that “geeky”, “boring” subject done by some nerdy guy in the back room.’ Beverly continues, ‘when it comes down to using tech and IT, it’s got to be for something that's going to benefit society. I think if we have more projects and an open discussion about how tech can benefit not just the individual, but everyone, then I think that that proposition will certainly attract more girls.
‘Also, let’s not forget the role of positive role models, because, yes, there are a lot of men in IT - but equally there are a fair few women.’
Attracting new talent
Consciously aiming courses at people of all levels, from school leavers to career returners, could be the antidote to an ever-growing and pernicious skills gap in IT. So how, when teachers all come from IT at different angles, from interested novice to computing graduate, do you pitch the CAS offering to keep it both interesting and relevant?
‘Our conference is a good example of how that works,’ says Beverly. ‘Although the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented a physical presence in Manchester, Cambridge, Newcastle etc – it hasn’t stopped our virtual showcase, which in a way has been even more successful.
‘We used social media effectively for targeted advertising, so that's how we leveraged tech there and we put together a showcase which attracted 700+ unique visitors. Our conference included inspirational keynotes and also practical classroom activities, to appeal to the wide variety of educators who interact with CAS.
‘Instead of having local conferences that might have had a maximum 100 people at each venue, we held more than 50 webinars over a two-week period. Each was recorded and used as content to really drive our message forward. ‘While we were worried about the impact of coronavirus on our work, the conference turned out to be our most successful ever.’
COVID-19 and searching for positive change
While the initial lockdown was difficult and in a lot of ways disappointing (Beverly had to postpone her wedding - twice!) it has presented the BCS manager with positive opportunities for change. This is something she has relished, not just this year, but throughout her career.
‘I very much believe in lifelong learning. Throughout my career I have had to re-skill and learn new things to keep me relevant, to keep my interest and just to understand the world around me. So, I started off in corporate IT many, many years ago and redundancy led me to retrain to lecture at college, using my computing background. I then converted my PGCE for the FE sector to add in QTS to teach in a secondary school.
‘I've also done my National professional Qualification in Senior Leadership in a school. Then I left teaching and moved over to CAS, which involves strategy, networking and selling the values of the programme.
‘I have also taken some social media courses in my own time. I started experimenting with things like Instagram and learning how to grow your followers, understanding hashtags and what makes good digital content.
‘One of the things I realised is that you must use your media effectively. So, if you've done a post about something really fantastic last year, use it at the appropriate time again this year. It's a throwback but it's relevant.
When I approach the school year from September to July, there are different annual markers. You may have Black History Month, International Women's Day, LGBT History Month, AI week, Robotics week - all these things happen throughout the school year and, even if you did the post last year, you can throw back to it, bringing it forward to now. It's a just about knowing what's going on and pulling those things together in a circle, using and re-using.
‘For me, lifelong learning is about staying connected and staying relevant, or it just passes you by. Then, you end up in a different situation of being quite anxious about what's going on around you.’
Every day is a school day
As a corporate worker, then teacher, then manager at CAS, Beverly is well-versed in public speaking and holding an audience’s attention. However, she is always keen to learn new things and keep travelling the road of self-improvement.
‘I heard Anne-Marie Imafidon speak at the Women’s Engineering Society. She gave the keynote with a really good, really calm delivery and engaged well with the audience. I just remember sitting there thinking, "I'm speaking later in a week’s time and mine is nowhere as good. Put some work in." You know what? I took her idea for engagement and I used it and it was really well received. Sometimes, you have to just sit down, look at people who do it better than you - and learn. For me, success is about inspiration, mixed with lifelong learning.’
While CAS is driven by its volunteers - a devoted group of IT professionals, teachers, academics, school leaders and parents. CAS is financially supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, Microsoft, Google, Ensoft and the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC).