Chief Executive, Justin Edwards MBCS of CCEA, tells Johanna Hamilton about the symbiotic relationship shared by education and industry in Northern Ireland and how parents, not tech has thrown up some interesting stumbling blocks along the way.

Please tell me about your organisation and your role? 

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) is an arm’s length body of the Northern Ireland government, that works to the Department of Education. The organisation has the responsibility for advising the Northern Ireland Executive about the school curriculum for children aged 4 to 19 in statutory education.

We also have responsibility for statutory assessment at the end of the formal key stages of learning, which is used to assess system performance. CCEA is also one of the oldest awarding bodies in the UK, providing A-levels and GCSE qualifications. All these roles together provide the opportunity to map learners’ progress from preschool, through to A-levels and beyond to University or employment.

We have a team of around 310 people and within that a large IT team of around 30 people involved in development work - most of which are BCS members. The IT team create very bespoke IT products as there aren’t software suppliers for a lot of the stuff that we do.

How have you seen your organisation change in the last four years?

One of the early challenges was in regards to computing and software skills demands. Prior to the release of the House of Lords select committee report on Digital Skills in 2015, CCEA was already considering what to do for Northern Ireland, particularly because we have many unique advantages for the computing industry. Such as Project Kelvin, a significant North Atlantic data pipeline, and being a UK cyber security hub.

Northern Ireland also sits conveniently on the twenty-four-hour clock cycle, meaning when you’ve downtime in America or China you’ve got uptime in Northern Ireland. Plus, we have a very strong historical mathematical, engineering and manufacturing capability.

As a result, there is a growing IT industry, with companies such as the New York Stock Exchange, Fujitsu and Liberty IT, all tapping into our skills base. CCEA were pushing at an open door with industry and were, therefore, able to evolve the curriculum rapidly.

So, tell me about that evolution? 

We thought about how to get young people more interested in digital skills. How do you make sure what is being taught is level appropriate? How do general digital skills lead to specialist qualifications, even in post-16 education? Will it lead to better outcomes at universities?

As a result, we implemented a range of changes over a four-year period and we have taken a different approach to that taken in England. For example, we have a standalone A-level in software and systems development. It is a portable and recognised qualification. A pupil with this qualification has been selected to go to Cambridge to do Software Engineering.

We have also been working with Universities outside the UK, such as Trinity College and Dublin College University to achieve multi-national recognition. Key to the success of this qualification has been the involvement of industry in its design. Our strength, through all our changes, has been our ability to link big companies directly with the educational stream.

Does industry give money towards this kind of development?

We’ve never asked for money. What we’ve asked for is their time. Companies release industry software engineers, who then engage through a teacher or student development programme. For example, a global company with offices in Belfast released three members of staff for one-week fully-paid and they ran a coding workshop for teachers. We advertised the free workshop online, and within an hour all 75 places had been taken. Industry experts ran the course with material that supported the curriculum.

We’ve also worked with companies to allow them to have their space, so if they have an interest in getting women into coding, exploring large data or progressing apprenticeships, we’re happy to get the material and the pedagogy right supported by the employer. So, it’s an influential partnership.

How do you make IT more appealing to women? 

CCEA has taken a strong interest in this theme over recent time. Evidence suggests that girls tend to drop out of the subject between the ages of 11 to 14. It is a complex range of reasons including confidence, gender appropriate learning content and role modelling. The consequence of this drop out is that by the time learners reach the Software Systems A-level only about 20% are female. It is important to intervene on this issue at Key Stage 3, rather than taking corrective action at GCSE or A-Level.

Through our work, we have also identified the key role that parents play in influencing subject choice. For example, an all-female grammar school wanted to do the CCEA software A-level. They trained the teachers, bought the equipment and had about 14 students signed up - but by September all the students had chosen other, non-computing, subjects.

The primary influencer of this shift was parents and their perceptions about the industry. We learnt the lesson the hard way, so now we work more proactively with schools to try to inform parents of the choices and the opportunities.

What age do you start teaching ICT in its widest form? 

The CCEA curriculum allows engagement with digital skills from the earliest contact between schools and learners. We have encouraged programmes from employers to align with the curriculum, so projects like BT’s Barefoot Computing is used to support teaching and learning in Northern Ireland. We’ve also worked with Minecraft, producing science and history curriculum that can be used in gaming at Key Stage 2. This work recently was award two UK Learning Technology Awards.

At Key Stages 3, 4 and Post-16, we have taken an employer engagement approach. However, in 2016 we found there was a support gap at Key Stage 3 (age 11-14 in Northern Ireland).

This meant that at Key Stage 3 there was more of a focus on user skills, which meant that computational thinking and coding skills were not being as well developed as they were at Key Stage 2. So, we worked with a group of PhD students from Queen’s University Belfast to develop a Python course and pathway. This developed links from block coding, with Scratch, at Key Stage 2 and then transitioned into Python up to GCSE. This resource is freely available.

How do you support IT teachers?

We discovered at Key Stage 3, a lot of teachers didn’t necessarily study computing at university level. These teachers were highly effective maths, science or sometimes geography teachers, who just needed to understand some elements of the computing curriculum in more depth. Industry partners were involved in the development of the qualifications and they quickly realised that if they were also involved in the upskilling of the teachers at Key Stage 3 it would provide better progress towards the qualifications.

We created teacher hubs, where teachers could share ideas and, importantly, realise that they weren’t alone. We also provided a pack of support resources covering computing as a subject end-to-end. So, when a teacher was ready to develop their school curriculum, they had this material to support them and, again, our industry partners were pivotal in helping develop the resources.

How do you keep IT teachers ahead of the game? 

The curriculum is constantly adapting and changing, in all subjects. Teachers are used to and able to adapt to these changes, but computing, as a subject, sees a lot of change. This makes computing a challenging subject to keep the curriculum fresh and appropriate. For example, how do you introduce what is complex computing like Artificial Intelligence to a 16-year-old? Does that introduce you to computing or does that introduce you to ethics and philosophy? These are interesting areas we are currently exploring.

How can you make your curriculum future-proof?

I think that good communication, good literacy, good numeracy, good application of number and a good understanding of technology is a fairly solid foundation on which a learner can access everything else. Develop an individual, so that they can interact well with others, solve problems, use the technology to solve problems and you’ve provided a person who is of value to employers.