AI and education – The view of the House of Lords Committee

The section on education in the recent House of Lords Report on Artificial Intelligence (AI) was one of the more confusing sections in terms of understanding exactly what was being suggested as the way forward. You can read the Report, published earlier this week, at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldai/100/10010.htm#_idTextAnchor094

Not surprisingly, industry representatives told the Committee how badly prepared young people were in this country and more needed to be achieved lest we fall further behind. Then, there was the counter argument about not cutting other subjects to make time for developing these new skills and knowledge. If you want creative industries then you need to include creative subjects in the curriculum not to relegate them to some cultural backwater and just treated by schools as an afterthought.

The Committee heard that there is the downside of our modern digital world, once it was the bad effects of posters and newspaper adverts and video nasties on children, now it is reduced attention spans, shallower cognitive capabilities and experience a loss of identity as a result of time online and using social media. One witness warned the Committee, “that the idealised world represented on social media “leads to many illnesses including eating disorders … and serious mental illnesses”.   The implication being that schools must put in place strategies to prevent such outcomes among future generations exposed to the perils of the modern world.

The Committee recognised that the 2014 change to the curriculum on IT in schools across England needed time to take effect. However, the removal of any consideration of moral and ethical issues to do with social media and digital technology from the curriculum was regretted by some witnesses; no doubt more so over recent weeks as the various concerns over social media and the handling of personal data have emerged. Personally, I think the downgrading of Religious Education at examination level, where there was a real opportunity to discuss issues of ethic, morality and philosophy, by excluding the subject from the EBacc was a mistake.

The cCmmittee went on to welcome the projects outlined in last autumn’s budget for more computer science teachers and the establishment of a National Centre for Computing with industry to produce training material and support schools with the teaching of computer science. But, they didn’t really seem to probe very deeply on what is actually happening on the ground in our schools. IT and computer science teacher vacancies remain at the lower end of range seen over the past four recruitment cycles according to TeachVac’s data http://www.teachvac.co.uk; so perhaps those already in post are staying put and there aren’t large numbers of new posts being created. Whether there would be jobs for 8,000 extra teachers by the end of this parliament as envisaged in the budget seems highly unlikely.

As I wrote in my blog post when the number was leaked the weekend before the budget:

If the 8,000 number does make it into the budget, then so as not to look as if the Treasury doesn’t talk to the DfE there will have to be some form of explanation. Personally, I would add 10% to the Teacher Supply Model and split the rest between for professional development for existing teachers: spending 40% on those on professional development for secondary school teachers already teaching computer science and not fully qualified; 40% for lead teachers in the primary schools, starting with a programme for MATs and dioceses and the allocated the remaining 20% for programmes for teachers of other subjects to embed areas such as geographical information and other subject-related techniques into curriculum development. I might keep a small pot of cash back for new methods of preparing teachers that don’t rely upon face to face contact.

Finally, the Committee said: “the Government should explore ways in which the education sector, at every level, can play a role in translating the benefits of AI into a more productive and equitable economy.”

You try and work out what that really means.

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8,000 computer teachers: Leak, pre-release or pressure on the Chancellor?

These days I am no longer sure what constitutes either a pre-budget announcement or a leak ahead of the speech. The £100 million for 8,000 more computer science teachers included in a Reuters report https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-economy-budget/driverless-cars-set-for-uk-budget-boost-finance-ministry-idUKKBN1DJ003 fall into this category of uncertainty. Is it a response to the recent Royal Society Report and does it cover the whole UK or just England since education is a devolved activity. Is it an inspired pre-release a leak or even just speculation on the part of commentators? It might even be a red herring put up to encourage a response to the recent Royal Society Report. We will all still have to wait until Wednesday to be absolutely certain.

Dividing the sum mentioned by 8,000 brings up a figure of £12,500 per teacher. Nowhere near enough to train that many new teachers, especially if they were all to be offered a bursary. So, perhaps a large number of the 8,000 are either teachers destined for the primary sector and expected to train at their own expense or the money covers the cost of re-training existing less than adequately qualified teachers already working in schools.

What is an absolute certainty is that there will never be 8,000 vacancies for his type of teacher in any one year in the secondary sector without mass redundancies of existing teachers. Even spreading the programme over four years, assuming that enough recruits could be found to enter teacher preparation courses each year, would mean a high risk of unemployment for the newly trained teachers unless schools were mandated to recruit these teachers.

Now the DfE knows how many teachers there are working in state schools and teaching computing in some shape or form through the annual School Workforce Census, and through the annual working of the Teacher Supply Model can estimate demand each year for training places. Indeed, it doesn’t do too bad a job at the estimation bit; recruiting them into training is another story entirely.

When the DfE has its own version of TeachVac’s National Vacancy Service that has been fully operational for a year it should know the demand profile from state funded schools. Whether, like TeachVac, it will know the demand from the private schools sector is another as yet, presumably, unresolved matter.

If the 8,000 number does make it into the budget, then so as not to look as if the Treasury doesn’t talk to the DfE there will have to be some form of explanation. Personally, I would add 10% to the Teacher Supply Model and split the rest between for professional development for existing teachers: spending 40% on those on professional development for secondary school teachers already teaching computer science and not fully qualified; 40% for lead teachers in the primary schools, starting with a programme for MATs and dioceses and the allocated the remaining 20% for programmes for teachers of other subjects to embed areas such as geographical information and other subject-related techniques into curriculum development. I might keep a small pot of cash back for new methods of preparing teachers that don’t rely upon face to face contact.

What isn’t needed is a vast hike in training places.

 

 

Action needed, not more words

The Royal Society has published a new report into the state of computer education in schools across the United Kingdom; After the Reboot – Computing Education in UK Schools. This follows on from their earlier report, published in 2012 and entitled, ‘Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools – a review of computing education in the UK’. The latest report and its annexes can be access at https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/computing-education/

As might be expected from the UK’s premier learned society, the new report is both authoritative and wide ranging. However, the recommendations do read like something of a compromise between what is desirable and what is achievable in the present climate. The report is no doubt correct in focusing on the fact that improving the skills of those teaching the subject is a sensible way forward and adds to the growing clamour for a rethink of the consequences of the slash and burn approach to CPD and local advisory and inspection services that took place during the early years of the Coalition government.

The report is also right to point out that between 2012 and 2017(sic) computing only met 68% of the Teacher Supply Model identified teacher preparation numbers for the subject. Sadly, the Report doesn’t consider whether there might have been the vacancies for any more to be employed had they been trained. TeachVac, the job site I chair, does recognise that trainee numbers were insufficient in both 2015 and 2016 and are heading that way for 2017, although to a lesser degree than in the past two years. However, 2018 might be a very challenging year for schools looking to act on this report and recruit more teachers with computing skills.

Not surprisingly, most of the press comment has concentrated on the lack of availability of examination courses in many schools, including those just down the road from Teach City in Shoreditch. This misses the point that often it is not the number taking A level that matters for the local labour market, since many if not most of those taking A levels will head off to university, but the access of those entering the labour market at eighteen to computing knowledge and skills, for they are far more likely to remain in their local labour markets. To that extent, more might have been made of provision in the further education sector, especially where there are Sixth Form Colleges, as they seem to have the highest update at A level.

The report is right to recognise the gender gap among those studying the subject and the potential for a loss of talent that such an imbalance creates. This is but one of many differences in provision highlighted in the annexes. The lack of consideration of how the independent school sector is handling the issue of computing, other than in examinations, causes some distortions, such as the City of London, with no state funded secondary schools, appearing in the bottom five local authorities for Key Stage 4 level take-up.

The other disappointment is the lack of creative solutions. In this area, more than any other, the Royal Society could have harnessed the power of creative thinking to suggest new ways to reach the many pupils currently missing out on computing; through on-line courses, summer schools and even daily feeds to mobile phones. Creating the demand from pupils for more computing would be more likely to achieve results than another report that may share the fate of its predecessor.

After all, the DfE’s response that there were more students taking computing was hardly helpful or even properly considered. I also haven’t seen any response from the governments of the other home nations, but they may have been confined to the regional press.

Computing in schools

Did you know that computing was part of the EBacc? I am sure you did. However, not all MPs appear to as clued up, as the evidence published last week as part of the House of Commons Science Select Committee report on the ‘Digital Skills Crisis’ revealed. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmsctech/270/270.pdf

Since the MP unaware that you could study computing as part of the EBacc is a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party, she can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing the intricacies of the education system in England.

Whether the chair of the Committee should have allowed the evidence from the Royal Society of Scotland to appear in the Report as if it was from The Royal Society may be a less forgivable oversight (paragraph 59). I also am slightly perplexed about the reference in the Report to the fact that, ‘The Government has set targets for recruiting teachers in Maths and Physics’ and the requirement from the Committee that ‘They should also make a similar pledge for Computer Science.’ To the best of my knowledge, Computer Science has been treated in the same way as other Ebacc subjects in the 2016 allocation of training places. But, perhaps the Committee knows something the rest of us don’t.

The Committee held an oral evidence session with some witnesses from the school sector. The report notes that, ‘Not only do just 35% of ICT teachers have a relevant qualification but the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) calculated that 22% of IT equipment in schools is ineffective.’ They also noted that ‘Ofsted has concluded that the impact of digital technology on education standards has been varied, reflecting different levels of investment, access to high quality broadband and teacher support.’ They also interviewed the Schools Minister, Mr Gibb.

However, they didn’t seem to notice that computer science and its predecessor IT has failed to meet the Teacher Supply Model number set in each of the last three years and seems set to do so again this year. Perhaps the Science Committee might like to go on and hold a joint inquiry with the Education Select Committee so that can consider the evidence about IT and computing in schools in more detail. They might like to ask how schools are coping with the digital divide? I am sure a lack of access to IT resources whether because of poverty or through being located in a rural area without fast broadband speeds must hold back social mobility.

I agree with the Committee that the digital economy is of great importance to the future prosperity of the country. After all, TeachVac, our free recruitment site, depends upon high quality programming skills for its success. Hopefully, we can increase the number and quality of those teaching the subject to ensure every child is both taught the subject effectively and motivated to see its wider place in future society.

Finally,a little grumble, the fact that the Committee held its last evidence session in the spring, but it has taken three months for the Report to appear is slightly depressing. I do hope it doesn’t mark a trend among Select Committees to sit on evidence for long periods before producing their reports.