Recently, the draft UK national curriculum was published that added Computer Science to the curriculum alongside IT and digital literacy, and named this combined subject “Computing”. This was a bolder step forward than many had expected, and to me represents the success of the lobbying by organisations such as Computing At School (disclaimer: I’m a member, but this post shouldn’t be taken as representing their views). There have however been vague accusations of bias and conspiracy surrounding this process (here, here, here) and last week I saw a tweet that was fairly clear in its view of the changes:
The rest of the tweets are in this short storify page, but it ended with this tweet concerning the Royal Society report:
I think this set of accusations is over the top, but it’s perhaps an interesting question to explore: who does stand to gain now that it seems the Royal Society’s recommendations — essentially, to add Computer Science (CS) to the curriculum alongside IT and digital literacy — are being implemented?
I can’t see a direct benefit to Microsoft, Google or similar to re-introducing CS in schools. Microsoft are unlikely to sell any more licenses to their software (Visual Studio is nowhere near as popular as Office, and has a free edition), and Google have no obvious way to increase profits from CS in schools.
The only benefit that I can see to industry is that they may increase the strength of their hiring pool. Companies like Microsoft and Google hire graduates, but these reforms only affect education up to age 16, so it will be a minimum of five years before there is a benefit, and really it’s only going to be a noticeable effect for students currently in primary school, so that’s at least ten years before there is an increase in the hiring pool. That’s admirably long-term thinking for a company in the present day! And of course, this only affects the UK: Microsoft and Google are international companies for whom the UK is a fairly small part. There would be more noticeable benefits to companies like BT who primarily operate in the UK.
Universities are of course closer to schools in the pipeline than industry. So universities might start seeing an increase in CS applications in more like five to ten years. However, university CS admissions have been stable for the last five to ten years despite a lack of CS in schools. Subject classification has changed a bit over the years, but UCAS figures suggest 10,200 UK CS entrants in 2004 vs 9,800 in 2012. That stability is not really a coincidence: UK university admissions are strictly regulated by UCAS. Essentially, the government budgets a fixed amount of money for students to attend university (even under the 9k fees system), so the number of students is capped to meet the budget. This allowance is divvied up among universities by UCAS, and then parceled out to different subjects by the university. Trying to increase the allowance for a university department is a long, slow fight — it’s a zero-sum game for the university as a whole, because increasing one department decreases another (and thus there is no increase in total income).
So university CS departments are quite unlikely to have any significant increase in their domestic admissions because of more computing in schools. They will likely get a stronger intake of students, and could teach higher-level material, which would be good, but that doesn’t yield any financial benefit to the university. The only financial benefit would be that drop-out rates will hopefully decrease as students become a bit more aware of what CS involves, and thus will be able to make a more informed decision about subject choice when applying. But that’s more benefit to the students (who don’t waste their time starting a degree they won’t finish) than the universities.
A similar story occurs with the benefits to the BCS (the professional membership organisation for computing): they may see a long-term increase in membership figures starting in about ten years. But BCS membership is driven by computing jobs, not the number of people who study computing. So BCS are dependent on the computing economy, not computing education. Despite this, BCS are particularly invested in the campaign for computing in schools: Computing At Schools became part of the BCS Academy a few years ago, and BCS now provide funding and support for CAS, which is a direct loss to the BCS, for only indirect gain.
To my mind, none of the organisations involved in the campaign for more CS in schools really had anything to gain. I intimated this in a section I wrote for our SIGCSE paper: part of the reason that computing in schools declined was because it didn’t really affect industry or universities, so they disengaged somewhat and the whole thing sunk while no-one else was watching. Now, to fix the problem, it has taken a loose alliance of industry, universities and schools to all push a similar message, through vehicles like CAS or the Next Gen report or all sorts of other developments.
Where some seem to see conspiracy in Google and Microsoft joining the lobbying for computing in schools, I instead see altruism. Nobody who has been doing all the lobbying really had anything directly to gain, and usually lost a bit — but they all persisted in lobbying anyway. And it’s not just the computing industry who should benefit from re-introducing CS — we should be empowering the next generation to become better users and clients for software and teaching them the underlying principles of computers: the computer equivalent of knowledge of atoms and molecules (see last post).
Of course, things are not yet perfect — the next challenges are to tweaking the curriculum, and train up a lot more CS-capable teachers! Onwards and upwards: many more challenges lie ahead.