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The Ofsted Computing Research Review 2022

On 16 May 2022, Ofsted released the latest in its research review series with a report on the teaching of Computing across primary schools in the UK. Its findings have pulled a few areas of the curriculum into renewed focus, and it serves as a stark reminder of the challenges of leading this particular subject.

This blog will highlight some of the key findings of the report and look at how it could impact primary schools, the design of the Computing curriculum and subject leader planning.

 

  • “Since there are a variety of ways that schools can construct and teach a high-quality Computing curriculum, it is important to recognise that there is no single way of achieving high-quality computing education.”

At first glance, schools seem to have the autonomy to develop a Computing curriculum that they think would best suit them. If we delve a little deeper, however, some schools could potentially be left feeling rudderless. The Ofsted report makes it clear that schools have a paucity of Computing specialists within their staff. So, how are non-specialist teachers meant to devise an appropriate curriculum without the use of consultancy support or a scheme?  Schools need guidance from those who developed the curriculum and those who monitor the quality of teaching. 

 

  • “The planned curriculum includes a breadth of knowledge relating to computer science, information technology and digital literacy.”

  • “Declarative knowledge (‘knowing that’) and procedural knowledge (‘knowing how’) are identified, sequenced and connected in the curriculum.”

  • “Skilful use of technology is underpinned by procedural and declarative knowledge.”

Here we have a reminder of the three strands of the National Curriculum (NC). At Kapow Primary, we think that it would be helpful, when schools plan lessons, for pupils to understand these three strands and which are being taught to them. This could be highlighted as part of the learning outcome (LO) or initial input of each lesson. What is most salient, though, is the emphasis on both procedural knowledge and declarative knowledge. Clearly, schools need to ensure they have appropriate documentation containing a clear understanding of the progression of skills, knowledge and vocabulary throughout all key stages. Class teachers need to be aware of what skills/knowledge/vocabulary come immediately before and after their particular year groups and have depth in terms of understanding how declarative and procedural knowledge builds throughout their specific academic year. This amount of forensic detail is expected not only within the computer science (CS) strand but also within information technology (IT) and digital literacy, particularly online safety. This will be a challenge for most schools, so ensuring appropriate subject-knowledge training and support for staff are in place as soon as possible is crucial.

 

  • “The curriculum is rich in computer science knowledge, enabling pupils to make sense of the entire Computing curriculum.”

  • “Pupils learn important programming knowledge to enable them to become skilful programmers.”

  • “The curriculum sets out the knowledge pupils need to build a mental model of program execution.”

  • “Programming languages are chosen to meet curriculum goals.”

  • “Development of CT [computational thinking] and problem-solving is underpinned by domain-specific knowledge that is identified and sequenced in the curriculum.”

This reinforcement of the value of the curriculum’s CS component serves as a reminder to schools to ensure the balance of their curriculum coverage is weighted correctly between CS, IT and digital literacy. It seems clear from this review that the CS component has overwhelming priority. But what does that mean in terms of numbers? 50% of the curriculum? 70%? Schools approach this differently – the DfE doesn’t offer any concrete recommended balance for the three strands – and are left to come up with an educated guess or rely on the various decisions taken by schemes. Whichever method a school chooses to balance these strands, they need proper, informed justification for it, which needs to be clearly stated in documentation (within I,I,I statements or a computing policy, for example).

Beyond this, there is an added focus on ‘mental models’ – pupils solving computational problems via prediction activities (i.e. pupils being able to explain what code will do before actually running it). Also included is a critique of schools that exclusively use block coding software (e.g. Scratch) rather than introducing some further variety or text-based languages (e.g. HTML, Python) to support pupils’ broader understanding of programming. So, increasing the variety of computational languages your pupils have access to is recommended. 

The phrase ‘domain-specific’ refers to specialist knowledge, and this bullet point refers to the teaching of CT (often taught as ‘unplugged’ lessons). The report is correct to point out a particular difficulty: CT is often taught independently and concepts taught through CT are not expanded upon and linked to how they apply directly to programming. Reminding staff of this crucial extra step in each CT lesson is of high importance for schools moving forward.

primary school pupil learning on a laptop

 

  • “The curriculum to teach pupils how to create digital artefacts is underpinned by specified declarative and procedural knowledge.”

  • “Pupils’ schemata of Computing contexts is built through new and repeated encounters with contexts to build a breadth and depth of knowledge.”

  • “Teachers should not make assumptions about pupils’ prior knowledge within digital literacy.”

  • “The curriculum carefully sequences knowledge related to e-safety to ensure that subject content is appropriate for pupils at each stage of their education.”

Examples of digital artefacts in the context of the Computing curriculum would be documents, presentations, films, animations, or web pages. Ofsted’s key finding emphasises breadth and depth. When children take photographs, for instance, are they being taught about and using concepts such as the ‘rule of thirds’? When making presentations, are they using software other than PowerPoint? Continuing professional development (CPD) is the key here – regular and relevant. Teachers need quality training and support to broaden and deepen the IT portion of the curriculum – as well as keeping it interesting for their more digitally enlightened and experienced pupils.

A note on the concept of ‘new and repeated encounters’: it seems as though Ofsted is referring to schools creating a ‘spiral’ curriculum, so it could be worth revisiting your long-term plan to ensure that key concepts are covered and revisited at regular intervals to help embed both procedure and knowledge.

Regarding prior knowledge of digital literacy and the following discussion of Online safety, we feel that all schools should make Online safety a priority. Make sure you have a clearly defined part of your curriculum dedicated to this topic and that it is well planned and sequenced appropriately. Safer Internet Day alone is not enough. The point around not assuming what children may already know is pertinent. Children’s experiences and digital lives are hugely varied and individual, therefore schools must make sure safety messages are strong, bespoke and regularly repeated. 

 

  • “Facts and essential concepts are sequenced to enable pupils to develop expertise within the subject.”

  • “Decisions to teach the subject in a discrete or cross-curricular way are based on how best to teach the intended curriculum.”

  • “Teachers consider pupils’ expertise and prior knowledge when selecting teaching approaches, with novices requiring more explicit instruction.”

  • “The choice of teaching activities is strongly linked to the intended subject content and helps achieve curriculum goals.”

  • “Teachers use worked examples appropriately to help pupils solve problems.”

  • “Textbooks are used as a resource to support teaching in Computing.”

The point about sequencing – the order and format in which knowledge is imparted to children – is repeatedly discussed in the review. Simply put, Ofsted wants children to be taught the right things in the right order. Schools should have documentation in place with a detailed explanation of how they approach the task of supporting the embedding of appropriate knowledge. 

The cross-curricularisation of Computing also comes under scrutiny. This has been a longstanding bugbear of Ofsted’s for many years and was of particular concern during the old ICT years – the use of PowerPoints on topics such as the Romans and ticking off multiple ICT objectives were always going to be seen as inadequate. Our advice here is clear – avoid cross-curricular planning for Computing unless it is extremely well thought out and contains all of the rigour that you would expect in a discrete lesson. By all means, use cross-curricular ideologies to enhance and support learning in Computing and other subjects, but not as a replacement for well-researched and planned discrete weekly lessons. For some children, there will be nowhere near enough thoroughness in a cross-curricular lesson for the NC aims and objectives to be achieved with any consistency. 

The points about teaching approaches, activities, worked examples and textbooks offer a broad reminder of what high-quality teaching looks like in any subject. Schools could look at whether lessons have the right kind of small-step, well-modelled approaches for children at one end of the prior-knowledge spectrum with sufficient scope for extension and less scaffolding for more confident pupils, with subject leader identifying where the gaps are.  

primary school pupils in a computing lesson learning on tablet devices

 

  • “Assessment focuses on the knowledge and skills identified in the curriculum and not generic competencies.”

  • “Formative assessment is used to identify misconceptions early.”

  • “Teachers have access to high-quality Computing CPD to develop and maintain their subject knowledge.”

  • “Leaders and teachers use the expertise of subject communities to develop teachers’ subject knowledge.”

  • “Adequate curriculum time is allocated to Computing.”

  • “Stakeholders work together to ensure that risks are weighed up and do not limit the ambition of the Computing curriculum.”

Looking at assessment and the challenges that Computing provides, it’s hard to escape the idea that, given plenty of Computing lessons will include access to tablets or digital devices, schools should be looking into appropriate formative and summative assessment software or apps. Multiple-choice questions (MCQ) are name-checked specifically (although the report is also quick to highlight the weaknesses of MCQ) and apps such as Kahoot! and Plickers could be fantastic for this purpose alongside more regularly used software such as Microsoft or Google Forms. Given the ease of use of these apps for data collection, consider this route for collecting valuable assessment information at the click of a button. 

Consider implementing a scheme that has a strong CPD component. Otherwise, subject leaders need to at least have a plan for adequate training sessions/CPD for all relevant staff over the next academic year. The comment regarding ‘subject communities’, however, is interesting. A quick search online or on Twitter – where most ICT consultants seem to display their wares – could cause confusion. There are plenty of examples of great work in Computing out there, exciting software to try, and thought pieces with sensible advice. Although the subject communities are worth keeping an eye on, ensure that your school has a solid vision in place and the advice you choose to look at makes sense within that plan. Otherwise, the subject could easily be overwhelmed with the knee-jerk desire for change, and for most schools – due to the lack of CPD and teacher subject knowledge – this needs to be a slower and more considered process. 

“Adequate curriculum time is allocated to Computing.” What is adequate time in the context of a packed curriculum? Our key thought is this: Computing has a unique set of issues around timings, thanks to the challenging task of ensuring all the equipment is ready for the pupils or settling them into an ICT suite (not to mention the arduous but essential ‘logging on’ to networks, period). Therefore, it is vital that your curriculum takes these issues into account. You can immediately lose between 15 and 20 minutes in setting up/logging off and that’s without running into any technical issues. The planning, then, must be streamlined and targeted without scrimping on the detailed learning – quite the challenge for a subject in which most teachers lack confidence. So, our advice is to make sure any subject-leader action plan addresses this issue.

 

  • Use Digital Leaders to make sure laptops are ready for use. 
  • Give teachers extra time, if possible, for CPD, training and planning so they feel confident even if the time dedicated to their lessons is short.
  • Pick a scheme that understands these challenges and has adapted lessons to suit these pressured time considerations. 
  • Be aware of this challenge and act according to the specific interests of your school.

 

The final point around ‘stakeholders’ also raises some questions. The report goes on to say, “while pupils’ safety should be paramount for school leaders, it is important that perceived risks are weighed up and not used to limit the Computing curriculum, unnecessarily denying pupils access to important knowledge and opportunities”. This advice appears to be saying, “Be careful … but don’t be too careful.” We understand the point the report is trying to make here; however, no examples or further details are included. The risks of getting these decisions wrong – an online safety issue, a dodgy website, a vulnerable piece of software – are huge. Balanced or reasoned judgement in these areas is for subject specialists and safeguarding experts. Seek advice from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), technical service providers or any other equivalent body if you’re worried about technical or online safety in your school. 

To conclude, the Ofsted report makes plenty of salient points on issues regarding the teaching of Computing without necessarily offering any detailed suggestions on how to bridge the gap between the current state of play and what Ofsted would actually like to see in primary schools. It appears to act as a traditional sceptic – identifying all the holes but leaving schools to fill in the gaps. Its simple mantra is improve and get it right – whatever that might look like in your context. Our advice is to plan now for how you will fill your school’s specific gaps and prepare a reasoned, thorough argument to support your choices. Think all of this through, and having reflected on the content of this Ofsted report, make a clear, well-informed action plan with short, medium and long-term aims. With this in place, your school will be on the path to a successful and brighter Computing future.

Download and read Ofsted’s full report here.

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Written by:
Simon Bradshaw