One of the problems we have at the moment is that a large number of students assume that computer science is ‘just coding’. There’s been so much emphasis on getting students trained up as coders, that that’s pretty much all they think it is.

One of our key priorities at Middleton Technology School has therefore been to make sure they have a better understanding of what computer science actually is – not just coding, but also the actual workings of computers and an awareness of how to use the internet safely.

Given how much more reliant students have become on technology in their homes, it’s more important than ever that they can confidently and effectively use the devices they have.

We don’t want them to be overly cautious, or afraid of the technology they have access to, but we do want them to use it for more than its basic purpose, while making computer science more accessible and available to everybody.

Shifting attitudes

The subject still carries some cultural baggage, but we’ve seen attitudes start to change. We’ve previously hosted many after-school computing clubs for primary children, who are already familiar with coding from lessons in their setting.

It’s obviously not been possible to host these in person of late, but we’ve been able to do so via Microsoft Teams.

More broadly, the switch to online learning at Middleton has been interesting to observe. In my experience, at least, it seems to have given girls more confidence in computer science lessons, since they’re not in the classroom and the boys aren’t looking at them.

That appears to be a cultural issue – girls have often been reluctant to raise hands in lessons and answer questions, because it’s still deemed to be a ‘boys’ subject’. I’ve seen the boys actually become less vocal in online lessons, at the same time that the girls are starting to thrive.

This year, we’ve had a number of girls choosing to do GCSE computer science because they have ambitions to become architects, and could therefore benefit from knowing how to lay out network cabling and infrastructure in buildings.

That ties into the various programmes we regularly sign up for – not just on the e-safety side of things, but also code clubs for those kids who are into coding and game design, as well as initiatives related to practical computer science for those wanting to explore hardware and build computers of their own.

We’ve also signed up to become a Cisco Networking Academy, and have joined the iDEA Award programme, which lets students earn badges for developing their digital, enterprise and employability skills.

Of course, we also still have our coders, who regularly participate in various hacking challenges and the worldwide Hour of Code event, as well as Safer Internet Day.

Real-world examples

Our subject puts us in something of a unique position. With technology changing all the time, our specification has to change with it at least every two years, as new things are added by the exam boards.

Luckily for us, however, our students tend to be highly engaged with computer science in different contexts outside of the classroom, which we try to incorporate into lessons where we can.

That might involve us looking at recent news stories. We recently did some teaching around hacking, ransomware and similar activities, building on the NHS hack that took place in 2017 – encouraging students to research the topic, and exploring its links to different areas.

I’m always looking for ways of building similar real-world examples into the curriculum.

To highlight a more recent example, the PlayStation 5 came out last Christmas, but people have found it very difficult to purchase one. We’ll ask our students to consider why supplies of this particular form of technology are so limited and what’s stopping it from getting into people’s hands.

A new addition to this year’s curriculum has been artificial intelligence. I saw in the news recently that an AI in Japan that was originally programmed for shop checkouts, to distinguish between different types of pastry, has been reprogrammed to identify cancer cells.

If I raise that with my KS4 computer scientists, their first instinct will be query that, due to the popular misconception that AIs are essentially robots, because that’s what films have taught them. Well, this one isn’t – but look what it managed to do!

Hands-on hardware

Up until the first lockdown, there hadn’t been much call for us to closely examine how the department was resourced in terms of devices, technology and software. This year, however, the IT manager of our MAT, Great Academies Education Trust, was able to buy devices in bulk, which has been a massive boon for our students.

When it comes to teaching lessons around networking equipment and similar technology, teachers are often limited to just describing what a server or network switch is, since the physical hardware is often expensive and difficult to source.

We’ve been very lucky, however. Having previously worked as an IT support engineer, I have a good relationship with our IT support guys, who now pass on to us any networking equipment they have that’s been decommissioned or which they can’t use anymore.

This allows me to not just show our students what a server physically looks like, but actually create an ad-hoc network configuration right there in the classroom that the students can study. The same applies to old computers, which we’ll open up so that the class can get a good look inside.

What we really want to impart, however, is that a ‘computer’ is now effectively any technology they can hold in their hands.

The more we’re able to drill that into them – that computer science doesn’t just revolve around big black boxes sat on desks – the more likely it is that we’ll be able to engage them in thinking much more deeply about computer science.

Next steps

It’s obviously been harder than usual to determine last year’s student destinations, but it seems to be an interesting mix. It used to be just our coders going on to do computer science at college, along with the odd one or two more interested in the internals of computers who wanted to do an apprenticeship.

The year before last, however, three students went on to do game design at Manchester University, two of whom were girls, which was fantastic to see.

We’re gradually increasing the number of girls picking computer science as an option, but it’s still nowhere near enough. There are now more ‘hands on’ students interested in pursuing apprenticeships, though for the coders, the next step is still college.

I’m now hoping that the incoming T Levels will help to mix things up further, and give our students even more options to explore…

Teams Talk

As the school’s lead teacher of virtual digital technology, it was my responsibility to show the rest of the school how to use Microsoft Teams. That involved getting our staff in before September 2020 and showing them exactly what they needed to do, then doing the same for our students when they returned.

It was necessary to put a large volume of policies in place to ensure that pupils were sufficiently safeguarded, which involved a series of meetings where we discussed the IT freedoms we wanted them to have.

My technical background allowed me to work closely with our IT support team and pass on what they were telling me to non-technical colleagues in a way they could easily understand.

Early on in the process we received many queries from students and parents, so I made a series of support videos for both groups and made these available via a dedicated support page on the school’s website which can be viewed here.


Adrian Briggs is curriculum leader of computer science and lead teacher of virtual digital technology at Middleton Technology School; for more information, visit middtech.com or follow @Middtech_sch.