There was never anything wrong with computer science in the first place

Richard Lynch's picture
As an ex teacher of computer studies/science to GCSE and A-level students, I witnessed the abandoment of computer studies and programming in the mid 1980s and the introduction of ICT courses, which were little more than word processing and spreadsheet courses. I was appalled at the time, but the argument was always that ' don't need to know what's under the bonnet of a car to drive it...'. Now it would seem that once again things have come full circle. People have forgotten (or are not aware) that programming was taught successfully in schools previously, so they should stop behaving as if this is a new idea by Mr Gove.
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Neil Moffatt's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 14:00


I was taught 'O' level computing in 1972/3 and loved it. We used to march off to the City Hall here in Cardiff to get our code entered via punched cards. In those 'primitive' days, we had the benefit of not only learning Basic but also Cecil - an assembler language. As a result of this 'under the bonnet' learning and practice, I ended up working for IBM for 12 years, a fellow class member became head of IT for the John Lewis Partnership, and another class mate became head of IT for Husky Oik in Canada.

The catalytic power of a hands-on approach was that influential!

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 14:16

Although I think programming is useful I also think pupils need to learn ICT.

Wordprocessing is more than just bashing a keyboard, cutting and pasting etc. As an ex-teacher of typing I'm a strong supporter of people learning to touch-type. But even if that's not feasible there's the need to show the importance of layout, paragraphing, spacing, effective use of fonts and different sizes (it is NOT the more the merrier).

Pupils need to know how to interrogate databases; searching for info is more than asking Google - there's questions of reliability of data, about plagiarism, avoiding dodgy sites etc.

Spreadsheets: formula, entering data, setting up a spreadsheet from scratch. This all needs to be taught.

In the mid 80s, few pupils had home computers. I can still remember (anecdote alert) pupils (and a teacher) flying a mouse through the air to make the cursor move. And another teacher once told me that when he asked someone to "Right Click", she picked up a pen and paper and wrote "Click".

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 14:24

Is this a male thing? Richard and Neil very much in favour of programming while I taught Information Studies (wordprocessing, databases and spreadsheets back in the days of MSDos - aaaagh).

That said, the school did have a computer-controlled buggy to whiz across the floor. And (another anecdote) I remember programming my Sinclair zx spectrum so a ball ping-ponged from side to side (it took ages). My daughter and I built a "computer" out of a cornflake box, punched cards and plastic drinking straws. The instructions are even available on line:

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 14:31

I recall one of the Crick and Watson (structure of DNA) team saying, "The only real science is physics. All the rest is stamp collecting". Is this relevant, or just provocative, I ask myself.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 15:21

Didn't Rosalind Franklin have something to do with DNA? Or did those brilliant men view her as some sort of technical assistant on grounds of her gender? (That's provocative, I know).

And talking of DNA (another anecdote), the Wellcome Institute explains how to make an origami double helix. My granddaughter's was perfect. Mine ended up as a ball.

Brian's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 15:36

Unfortunately I suspect Crick and Watson recognised Franklin as much more than a technical assistant, to the point of making use of her work without permission or attribution. In later life Crick stated that her work was the breakthrough they needed but also confirmed that her papers had been shown to Watson without her permission and they provided the 'insight' he needed to come up with the double helix structure of DNA.
So she didn't get the recognition she deserved. Because she was a woman? Because she died aged 37 and couldn't fight her own corner? Probably a bit of both I suspect.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 15:54

Brian - it was actually Maurice Wilkins who thought Franklin was his technical assistant because she was given a 3-year research scholarship at King's College, London, while he was away. They were both working in the same field - X-ray crystallography. Apparently, it was Wilkins who showed Crick and Watson a photo which Franklin had taken. The photo was crucial in the discovery of DNA.

It's a pity that Nobel prizes aren't awarded posthumously.

Henry Stewart's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 14:55

I remember those days. I did Computing O level in 73-75. I think we'd moved on - we used paper tape (with punched holes) rather than punched cards. The school had one terminal, connected to Birmingham University's mainframe computer, but there was no screen with all interaction appearing on the printer.

I loved it. I left in 1977 wanting to program computers to play games but was told, in my gap year at IBM, that nobody would ever make a living from computer games.....

Neil Moffatt's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 15:34

IBM were and probably still are, a highly conservative. slow moving company that has made such a gaff before when its MD cited a world-wide market for 6 computers I believe.

Alex Cockell's picture
Thu, 24/07/2014 - 17:12

Umm - I think you'll find that a LOT of the heavy lifting in today's world is STILL done by IBM and similar mainframes. And IT is going full-circle witj the rise of virtualisation of the desktop (otherwise known as "cloud computing").

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 16:06

Sorry to disappoint all you feminists (of both sexes). Franklin did indeed produce the vital X-Ray image that showed the helical structure, but it was Crick and Watson who built the concept of a particular 4-bit replicating molecule based on it. They fully deserve their Nobel prize and place in the history books.

Brian's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 17:31

Roger (4.06) ... no disrespect to Crick and Watson, nor indicating that their Nobel prize wasn't deserved. Didn't speak up much for Franklin at the time though did they?
In fact they said that they "were not aware of the details of the results presented there (i.e., in the Franklin and Gosling paper) when we devised our structure, which rests mainly though not entirely on published experimental data and stereochemical arguments."

I subsequently emerged that they were in fact fully aware of the contents of Franklin's paper.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 17:51

True. It was all very competitive and ego driven.

Harry's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 18:40

I taught ICT/computing from the mid 1980s until recently and I too saw the change that Richard describes. In those days Computer Studies was a GCSE subject, but it was very much a subject for aficionados. Even now, A-level computing is predominantly studied by boys. So in seeking to introduce the subject for all at KS3 it was necessary to make it inclusive. Yes, it included creating (and peer-reviewing) documents, but also data-handling, modelling, control and measurement, and social implications of ICT. Far from being an easy subject, many students found some of these elements very challenging.

Where I do believe the subject has become diluted is as the result of DiDA and other GCSE equivalence courses which do not require programming skills. And what is not needed at KS4 tends not to be taught at KS3.

In wanting to abandon “ICT” and substitute "computing" we are witnessing another knee-jerk reaction. It should not be a binary choice, as both disciplines have essential educational elements.

For example, ICT courses teach students to question sources. How much should you believe what you find on the internet? If you must, parody such courses as "word-processing", but spare a thought for the apparently intelligent adults who don't know what a "gov" domain is and get swindled when submitting their tax or applying for a passport.

A good course would be a balanced blend of ICT concepts with programming. But for anyone to say “ICT bad, computing good” is simplistic and mistaken.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 18:48

I think most of the damage from broadening the subject came from the 4 x C grade equivalent course that you could buy from the Thomas Telford School and which spawned successors that drove the huge inflation of 5+A*-C in the 1990s.

A Cooper's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 21:51

I often think that many children who struggle with handwriting would benefit from being taught to touch-type (and it's associated typesetting skills). It's such a useful skill which should be part of the curriculum in primary schools. The ability to touch-type has certainly made lesson planning a much faster process during PPA time.

I learnt to type on a Remington and boy did my little finger take a bashing keeping the shift key down.

A Cooper's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 21:54

Here in the primary sector there are many of us struggling to upskill in time to teach programming skills from September, now that we realise how little we all know. There are too few specialist computing experts to go around and not enough money for every member of staff to attend expensive training courses.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/02/2014 - 07:44

A Cooper - it was the same in the mid 80s when we started to teach word-processing, databases etc. I was only half-a-step ahead of the pupils I was preparing for a combined GCSE Business Studies/Information Studies course (aka BIS). And we only had six BBC B computers with really floppy discs. These were soon replaced by BBC Archimedes computers with smaller "floppy" (actually hard) discs. Each update required learning new software quickly (some awful MSDos stuff somewhere) to be able to teach it.

No technician available - I had to copy all software onto the floppies myself (no network). I set up the computer room with just the help of my husband and two screwdrivers on a Saturday morning.

A Cooper's picture
Sun, 16/02/2014 - 10:01

Thanks Janet, I not sure whether your comment reassures or frightens me even more. I do remember those very 'floppy' disks that could be corrupted accidentally with a magnitised paperclip.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/02/2014 - 11:00

A Cooper - floppy discs made excellent frisbees. I also remember mice with balls underneath. Our mice often lost their balls - they could be easily flicked out. So I had to search for mice with balls which could only be removed by a screwdriver (sounds painful). In the end I bought huge tracker balls to use instead of mice.

Jerry Ludlow's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 10:34

As I recall, there was a drive, during the 80's, for Britain to essentially become a country of service industries, as opposed to making / creating stuff. It's lower risk after all. As for "…you don’t need to know what’s under the bonnet of a car to drive it…" - You do if you want to be a good driver; having sympathy for the machine and a working knowledge of how it works (whatever that machine is) makes for a better "operator" surely?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 11:26

A point is being missed here. The purpose of education is not just the acquisition of useful knowledge, however useful that knowledge may be. The development of children (and adults) should include development of the intellect. Learning about programming and writing programs results in cognitive growth. It about logic and algorithms as much as about computers. Primary children can start by designing their own and acting out LOGO (Seymour Papert) programs. These can then be implemented on a computer. The Acorn BBC was brilliant for this. LOGO can be very sophisticated involving recursion and subroutines. Children love it.

I also think BASIC programming using the Acorn BBC was extremely cognitively stimulating. It doesn't matter that BASIC has no commercial applications. A great task was to write a Premier League table updating program. You enter the football results and the program updates the league table. This is quite hard but very absorbing. You can almost feel your brain grow as you tackle it.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 06:59

Henry and Neils first posts remind me how narrow, reactive and parochial my single sex selective grammar school was in the 1980s.. I wonder how the new free schools touting Latin and classics as 21st century curriculum must haves are proceeding?

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 14:27

As Steve Jobs so succinctly put it
" Everyone should learn how to program a computer...because it teaches you how to think"

Neil Moffatt's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 14:37

I have spent decades in IT and love programming. It is a large part of my life. But I have to disagree with this sentiment of Jobs - coding is a very, very fussy, pedantic, technical endeavour that suits autistic men best. It really is not something that should be imposed on all. Maybe some taster lessons and then many will realise it is simply not their thing. Programming is very much horses for courses. My opinion, but I do not feel it is a unique one.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 14:31

A Cooper

The University of East Anglia have a beta test online learning module via Future Learn called
" Teaching Computing Part 1" designed to address initial problems with teachers implementing the curriculum .
It's 4 weeks of 2-3 hrs per week of teachers learning and collaborating via videos , web links and forums. OVvr 2000 learners fomed the first cohort.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 14:42

Neil - Don't you think everybody can benefit from and enjoy programming with LOGO? It is fascinating to see the pattern you have attempted to create going wrong and then working out how to put it right.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 14:46

Neil I would agree with you about high level programming (not to mention the proposed teaching of Boolean algebra in Key Stage 3 ) ; but watch primary school pupils programming an animated cat via the wonderful interface SCRATCH and trying to work out how to repeat the routine or change the cat's costume . Even better see a codeing lesson without computers where children develop algorithms via drama e.g deciding what happens when child A touches Child B.; simply fantastic

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 14:49

Neil....check out the codeclub and computingatschool websites ...

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 14:51

I enjoyed this paper from some Prof

“Computational Thinking” is a vital skill for children on a par with reading , writing and maths ; it develops their analytical ability i.e to be able to apply rules and logic to solve problem or simplify and prioritise.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 15:24

Very good point. I saw the matter with my IBM hat on. Apologies - you are of course entirely correct.

It reminds me of the fun I and some school friends had with an Analogue computer loaned to our school. I suspect few knew that such beasts existed. It was like a cross between a computer and a moog synthesisor.

David Barry's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 16:37

The standard work on this controversy -the role of Rosalind Franklin in the discovery of DNA - is Brenda Maddox's biography. For an interesting review of that book go to:

Neil Moffatt's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 17:42

I am constructing a web site to help newcomers to the Google AngularJS web development framework (here : because this is an example of very complex software that is taught from the inside out by most web sites- when systems get too complex, only smart techies tend to understand it (I am not one of these - I struggled immensely to understand via much trial and error), and these are rarely capable of, or interested in explaining from a beginner, real-world-in perspective.

It is a huge shame that for real world software development, most programmers are supplied with a ragbag of information scattered across many web sites.

The Logo software described here draws even very young children in because it is accessibly designed in a very careful manner. What the software industry need is this same mindset applied to more complex software. For the education perspective, the matter of software documentation and tutorial information is often neglected - as it is by language developers - so there is a ripe opportunity for money to be made from such resources. So it is not just coding that is what software is about, but it is about documentation and tuition.

Apologies for a rambling comment.

Ainsley de Silva's picture
Wed, 11/03/2015 - 19:47

I wholeheartedly agree with "Mr Lynch", a vendor recently delivered a solution to computing problem in 2015 that we had been waiting for them to solve for 4 years. The outline solution I gave them in 2011 was firmly rooted in the concept of modular programming, I first learned in my A level Computer Science back in the 1980's. ICT management is more conceptual, its the coders and the understanding of how to manipulate and use data that release the real and intrinsic value of computer systems.

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