Wednesday 25 June 2014

Lessons learnt from setting up a new Computing department

This post is a reflection on my last 12 months as the lead teacher of a new Computing department. As I transition to the role of Head of Department, there are many things that I have learnt, wish I knew from the beginning and things that I would do differently.


Curriculum- I would aim to teach a GCSE shadow structure right from Year 7. There is no reason why 11 year olds can’t start with Python. Even students with severe SEN including ASD have managed to write simple programs in Python. Some may argue the case for Scratch or Snap!(BYOB), but to be honest most kids will have used these a lot at primary school, things like LightBot and Blockly are a much better gateway to text-based programming. I would however only spend a short amount of time on these.

Likewise, teach your students GCSE theory up to GCSE level, most of our students understand Von Neumann Architecture and can convert between binary, hex and decimal. It just takes solid structures, but with the correct structure and support, the kids can learn anything.  

Teaching and Learning

Get observed lots, bad observations are good ones because they should inform how to improve. Observers (including support staff) often see things that you don’t see. My worst lesson observation was followed by a debriefing where I reflected with my line manager. We spent some time rethinking my pedagogy and how to deliver a lesson with lots of content. The result was that in the following observation, my line manager said that he observed the perfect lesson.  He shared some of the techniques with the rest of the school.

I can’t emphasise how valuable it is to work closely with your support staff and technicians; on any given day they will make the difference between a lesson that works and one that doesn’t.
Observe your peers in non-graded observations. Visit other schools, find the best people on Twitter or at Computing events and just ask to go and see them. Visiting other schools is always inspirational, either they’re doing great stuff that you don’t yet know about or vice versa. You’ll always end up leaving in a positive and productive mood.

Make a website to host all your documents, cover work and showcase material. Some like to use Google Sites. I value aesthetics so I use Weebly and combine this with Google Docs and Tiny URL. When students miss a lesson, their first port of call can be the school website. Some argue for a VLE or network, but nobody likes logging in and if your student is ill at home, a website is the easiest thing to access and Google Docs offers the most streamlined solution for hosting and sharing documents with colleagues and students.

Google Docs is also great for creating tests which mark themselves. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Edmodo, in that it corrects students answers too. I like the sound of that and may try it next year.

In terms of formative assessment, print out name tags for every student, Get some traffic light cards laminated and buy a class set of mini white boards. These will guarantee that you know what the students actually know during your lesson. According to Dylan Wiliam, what you do with this information is the difference between average and great teaching.

Logistics and Resources

We started the year in a temporary building with laptop trolleys. Regardless of your environment, every class needs to be inducted into conduct, rules and routines when using IT. Do not assume anything!

If you have a laptop trolley the induction should include:

  • Two angles-90° and 45°. The former is the screen angle for working, the latter for when you are talking. Closing the lid forces some laptops to go to sleep, so this should be avoided.
  • How to carry laptops-not by the screen as this puts stress on the hinge.

  • How to stow laptops in the laptop trolley, managing cables and ensuring the laptop is on charge
  • How to log off. If you close the lid midway through the log off or shutdown process, the next user will not be able to log in without clicking the subtle “switch user” button. Attempts will be met with “No log on servers available”.
  • If you have not bought a laptop trolley yet, opt for two 15 capacity trolleys rather than one 30 capacity ones. The latter are heavier and difficult to move.
  • Move the trolley to the classroom of intended use, not the laptops. This will reduce damage to laptops.

In a computer lab:
  • Entry routine: Where to sit at the beginning of the lesson-is the routine to log on then take a seat in the centre desks?
  • Moving around the room, must be on foot, never on wheely chairs as it inevitably causes silliness and damage to chairs.
  • Where to save
  • Pack up routine: What should a tidy Computer desk look like. Headphones stowed behind/on monitor, no trailing wires, chairs tucked under.
  • No open water by the computers. Or no eating/drinking at all-the same rules as a Science lab.

Once students have been inducted, appropriate sanctions should be issued to encourage the correct conduct and routines.
Other notes:

You get what you pay for. Only trust the big brands (Dell, Lenovo, HP) and check reviews on Amazon

If you are tight on budget, you can get a lot of nearly-new IT equipment for cheap from or

Label and number everything with your own Avery labels or tipex. You can label your equipment with a room number, department and item number. I’d advise labelling anything that is not fixed i.e. laptops, chargers, headphones, portable speakers. It sounds petty and arduous, but this year we spent over £200 replacing lost/damaged peripherals. Damages was caused by both students and staff. Whilst this was either due to neglect or laziness (teachers having one charger at home and one at school), it can be avoided.

Student technicians-When you’re a small department, you need all the help you can get. Our school didn’t have a permanent technician, so I trained some students into the upkeep of laptops, installing printers, general troubleshooting of all things AV and Wifi. They were also taught  filming and photography skills. This means all events can be documented by students. Next year, I hope to train them to edit in iMovie too. Student technicians are also helpful to have at open days and on interview panels

Other helpers-There are lots of volunteers waiting to help you learn to program and run clubs for you. STEMNET and Code Club are a great source for CRB/DBS cleared helpers. A parent who works at an investment bank in Canary Wharf recently volunteered to come in and help me develop my programming skills. Sometimes all you need to do is ask, othertimes, the help comes to you.
Buy one of these organisers for only £11. It has a capacity of 500 sheets and once you create a tab for each of your classes, you will still have capacity for your form group, department, extension, spare sheets and helpsheet tabs. It has made teaching so much easier. I just do all my printing first thing in the morning, then carry this around with me.

·         If you need a book to learn Python and have never programmed before, I highly recommend Chris Roffey’s books:
book 1 cover

Lastly, teaching resources. Most of them are free and I have written extensively about these here.


Some Computing departments will have small budgets, particularly if you are a small school with only one or two cohorts of kids. Unless you have a full school, budgets will always be small. This section is mainly for those who have a budget of less than £1000.

Provided you have an IT suite or laptop trolley, forget the tempting gadgets and toys such as Raspberry Pi’s, Lego Mindstorms and Arduino’s. Spend most of your budget on training. There are plenty of courses on the Events page on the CAS network, some of them are free.

I know my previous statement about learning toys is contentious, but a class set of Raspberry Pi’s sounds good on paper, but really they’re just slow computers which need all the peripherals of a standard computer. When put together, they don’t sit well on a desk and are prone to damage. Even with a case, memory cards can break off and go missing, power leads can get pushed too far in. From what I’ve seen and heard, they’re great for kids to use as a learning tool/toy at home. But the classroom really needs robust computers. Not a worthy investment in my opinion.  


In finding someone to join your department, recruit early but don’t hire someone unless they’re absolutely right. I was lucky in finding a candidate on the third interview day that we held.

We run a fairly rigorous recruitment day including a code review, curriculum task (planning a SOW), teaching of a lesson, numeracy and literacy test. The last two perhaps are less significant, the main thing is the lesson that they teach, the subject task and the interview.

The main things you’re looking for are alignment with the school culture, subject knowledge and alignment with your own personality as you will have to work with this person for the next 1-20 years! The best advice I was given when visiting another middle leader was that there are some things you cannot change in a person e.g. their personality-“can you work with them?” is the big question.

Other big questions: If their subject knowledge isn’t quite where you need it, is the candidate trainable? Do they want to improve? In your interactions with them, do they give you energy or sap it out of you?

Top 10 Websites for GCSE Computing resources

There’s a lot of resources out there for teaching Computing. Finding resources is never an issue, there are anywhere between 10-30 new resources uploaded onto CAS every week. However, it’s sometimes difficult to follow a single scheme of work when presented with so many different resources. We also have our own preferences. The list below is based on the resources I have found most useful. This is by no means a finite list. There are many teachers out there who create resources but do not host these publicly or centrally on one single site. Those that do are listed below. Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments. Mr O Callaghan is a Computing teacher who loves pedagogy. Like David Didau, Alex Quigley and Harry Fletcher Wood, he is an outstanding blogger. He frequently applies techniques based on educational researchers and cognitive psychologists such as Willingham, Kirby and Wiliam. Wonderful site of resources and thinking from CAS master teacher Simon Johnson Self-taught Computing teacher Alan O’Donohoe presents his thoughts and resources for teaching Computing. If there is an example of someone who has re-defined himself from novice to expert, it’s Alan. -All round site covering Computing, ICT and IGCSE Not only does Matt Britland teach Computing, he does it with style. Great SOW and articles about EdTech. Multimedia (Video, PDF, Word Documents) A set of comprehensive resources for Computing, ICT and Creative Media collection of theory and practical resources. Resources which will help deliver OCR GCSE Computing. Some content is subscription only

thedenniglessons Ms Dennig also teaches Computer Science to her year 7’s. Lovely slides which break down complex abstract ideas into more concrete accessible ones.

gcsecomputingbalcarras A great collection of videos and websites which will take you through OCR’s GCSE My own website where I share every resource that I use in lessons. There are links to Zipped Files and Curriculum plans.

Bonus link: This is not a website, but rather a list of websites which are useful for teaching Computing from KS1 to KS4