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Computer Exams and Programming

Computer O level and CSE exams became increasing popular over the 1980's with BASIC was the language of choice on all school microcomputers. Alternative programming languages such as LOGO were promoted but BASIC remained all pervading through its easy availability and its use in software especially through hobbyist Computer Magazines who were able to print This wasn't popular with universities and the influential Alvey Report was especially critical. When GCSE's were intorduced in 1988 they moved more towards an applications based approach.

Computer Studies and Computer Science


Year Total entry %A-C %A-E Total entry %A-C %A-E
1976 892 60.1 86.4 2359 59.6 83.9
1977 1701 58.0 82.1 4593 66.4 85.9
1978 2198 53.3 81.5 5674 61.4 84.7
1979 3024 55.3 81.5 7483 61.9 84.4
1980 6692 53.7 81.9 10036 67.5 87.1
1981 8952 48.2 79.9 15000 60.2 85.2
1982 10346 51.4 81.9 22918 60.9 85.5
1983 13322 51.3 82.3 30527 60.6 86.3
1984 16570 52.3 82.7 39055 61.4 87.1
1985 18538 53.1 81.8 43947 61.3 86.0

A Computer Studies O level was introduced in the early 1970's (Capel, 1992, p.46) and entries rose steadily from 1976 to 1985 according to DES Statistics quoted by Wellington (1988, p.397) as did CSE (Certificate for Secondary Education) entries. By the mid-eighties Computer Studies to GCE level and CSE was available in almost all secondary schools (Wellington, 1988, p.89). Although other programming languages were allowed, this typically involved the learning of BASIC and using it to create a programming project for 30% of the total mark. BASIC was the standard language built into all of the school microcomputers available at that time. The remaining 70% came from a written examination on computing knowledge such as the ways in which the digital computer stores and processes data, associated hardware, the history of computers, their applications, and their social and economic impact.


Year Total
Grade 1
Grade 5
Grade 1
Grade 5
1983 15444 8.8 91 39329 10.8 90.1
1984 18169 9.1 92 35767 11.7 91
1985 21512 9.1 92 35767 11.7 91

BASIC was an interpreted language so easy to develop and run programmes and to trouble-shoot them. Computer magazines published long listings of programs for different computers and much of the available commercial software at that time was also in BASIC.

However it was not an elegant programming language and each machine had different variations of command. The Alvey Report (1982, para 7.9) was especially critical:

Action must start in the schools. We support the moves which are now putting computing on the curriculum. But, it is no good just providing schools with microcomputers. This will merely produce a generation of poor BASIC programmers. Universities in fact are having to give remedial education to entrants with 'A' level computer science. Teachers must be properly trained, and the languages taught chosen with an eye to the future. Uncorrected, the explosion in home computing with its 1950s and 60s programming style will make this problem even worse. Action is also needed to increase the stock of computer science teachers by training existing teachers of other subjects in computer science and by encouraging young computer science graduates to enter teaching. The teaching of computer science in schools must be increased substantially, in quality and in quantity.

A new GCSE Computer Studies examinations was introduced in 1988 along with other subjects. As with all GCSEs, it replaced the existing O level, CSE examinations. It put new emphasis was on problem solving using computer applications in a variety of practical situations. This could involve the writing of software, but it recognised that an overt emphasis on programming skills is misplaced. Another important aspect is the insistence that the computer should be used only for the performance of tasks that would not be better performed without the use of computers. Assessment by written examination was about 60% of the total mark, the remaining 4O% will be an assessment of an extended practical project. (Wellington, 1988, p

basic [programming book?

BASIC programming book


The original BASIC language was designed in 1964 by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz and because they made it freely available it became relatively widespread on firstly minicomputer and then microcomputers. In 1975 Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed BASIC for the Altair microcomputer, one of the first products of the company Micro-Soft.

Quickly BASIC became the computer programming language that came with every machine. Apple, Commodore PET, Research Machines 380Z. Its use in the UK was cemented into place when the BBC and Acorn installed it on the new BBC Micro. However BASIC wasn't always a universally popular choice. Some wanted to go for a more elegant programming language called COMAL to encourages better programming skills. Roy Atherton, who advised Berkshire County Council on computer education, said: "The case for COMAL. is unanswerable. In continuing with an out-dated approach to software, the BBC is doing a disservice to education." The main problem with this argument, however, was that probably 95 per cent of the microcomputers in the 1980s ran BASIC programs: although their different versions were not very compatible. (New Scientist, 1981)


seymour papert

Seymour Papert

The first version of Logo was developed in 1966 by Seymour Papert, Daniel Bobrow and Wallace Feurzeig at a research and development company in Cambridge, USA (Agalianos, 2006). Although it could only work on the mainframe computers around at the time, for Papert, in particular it reflected a radical educational philosophy and he saw it as a vehicle for the transformation of education. It remained a research idea and formed part of a number of small school-based research projects until the 1980s. With the introduction of microcomputers into schools,and the publication of Papert's book Mindstorms in 1980 it came much better known to a worldwide audience and caught the imagination of a large number of educationalists.

In his book Papert focussed on the

were set up and versions of Logo were experimentally tested in a small
number of atypical (not mainstream) elementary and secondary schoowas a computer language invented by Seymour Papert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It aims to enable children to explore and implement their own ideas. LOGO originally used a small mechanical drawing
device called a turtles which was directed by typing in instructions through a keyboard. But more complex
programs have also been written using the language including databases, and textual programs. (Lamb, 1985)

General approach

Lamb (1985) summed up the general approach at that time to programming: " The ability to program is the most obvious skill that a child might acquire from school computing, but it is not necessarily an instant passport to a job. Although surveys of the computer industry continually allege that there is a severe shortage of programmers. systems analysts and engineers, school-leavers often find it difficult to get a start in computing. Employers want skilled staff and are reluctant to spend money on trainees. ln any case, few school children will join the sunrise industries of computing and electronics. Even if they do work with computers, they will not need more than an acquaintance with the standard typewriter keyboard in order to cope with the technologiy. ln the longer term, detailed knowledge of computers wilI become even less relevant as manufacturers strive to cut out the complexities of computer operation and make their machines more "user friendly".




Agalianos, A. Whitty, G. and Noss, R. (2006) 'The Social Shaping of Logo' Social Studies of Science vol.36; 241

Alvey (1982) [online]

Capel R. (1992) 'Social Histories of Compter Education: Missed Opportunity' in J. Beynon, H. Mackay (eds) 'Technological Literacy and the Curriculum' Routledge [online]

Dalyell T., (1984), New Scientist August 30th 1984

Lamb, J (1985) 'Programming the First Generation" New Scientist 28th March

New Scientist, (1981) 'The BBC runs into basic language problems', New Scientist, 12th March

Ginn, A (1986) 'Logo meets Lego' The Guardian Oct 30, 1986

Esterson, D. (1982) 'Computer Studies and Computer Education' in (eds.) J. Megarry, D.R.F. Walker and S Nisbet, World Year Book of Education:Computers and Education, Kogan Page reprinted 2006

Wellington (1988) 'Information Technology in Education and Employment: A Critical Examination of Developments in Both Areas and the Relationship Between Them' PhD Thesis, University of Sheffield [online]