Updated: May 30
In episode 6 of The Subject Leaders Podcast Aidan speaks to Allen Tsui, a primary (and A-level) computing leader and teacher. Allen answers the following questions:
What does it mean to lead a subject/be a subject leader?
What leadership style(s) should subject leaders employ?
What are the potential barriers for teachers teaching computing (and how can they be overcome)?
Find this podcast episode on your preferred podcast service: https://linktr.ee/subjectleaderspodcast
Below you can find the transcript for this episode of The Subject Leaders Podcast:
Aidan: We're welcoming Allen Tsui to the Subject Leaders podcast today. Morning, Allen. How are you?
Allen: Hello there. I'm doing well.
Aidan: Good. Can you tell us a little bit about you just to get us started, where we can get in touch with you and so on?
Allen: Sure. So I have been subject lead for computing at an amazing school in East London called Willowbrook Primary. It's part of the Griffin Schools Trust, which is a family of schools across East London, Kent, and the Midlands. Most of your listeners will probably know me from Twitter sphere. My Twitter handle is @tsuiallen. In addition to being subject lead for computing, I also am the moderator or host - I'm not sure which one people prefer to think of - of the #Caschat hashtag, which meets 08:00. P.m. UK time on Tuesdays, where I use the Twitter handle @caschat_UK. And I'm also part of the Computing at School community where I'm the leader for the Waltham Forest mixed community local authority area.
Aidan: So I think our listeners have probably worked out by now that you are going to be talking about computing this morning. Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience as a primary teacher and subject lead? Have you led some other subjects or is computing your number 1?
Allen: Computing is my thing, absolutely. So I joined the teaching profession in 2010. I was a pen pushing desk jockey for 24 years before teaching, and it was at that point where my bosses at the government department I was working for said, you know what, Alan, you're actually quite good with people and supporting the professional development of college if we ever see the money run out. And they did in 2010. When the money ran out, they recommended and I thought agreed that teaching should be a thing for me to get into. I wanted to be a secondary computer science teacher, but when I went to volunteer at a local primary as a volunteer reader, you know, the type of adults that go in and listen to the children reading, I loved it so much that I decided to stay in working in primary. Unfortunately, I had a bit of a tough time getting into primary, my primary practise, and it took me something like three or four years to complete my apprenticeship. It was kind of started off as under the old currency of the NQT process, newly qualified teacher process. So I completed that in 2016 and it was at that point that I joined the amazing school I work for now.
My bosses at the time said your kind of passion for Stem enrichment knows no bounds. So they offered me the role of STEM enrichment lead. And in 2020, when my predecessor moved on, they offered me subject lead for computing, which I've been doing since then. And I've been a subject lead for computing at the amazing school I work for since 2020. I love it so much because the school is part of a multi academy trust. As I said, there are two schools within the trust which are secondary. And for those who know about the computing teaching sector, secondary teachers are few and far between. And because of that, the recruitment crisis in schools in London for computer science teachers means that I'm currently also teaching A level computer science along with working across nursery to year six. So it's an interesting job and it's a brilliant job.
Aidan: So what would you consider to be your subject specialism and which are your favourite subjects to teach?
Allen: It would be computing. My school are very unique in that they've taken a view to support the teaching of computing, art, drama, music and PE through specialist teachers which cover classes and deliver classes across the whole school as part of the non contact time PPA provision for colleagues. So I teach from nursery to year six. If I was to choose a topic or theme within computing, that was my favourite, I would say it was actually staying safe online, which might seem a little bit out there, but it's a part of the curriculum that everybody can engage with. And it starts from a very early part of a child's kind of learning where the first lessons I teach in early years in reception are simply to be able to say no and to be able to understand that. To be able to know that they've got trusted adults around them that they can talk to when they ever feel worried, scared or sad. And it goes on from there.
Aidan: Perfect. Now, if the curriculum were being slimmed down, which subject would you fight hard to keep?
Allen: Obviously, computing. And my point on that would be that technology, computing and technology is everywhere for everyone. And it's almost reaching that ubiquity with reading and writing, everybody's got a device. Children as young as three or four can be introduced to learning about computational thinking. Where I work, where the curriculum I've designed, based on the National Centre for Computing Education's framework, allows me to encourage children to show me that they can do mark making on this screen. They know how to use a mouse, they know how to use a touch screen and they are able to find their way begin to find their way around the keyboard.
Aidan: So one last question before we get on to your three specific questions then, today. So what do you love about being a subject leader?
Allen: The fact that my bosses have a brilliant can do and want to attitude and they let the subject leaders where I work pretty much do blue sky thinking in terms of curriculum design, what we teach and how we teach it. So it's a real privilege and honour to be working for such an amazing and supportive team. It does mean that I'm able to look at the curriculum with a very forensic eye and be able to say, well, actually, when teaching the children that I'm currently working with, I'm able to look at their skills base, what their interests are, what they want to learn, and the kind of learning path that I want to be able to take them. Far from many who claim that over the last three years there's been an enormous amount of lost learning and there's a clamour for COVID catch up. I don't see that in computing. What I see is a new emerging group of learners who are very, very confident with technology and devices to the point that from the age of three, they are already some children are already showing me that they have that curiosity and attitude to learning, of wanting to get into very, very simple computer programming, for example.
Aidan: Right, yeah. I definitely think my own children probably use devices slightly more than ever they did before when it was COVID. I think we bought them all tablets and things during that period of time.
What does it mean to lead a subject and to be a subject leader?
Aidan: Okay, so for new listeners, we have now three questions where we have some longer answers. These three questions are specific to this episode and Alan's going to answer all three. The first two will be kind of generic and applicable to all subject leaders, and the last one will focus in more on Alan's subject specialism of computing. So our first question that will be really useful, really interesting for all subject leaders is what does it mean to lead a subject and to be a subject leader?
Allen: For me, it started off with the curriculum design. You're given a responsibility to secure the kind of learning pathway for a particular subject. So when I was offered the opportunity to leave the subject that I do, the first thing I did was had a look at the statutory expectations to say if this is what the DfE or offstead are expecting us to deliver. What does it look like in terms of lesson sequencing? So that's my first port of call. I mean, from my experience of working in secondary as well, secondary is a little bit easier because what they've got is particularly for GCSE and A level, is a very defined, defined syllabuses that the secondary schools are following. So that's kind of my model, really, in terms of leadership. So look at the statutory expectations and see if you can break it down into a sequence of learning that is accessible for all learners from those who aren't able to access the curriculum, so working towards to those who are at greater depth. Fortunately, within the computing part of the curriculum for both primary and secondary schools, since 2018, there's been a brilliant, brilliant organisation called the National Centre for Computing Education, which has established a wonderful framework which is available and accessible for free to all schools, which maps out exactly sequences of six lessons long, from year one all the way up to year 13.
So anybody can tap in into that. But the problem with published schemes of work, I find, is that you do need to adapt it very much for the learners you're working with to the point that as a subject leader of a school with has a three form entry. I've spotted in the three, four years that I've been leading the subject so far, that individual classes are very different in terms of their learning needs. So you might plan a lesson for a Monday morning with a Year three class and by the time that you've taught the first lesson, the second and third lessons that immediately follow with the same year group have a totally different approach, totally different expectation to secure the same outcomes.
Aidan: Right, so a big aspect of subject leadership is that tailoring of the curriculum, maybe even the creation of a curriculum that allows the specific children in your specific context to access that content and to be successful with it. Brilliant. Thank you.
What leadership styles should subject leaders employ?
Aidan: So, what leadership styles should subject leaders employ?
Allen: It really depends on the structure of the school. I'm very fortunate in that my bosses have taken a view that a subject like computing is taught as a specialism. So almost like the secondary model where I'm the only person teaching, so my leadership style is very limited. However, I am mindful of the fact that part of the kind of wider strategy for computing has to be embedding what the children learn into the rest of the curriculum.
So I don't sit here in isolation and say I'm just going to teach them computer programming, for example, that computer programming has to have a purpose and that purpose is to be applied across the rest of the children's learning. So what I will do is consult with colleagues on a day to day, week to week, moment by moment basis, where I say to colleagues, well, what is it you're doing in class for the rest of your curriculum? Having been a class teacher myself, I know, for example, that the Year Fives are working on Earth and Space and Science and they're working on the stewards for history. So for the sequence of learning to do with computational thinking, where I'm expecting the children in year five to learn about the integrity of looking for information on the World Wide Web, I make it a point of saying right, I want you to link your search to preparing for some homework or home learning or some research on the stewards or on earth and space and to be able to meet certain search criteria that I set within the computing lessons. So it's about bringing those elements together from a very well defined computing lesson and saying to the children right, now that you've done this in my lesson, can you please now take it into your classroom, working with your regular teachers to apply it across the rest of your learning? And I will be checking on that by getting them to show their learning through creating digital artefacts or being able to reflect on their experiences in a future lesson.
For those subject leaders who are not in the privileged position that I find myself in, it is about working with others. And where I've experienced this is through my work with the Computing at School network and also being on social media where I share all of my resources publicly and openly. I'm an open source kind of guy because I believe in accountability, scrutiny and for my own professional development. So I'm more than happy for any colleague, whether they are a specialist or not a specialist, to be able to approach me and say, well, actually, Allen, I've got a series of learning to do on a particular topic or subject, how can I bring technology into my classroom whilst hitting the objectives that you set within computing simultaneously with those objectives I've got to hit for the subject that I'm explicitly teaching?
Aidan: So there's a very collaborative leadership style coming through and what you're describing now, and I think that's right, isn't it? Subject leadership can sometimes feel a bit lonely. It feels like you're the only one who really perhaps cares about your subject and in your situation you're the only one who's teaching it. But actually there are so many ways in which there are links to be made with other subjects, with other learning objectives and so on that's going on in the school. So that collaboration is really important for subject leaders.
What are the potential barriers for teachers who are teaching computing? And if you've identified or you can identify some barriers, how can those be overcome?
Aidan: So what are the potential barriers for teachers who are teaching computing? And if you've identified or you can identify some barriers, how can those be overcome?
Allen: I think the biggest one well, there are two, essentially. One has to be the elephant in the room, as it were, of hardware availability and the technology available. But there are ways around that, from my experience, particularly for primary, I think too many senior colleagues across the wider teaching community might be a little bit intimidated by the thought of spending so much money in these financially tough times to sound like sir Alan or Lord Sugar on the Apprentice. But in these financially tough times, it is hard for schools to kind of reconcile how to teach a high resource, high expenditure resource subject like computing. But to reassure listeners out there that for those, particularly in the primary sector, that for I would say, somewhere in the region of 3000 pounds, it is possible to kit out a classroom with enough equipment to teach computing to the national curriculum expectations and to do it well as well. So it doesn't cost as much as some people might think. You don't need the latest tablets, you don't need the smartest laptops or the most high specification Chromebooks. It can be done on a shoestring. It is tough, but it can be done.
The other aspect that needs to be addressed is of course subject knowledge and people's confidence. And particularly for primary when as a primary subject lead, I can see that there are so many colleagues who just don't feel that they have that subject knowledge and they just feel that as soon as I'm away for any reason and they're told they have to teach computing, they feel they're already out of their depth. But the reality of it is that the National Centre for Computing Education has provided a wonderful support network that enables any teacher, from primary all the way up to all the way up to pre university level a package of professional support that is fully funded. And when I say fully funded, I mean that colleagues can sign up for courses which are day long or maybe residential and the course fees are paid for by the National Stem Learning Centre. And for some schools they may qualify for a bursary that is equivalent to covering a colleague's absence from school to attend the training course. Such is the demand and expectation on computing that there is funding available to enable colleagues to have no reason but to attend these courses, which is incredible. And these courses are absolutely brilliant. They're run by an amazing network of subject leaders and experts in their field well worth attending.
Aidan: That sounds brilliant. You're not being paid to say all this, are you?
Allen: No, not at all.
Aidan: They are just that good.
Allen: Yeah. My subject leadership journey started in 2020 when the world was so strange. But it meant that I was doing all of my own professional development online and it was all fully funded through this National Centre for Computing Education offer. The offer terms have changed in 2023 simply because there's been a change in the administration, the management of the National Centre for Computing Education. But I've been assured by those I'm currently working my school have been fortunate enough to be the recipients of a National Stem Learning Centre project grant. So for the next two years I have pot of money to support the colleagues across the twelve schools within my trust to enable them to upskill their subject knowledge in science, computing and technology. To the extent that for the courses that they want to attend, they're able to then have those course fees paid as well as for their school that they're normally based in to receive a bursary to cover their attendance.
Aidan: That sounds great. So you have shared quite a lot of your own resources as well, I think. I think I even saw something go out there this morning. Can you tell us about some of those resources and how they might be able to help teachers overcome some of these barriers?
Allen: Absolutely. So what I've done is, in my journey of subject leadership, I'm not content just to keep everything closed. There's no reason to simply because essentially we're all delivering the same curriculum expectations across schools in England and potentially beyond. So what I've done, I've made a deliberate decision to say, technology is so easy now for us to create and write teaching material content for our classrooms that we're only a click away from sharing with each other. So I always will click after saving a document or any resource I've created into sharing mode. So my offer essentially starts from planning documents through to individual lesson sequences. This is not to say that I'm not saying that my resources are absolutely foolproof and they need no further adaptation, that it's kind of a silver bullet, as it were. What I am offering is just a way of navigating through this enormous amount of material that is available and saying to colleagues on a wider kind of global scale through social media, that if you are stuck for ideas, this is where I'm coming from. This is what I teach, why I teach and how I teach, and essentially for the reasons of being accountable, because my bosses and families at the school I work for want to be able to see what the children are learning.
I've also got this opportunity for peer review. I'm more than happy for anybody to say, well, actually, Alan, I'm not sure I like that. I mean, today, for example, the brilliant, brilliant Rachel Caltard sent me back a message saying, I love what you've created, but why have you called it that? And I'd really rather have that conversation now, rather than having the conversation in a situation which is more where my Practise has been more formally scrutinised, if you understand what I'm alluding to. And thirdly, it's for my own professional development too. When I create these things, I put in my heart and soul into this and applying my kind of thought process, I'm more than happy for others to say. Actually, Alan, I'm not sure what you said then was absolutely spot on or whether you actually say, I really, really like that. But do you think you could show me another example? Or expand and elaborate on that? And I had a conversation. I had a video chat a few weeks ago with the really brilliant Kizzy Coder on Twitter who I invited her and she and I were just comparing notes on how we meet the needs of those learners who aren't able to access the curriculum as it currently stands. So what we're doing is we're devising ways of being able to reframe the curriculum so everybody can access.
Aidan: It's such a great attitude that if you're doing something, it might as well be shared, that this can lead to more collaboration with other people, that it can lead to that professional challenge that perhaps within your school you might not have because there's no one else there who's charged with leading computing. Are there any of your resources that you've put out that, you know, people have found really useful? Is there like a top three or anything like that that you'd maybe suggest people have a look at?
Allen: No. That's the funny thing because I'm so open source. I don't actually ask people for kind of star ratings or tally ratings. And people just if you if you take it, you take it. If you don't use it, then and you don't ever speak to me again, I will never know. So unfortunately not. But what I have done is perhaps as part of this podcast, I'll send you the link so you can directly link to that. But essentially I've created a little portal where everything is available.
Aidan: Great. That was going to be my next question. Where can people get hold of that? So we'll put the link to that in the show notes and people can head there to find out a little bit more and to have a dig through and to find out what you've shared. And I think finding you on Twitter as well is probably a good start because you often share things there. It's kind of the first place that it'll be. Great. Thank you. It's been so good to hear from you today. Both your thoughts about subject leadership, from your experience and from your point of view and your expertise of computing obviously really shining through all of those answers as well.
Aidan: Is there anything before we finish that you'd really like to add, that you'd like to say? Anything that you'd like to give a shout out to before we finish?
Allen: No. But thank you so much for the opportunity to be chatting with you on this podcast. As you say already that I am on Twitter, most people will find me most mornings in the hashtag Teacher 05:00 club with my morning mug shop.
Aidan: Yeah, I don't often make it to that. 5:45 maybe, but you don't have no, it's still there for everyone to see when we all wake up at a normal time.
Aidan: Great. Thank you, Allen.
Allen: Thank you.