The government’s decision to scrap the curriculum for ICT GCSE follows criticism that the course was irrelevant. But will giving schools the freedom to teach the subject as they see fit be enough to close the IT skills gap and re-invigorate the economy?
When Google head Eric Schmidt visited the UK last year, he was scathing about the way ICT is taught in schools. "Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made,” he said. It’s a message the government has taken on board with its latest plans to remove the ICT curriculum and give teachers free rein to focus on computer science and programming. Education minister Michael Gove hopes this will make the subject better suited to the needs of industry and create greater flexibility in responding to rapidly-changing technology.
Alan Brown, head of college ICT at Thanet College, welcomed the move. “We should always look to provide what the industry is looking for. IT is so fast-moving, reinventing itself every six months and education to a certain extent lags behind the leading-edge.” David Willmot, head of faculty at Blackfen School for Girls, agreed. “There will be some people who are disillusioned by the challenge, but our view is we will rise to it.
Willmot said the move will allow him to introduce a wider range of applications to students beyond the standard Microsoft suite. “While there are some very good Microsoft products, there are better products available for certain applications. This will enable us to introduce a greater variety,” he said.
Brown said the college’s next move will be to look at the materials available, such as those being provided by trade body BCS. “The awarding bodies will need to come up with methodology to operate at the same standards. The qualifying authorities need to ensure all schools and colleges are delivering a similar level product.
Some examining bodies are already seeking to provide a new ICT curriculum for schools to follow. Exam board OCR said it has already developed a new ICT qualification, which it hopes to make available to schools by September 2012. The new programme aims to focus on practical real-life skills and will provide computer programming and coding, it said.
But Tom Paes, network manager at Tomlinscote School & Sixth Form College and former IT teacher, is sceptical about the announcement. “This has happened two or three times in my experience of working in IT education. With every change in government there’s a change in the way ICT is taught. Around 15-years ago loads of money was put into up-skilling all teachers in IT so they could be more confident with the basics. Computer science was floundering so they brought in ICT. Now it’s gone full-circle.
“It’s hard to get students enthused by programming as it’s such a dry area. I’m not sure why the government is trying to turn key stage 3 and 4 kids into geeks. Even universities don’t ask for qualifications in computing in order to do a degree in it, they are just looking for logical thinkers. Also, most IT teachers don’t possess the sorts of programming and computer science skill-sets the government is talking about,” he said.
One young person currently studying GSCE IT agreed with Paes’ comments. “I have not found any dull or boring things in the work set. In fact the parts that are boring are the HTML encoding and script writing! And to add to this who's going to teach us this because all the people who are good at writing scripts are writing scripts and get paid more than teaches?”
A lot of businesses still require students to have good software skills, added Paes. “I maintain ICT has to be used as a tool. By scrapping it students will lose a lot of the skills which companies do want, such as having good Word and Excel skills, for example,” he said.
Saverio Romeo, Industry Analyst, Frost & Sullivan, believes it is important that IT remains part of the curriculum. “I believe it is as important as the other subjects currently on the curriculum. I don’t see it’s exclusion as a good proposal.” With these plans there is a danger that some under-resourced schools might not offer anything to students, he said.
However, Romeo said he welcomes the moves to introduce more programming. “Students should gain knowledge of ICT as a whole. Word and Excel are important, but so is gaining some knowledge of programming,” he said.
As the economy continues to stall, it seems the government is increasingly putting its faith in the technology sector to revive growth. But while an attempt to tackle the IT skills gap is a good place to start, it seems unlikely that removing the ICT syllabus will be enough in itself to give the industry the full boost it needs. However, any move to improve student engagement with IT should be welcomed as a positive long-term move for the UK’s technology sector.