IT exams are a waste of time - let's scrap them

Let’s save us all some time. After this year’s A-level results, please read what we wrote about at the same time last year, and the year before – and, frankly, probably every year for at least the last five years.

We can easily regurgitate the same headlines: “Number of students taking IT-related exams falls again.” We could almost use the same words in every story, just change the numbers slightly.

It’s beyond a joke really, but the truth is that ICT and computing GCSE and A-levels are little more than a joke these days. Just 297 girls sat the computing A-level, for example. What’s the point?

The curriculum for ICT and computing is so poorly perceived that IT employers pay it no attention. Hardly any companies look for new recruits with those qualifications – maths, sciences, even languages are more likely to get you a job in IT.

The government has at least finally recognised that the GCSE curriculum is a waste of time, and education secretary Michael Gove duly scrapped it earlier this year – but hasn’t replaced it, leaving a vacuum in its place that will likely see students numbers drop even further.

So should we bother at all with IT education in schools? Why not just look for students who have done well in the basic science, maths or engineering topics and leave the IT training to employers?

Well, if IT employers still funded sufficient training, maybe we could. But lack of training remains one of the biggest skills issues facing the IT profession.

We are genuinely fed up of having to write the same story every year. Each time, the same commentators and experts bemoan the lack of progress, but nothing changes. We all know what needs to be done – IT employers need more outreach into schools; the IT profession needs to promote better role models to attract kids to study with the aim of a career in IT; the curriculum needs to reflect the digital skills we will need in 10 years, not those we had 10 years ago.

But it’s hard to have any confidence whatsoever that it’s going to happen soon. Perhaps this demographic timebomb will need to explode before anything happens – but by then it may be too late.

At the very least, let’s do one thing now – recognise that the current exams at all levels are a waste of time, and scrap them. Perhaps that, at least, will spur employers, academics and politicians to make the radical changes that IT education needs.

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In our work with organisations of all sizes, across all business sectors, we hear repeatedly that the business community is fed up with being forced to spend precious time and resources plugging the basic IT skills gap created by the UK education system. Employers want to see school leavers and graduates arrive at the workplace able to use every day operating systems and applications such as Word, Excel and Outlook.

We understand why the Government has chosen to scrap irrelevant and unpopular ICT courses – but what will replace them and ensure young people can acquire the business-critical IT and digital communications skills they urgently need to be productive members of the workforce? How many degree courses include a mandatory computer skills course?

At Skillsoft, we have seen this problem reflected in the way businesses use the resources in our Books24/7 collection. Last year, the book that soared to the top of the popularity stakes was ‘Microsoft Excel 2012 Step by Step.’ Outlook and Word basic introductory titles were also in high demand.

As out-dated ICT course are consigned to the curricular dustbin, we must ensure that they are replaced by something that will prepare young people for the rewarding careers that lie ahead; and which will release employers from the need to top up new recruits’ basic education.