IT professionals and teachers have expressed concerns over the government’s decision to remove ICT from the school curriculum for two years while a new computer science curriculum is devised.
During the Reviewing the ICT Curriculum seminar, part of the Westminster Education Forum National Curriculum, academics shared their opinions and ideas for the new curriculum which will be introduced in 2014.
Education secretary Michael Gove’s January announcement that GCSE ICT was to be scrapped has been widely criticised for leaving the education sector without a clear direction for IT as a subject.
Earlier this week, The Corporate IT Forum Education and Skills Commission condemned the move, saying it was disappointed that the government had not listened to its concerns about withdrawing the ICT curriculum from schools before the new programme is introduced.
At the Westminster Education Forum , David Brown, HMI and national advisor for ICT at Ofsted, said something had to be done because it was not certain what would be introduced in 2014.
He also admitted that some subjects can get overlooked during a full school inspection, ICT being one of them. "Often we do not have time to look at a subject in depth. This tends not to happen in the core subjects, but it certainly happens in subjects such as ICT and music,” said Brown.
How IT is currently delivered to children
Bill Mitchell, director at the BCS Academy of Computing, said the delivery of ICT might also be turning students off from continuing with the subject.
He pointed out that after the dotcom crash, university applications for computer science dropped dramatically. However, related subjects such as maths still saw an increase in applications.
“Why? Because of the way that ICT is delivered in schools," said Mitchell. "Currently ICT focuses on user skills, software packages, products and business processes. It does not focus on creating digital technology. Under a computer science discipline, the focus will shift to how technology works and why it works.
“Digital literacy is currently taught, showing children how to be safe online, how to use Word, etc, but what we don’t have, and should have, is computer science and information technology. This can be taught successfully from primary school, for example, through the computing programme Scratch.”
Mitchell said he would like to see "team teaching" where several overlapping subjects work together in lunchtime and after-school clubs, for example maths, science and physics.
However, Neil Hopkin, executive headteacher at Rosendale Primary School in West Dulwich, said there was a danger of getting the new curriculum wrong because of a lack of understanding of what is really important – children’s engagement – and no age is too young to get started with engagement.
Hopkin gave the example of a two-year-old boy who managed to create a video presenting his own take on the TV show Fireman Sam. “Why was he able to do this years before he had even started on a school curriculum? Because he was engaged. It is not about coding. It is not about the consumers of IT or the producers of IT – it is about engaging,” he said.
In Hopkin’s opinion, we need to create something that understands the spirit of what we want children to achieve. After a scan of the room, he said: “I don’t see anyone here under the age of seven. It is patronising that we think we can design a curriculum without children at the heart. We’re leading the learners, but we should be making sure that the learners can do the leading.”
Every child leaving school should be "digitally literate"
Martin Harvey, E-skills UK
Specialist training needed for teachers
John Constable, headteacher at Langley Grammar School in Berkshire, said his school is fortunate enough to have some specialist staff, but acknowledged that it can be an issue for some schools to employ specialised ICT teachers.
Constable explained that Langley Grammar hosts days for visiting pupils, to introduce them to the world of ICT and show them computing in education, work and business.
The school also participates in several collaboration programmes, for example working with Hampton Court Palace. The school used Hampton Court’s maze to demonstrate programmable logic.
“Children are normally far more capable than what the current curriculum allows of them,” said Constable.
Martin Harvey, director of employability and entrepreneurship IT skills at E-skills UK, agreed. Every child leaving school should be “digitally literate”, he said.
According to Harvey, there is a 52% drop-out from ICT at GCSE level and 62% at A-Level: “This is not only sad, but economically disastrous too. £47bn and more than 500,000 new jobs could be made in the next five years if we were all to improve our use of IT.”
Harvey said the use of real-life challenges should be used in education more often, such as IBM and the all England tennis club creating modules around Wimbledon.
Dropping computer science university applications
Teaching children the value of computing skills in real-life challenges and the workplace was reiterated by Andrew Eland, engineering director of Google London. “Why is it important to teach children a more rigorous curriculum? My reason for this is a selfish one – because I’m always looking for new staff,” he said.
Eland said there has been a 23% fall in computer science applications at universities since 2002. “This is an astonishing fall. Technology is not just at work any more, but now touches the lives of children. Through smartphones and other technology trends that are growing, technology is more relevant to children now than it has ever been, so it is surprising that the amount of applications are dropping – something is clearly broken here,” he added.
When Google polled its engineers, it found that 90% had been exposed to computing in secondary school.
How will the new curriculum look in 2014?
Professor Steve Fuber, a professor of computing engineering at the school of computer science at the University of Manchester, gave several recommendations for the new curriculum.
“The curriculum should have three strands – digital literacy, computer science and information technology. We recommend that the Department for Education establishes schemes of work for each strand,” he said.
Fuber suggested that universities are lukewarm about A-Levels in ICT, so new courses are needed here. More specialist teachers, through recruitment and training, and a computer science GCSE in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) would also be welcomed.
The EBacc is a performance measure for students who secure good GCSE or accredited certificate passes in English, mathematics, history or geography, two sciences and an ancient or modern foreign language. The government intends for the EBacc to be viewed as one of the main measures of achievements.
Expanding on Fuber's recommendations for the curriculum, Mary-Jane Newman, head of product management and accreditation at AQA, said a GCSE in computer science has been developed and tested.
The qualification is a Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA), which can be delivered alongside a GCSE as an industry-recognised qualification.
“We linked with Microsoft on how to provide a new qualification that is relevant to the workplace and engaging. We then took the concepts we wanted and tested them with more than 200 schools,” she said.
AQA is working on a package as support for teachers and learners, through the use of webinars.
Encouraging more females into technology
In addition to sketching out the new curriculum, the issue of gender was raised several times during the forum, by both the panel and the audience. Sarah Lamb, founder of Girl Geek Dinners, drew attention to the fact that IT is a very male-dominated industry and that there is a lack of female role models for young girls to gain inspiration from.
“Without these examples available they ask teachers and family for advice on their careers, and this may be encouraging these stereotypes instead of showing them the possible career opportunities in IT. They are not told that eBay and Flickr were start-ups created by females,” said Lamb.
She explained that around puberty girls will lose their self-confidence, particularly in Maths and other STEM subjects. “There is no positive reinforcement for them to regain this confidence. Girls at that age do not want to stand out in class, if they excelled in one of these subjects, they just want to hide. They need to be made to shine gradually,” she added.
Desmond Deehan, headteacher at Townley Grammar School for girls in Kent, has 1,500 students at his school. After the introduction of an OCR GCSE in computer science, he said 80 students opted to take the course.
We have managed to turn kids off technology for life by boring them to death with Word, PowerPoint and Excel
Ian Livingstone, president, Eidos
The school recently took 30 of its girls to Silicon Valley, where female senior executives spoke to the students. Deehan said the image they saw of females in technology was very different in Silicon Valley to that in the UK, and the females in the US would visit schools to make young girls aware of the opportunities available to them.
“The arts and creativity is needed as part of subjects such as maths and ICT, especially for girls. They need meaningful contact with the industry, and a viable career opportunity which is publicised to compete with the other options available," he said.
Ian Livingstone, life president of gaming company Eidos, said girls in particular need to be encouraged from an early age, so they do not think of computer science as uncool or just for geeky nerds.
“Children have to choose between art or science at an early age, which is wrong. It shouldn’t be one or the other,” he said.
Livingstone, who created video games such as Warhammer and Tomb Raider, said games can be used in an educational way, citing Moshi Monsters as an example.
"We have managed to turn kids off technology for life by boring them to death with Word, PowerPoint and Excel. We need to empower these kids to be creative. Kids use applications, but they do not make applications," he said.
“We should welcome the radical statement from Michael Gove and view it as an opportunity to create a new curriculum," said Livingstone. "By the age of 11 children should be able to make 2D animations and then learn their own programming language from then on. Every child should have a Raspberry Pi – as they are only £22. From this September, we should grab the opportunity to introduce computer science into schools.”
Photo: Andreas Photography/Flickr