Government needs inspiring IT teachers to address chronic lack of specialists

The Royal Society is urging the government to increase the number of specialist ICT teachers as the current ICT curriculum is scrapped.

The Royal Society is urging the government to increase the number of specialist ICT teachers in the UK to support its decision to replace the ICT curriculum with one that focuses on the fundamentals of computer science.

Speaking at the BETT education IT trade show earlier this week, education minister Michael Gove announced  that the government is scrapping the teaching of the GCSE ICT curriculum in schools this September, with plans to replace the subject with the “rigorous” teaching of computer science and programming subjects

This has been welcomed by business and academia but challenges remain.  A report from the Royal Society, which is the UK’s national academy for science, highlights some challenges.

“Action is needed not only on the curriculum itself, but also to recruit and train many more inspiring teachers to reinvigorate pupils’ enthusiasm for computing,” says Professor Steve Furber, fellow of the Royal Society. 

“Thirty years ago I helped to design the BBC Micro, the first computer created to educate and inspire children of the potential of computer science. Yet today, when computers have become integral to every part of our lives, we see young people turned off by computing in schools.  We need a new generation of teachers to take up the challenge of enthusing future generations of young people,”

He says the Royal Society is heartened that the government plans to radically overhaul the National Curriculum programme,but other problems still need to be addressed.  

“The most significant factor affecting how well young people learn is the teacher in their classroom.  The majority of teachers [across subjects] are specialists, but ICT is an exception to the rule,” said Furber.

In its latest report, Shut down or Restart? The way forward for Computing in UK schools, the Royal Society analyses recent declines in numbers of young people studying computing at schools and the reasons for the declines.  

“Our study found some fantastic examples of teaching, but the fact remains that the majority of teachers are not specialists and we heard from young people that they often knew more than the teacher giving the lesson,” said Furber.

According to the report  there is a shortage of teachers with the right skills to support government plans. The Royal Society says only 35% of ICT teachers have relevant skills. This compares to 74% in mathematics, 76% in history, 80% in English and 88% in biology.

The report revealed a 60% decline in the numbers achieving A-level Computing since 2003, a 34% decline at ICT A Level over the same period, and a 57% decline in ICT GCSE.  It said a chronic lack of specialist teachers who can teach beyond basic digital literacy is a major contributor to these falling numbers.  

The report suggests that this might explain the finding that students’ ICT capability often outstrips their teacher’s subject knowledge. It recommends setting targets for the numbers of computer science and information technology specialist teachers, with bursaries provided to attract more suitably qualified graduates.

Kevin Streater, executive director for IT and telecoms at the Open University, says ICT has become “a very confused subject” and it is not clear what it is about.

It would be great to have computer science GCSE, A-Level and degree, he says.

Streater says IT teaching should be geared towards what the industry needs. For example competence in service management, cloud computing and big data requires a good foundation in computer science.

Open University teaches thousands of teaching students every year. Its online resources for teachers, such as Vital, include portals that give a general understanding of the use of technology, and teach how to use IT as part of other subject teaching, as well as specialist computer science teaching.

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