Why IT education is failing

There are a plethora of UK IT educational projects and initiatives but no focus or urgency to channel the energy of teachers, says entrepreneur, Rick Chandler.

In the mid 1980s, the UK led the world in the number of PCs in the classroom. 

The BBC Micro (1981) made by Acorn to support the BBC “The Computer Programme” series was eventually adopted by 85% of UK schools offering subjects including programming, graphics, sound and music, even controlling external devices and artificial intelligence.

In 1990, as head of IT for Education in one of the home counties, I rejected an order for 1,000 replacement BBC machines on the basis that by then MS DOS PCs were dominant and I felt that pupils deserved to learn on the same technologies, they would find in further education or future employers. I was overruled by the director of education on the basis that “it costs £1,800 a day to train teachers”.

Fifteen years later, as ICT link governor to a secondary school, I found that the computer science curriculum had barely changed. Teacher education had not advanced and pupils that had aspirations to study or work computer science were essentially self-taught at home.

Today, eight years later and despite a plethora of initiatives CS and IT education is still failing the needs of industry and the students.

I see a mismatch between the school curriculum and that of further education, which in turn, is out of touch with employers needs. Timescales for the implementation of new curriculums at school and university level are far too long.

Significant apprenticeship and training programmes are run by companies like BT and the financial services industry in an effort to grow the talent they need. 

One of the advantages of the “academy” programme is that schools are not compelled to use qualified teachers, so the educational bottlenecks could be bypassed by the use of input from local businesses. Real world examples of the use of IT could be demonstrated in lessons and pupils would see their relevance.

The current school cohort is digitally native; ICT is evident in every activity of their lives except their education. They are able to research, through the internet, every topic they need but lack a valid curriculum and teacher guidance on achieving it.

Provisions that are needed

Management consultant, Yva Thakurdas, told a meeting on IT skills at the House of Lords that there is no provision to-date to:

  •  Educate around 240,000 primary school teachers in this discipline                   
  •  Adjust the curriculum to allow for more than one lesson per week in computer science  
  •  Address the shortage in teachers in CS in secondary schools (e.g. some schools have no CS teachers and others are shared posts)
  •  Incorporate IT and digital literacy into training programmes for all subject teachers

We need to rebalance our school education to reposition computer studies as a foundational discipline which should be studied by every child to some degree,” said Simon Peyton Jones principal researcher at Microsoft.

Some 29,000 new entrants are required each year into the UK IT professional workforce; said Paul Coby CIO of John Lewis.  50% of these roles are recruited from non-Computing disciplines. Paradoxically unemployment for Computing graduates is the highest of all subjects, he said.

I feel that most subjects at A Level should have at least one module per week of relevant applied IT content. IT specialist teachers would not only take the “geeks” as far as they can, but also support colleagues in other subjects. Continuous professional development for all teachers should include IT aspects of their subjects. Part of the reason we are where we are is the isolation of IT and its delivery in schools as a business studies subject.

With the current consumerisation of IT, this will become inevitable soon. Pupils are already well ahead of the teachers and those teachers need some focused “wising up”. The speed of IT and social media development is faster than the established subject structure can cope with. These new technologies could be used to keep the teachers up to speed and “hands-on” whatever their subject.

There are a plethora of UK IT educational projects and initiatives but no focus or urgency to channel the energy of teachers anticipating a new visionary curriculum. It is time for industry to step up and show what they need.

IT education in schools is being held back by a shortage of skilled teachers and inadequate teacher training.

Rick Chandler is an entrepreneur, and specialist in mobility, identity and privacy

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