This morning I woke up to the rather alarming headline that “dull” ICT was to be dropped from the school curriculum to be replaced by computing. The story coming on the back of a department of education press release summarising a speech to be given later in the day by education minister Michael Gove.
I’ve learnt from experience to never judge a story by its headline, and the premise of the story that ICT would be dropped in favour of computing seems now a simplification if not a mistake. Nevertheless the speech did contain criticisms of the current ICT curriculum and described much ICT in schools as dull, this based on the recent OFSTED report similarly criticising much ICT teaching. But the speech did also mention excellent practice and teaching by some schools so it wasn’t all negative by any means. It is a fact that many schools spend inordinate amounts of time teaching students basic office software skills, not necessarily a waste of time but certainly not engaging for a large number of students. But contrary to Gove’s crticisms much of this isn’t necessarily down to the existing curriculum, which is fairly broad and flexible, it’s down as much to the play it safe attitude of schools and a lack of suitably qualified ICT and Computing teachers. ICT in many Secondary schools became a place to pick up league table points by offering GCSE level qualifications based on office skills and ticking boxes. Even in schools where this wasn’t the case the threat of Ofsted and school management lead many schools to feel uncomfortable innovating lest the inspectors or school review system should find out that that basics were not being covered. During my time as an ICT and Computing teacher I was lucky to be able to innovate and bring in new ideas but I was “told off” on more than one occasion for deviating too far from what the other teachers were teaching. This wasn’t a problem with what I was teaching but more a problem that we would find it harder to assess, compare or show we are meeting the same standards when different classes were not all learning the same stuff.
From my understanding, today’s announcement gives schools a much freer rein to teach ICT without worrying so much about ticking boxes or being checked up, it sounds like teachers will be given room for innovation… in a best case scenario. In a worst case scenario it could become a box ticking exercise of a different kind, where cross curricular ICT/Computing, both the dream and fear of every ICT teacher, is brought into schools. Cross curricular ICT is done successfully in some schools, where there are no or few discrete ICT lessons and students study different topics in different subjects, sometimes supported by ICT specialists. In reality it is very hard to get to work because in a traditional subject based school curriculum teachers tend to concentrate on teaching their own subject and any ICT would come second, and this is assuming the teachers have sufficient knowledge themselves.
The part of the speech today which I am very excited about is the promotion of computing in school. Computing isn’t a subject that every student will love or thrive at. But like many other subjects it’s important that students at least get to try it and learn some programming. The best coders who will truly bring about innovation and entrepreneurship in the future are not necessarily those who need teaching in detail, but at least giving them the chance to learn the basics could give many students a foundation to develop skills in their own time, ala the developers of the 1980s who graduated from the first generation of home computers to write software, games and create some of the household IT names we have today. The announcement by Gove promoting computing is some feat and a massive u-turn in many ways. Computing, always a niche subject, has gradually been dwindling over the last few years. A group, Computing at School was set up by teachers and industry just a few years ago to try and buck this trend and this group, along with industry pressure and pressure from a number of other interest groups they seem to have caught the ear of the government. It’s a major u-turn for many reasons, when the Conservatives came into power one of the first quangos they scrapped was Becta, the internationally renowned agency for technology in education. Not necessarily an anti technology move but it was easy to see it as such. Next was the promotion of traditional teaching and subjects such as latin. Not necessarily anti-technology but computers didn’t have a place in grammar school education of the past. Next was the e-bac, which included many subjects such as history or geography but not ICT or Computing. Finally last year Michael Gove didn’t even turn up at BETT (the UK based educational technology exhibition which draws people worldwide) a statement in itself.
Such a big u-turn should inspire extra confidence. But anyone who has been in state education knows that one government announcement doesn’t make real change. All teachers have had the experience of sitting in an INSET (compulsory teacher training) session learning about a new initiative to improve their teaching but in reality finding it another box ticking exercise or finding it scrapped or superceded a year later. A few years ago the government decided that ICT would be tested as a SAT exam in an onscreen test. I spent 3 days of training along with 2 other ICT colleagues preparing for this, as well as hours of classroom time running the test with students rather than teaching. Our network manager likewise spent hours configuring the software. Not long after we found that the “award winning” test had been scrapped, not just the cost of the project down the drain but all the teacher hours. Bringing computing into schools may also be a large financial investment but with support from industry and other organisations that is set to grow it may just work. There is already a scarcity of qualified ICT teachers in schools, teachers such as myself with a computer science degree are even rarer, but to teach computing to a certain level you don’t necessarily need a degree, you need patience, willpower, support, an abilility to learn but most importantly time to learn. It can happen and I hope it will happen but we’ll have to wait and see!
The truth of the program is in the compiling (or was it something with pudding and pies)