Government lukewarm on IT education review

The government says IT teaching in the UK needs to be reformed, but has not committed to carrying through recommendations for achieving this

The teaching of ICT and computer science in UK schools needs to be reformed, the government said on Monday in response to a key review.

The government commissioned the Next Gen (PDF) report, written by representatives of the UK relatively successful video games and visual effects (VFX) industries, last year. The report was delivered in February and the government has now responded, albeit with no firm commitments to any specific policy changes.

However, industry bodies behind the report welcomed the response, pointing out that the government had at least finally acknowledged the difference between ICT and computer science.

"The economic and cultural value of the UK's video games and VFX sectors is clear and the long-term potential of their global markets present a great opportunity for UK-based businesses," creative industries minister Ed Vaizey said. "It is an industry that has real potential to create the high-quality jobs of the future that will be so important as we recover from the recession. We need to invest in talent that will ensure the UK remains at the forefront of games creativity."

The Next Gen review sought to change the current situation in school ICT education, where much of the syllabus is devoted to teaching people how to use Microsoft Word and Excel rather than how to write programs or understand the fundamentals of computer science.

The report contained 20 recommendations, many of which suggested specific steps that could be taken to draw more people into computer science. In its response (PDF) on Monday, the government turned down many of the recommendations.

One recommendation called for "online careers-related resources for teachers, careers advisers and young people". Here, the government said it was "not convinced that further resources are needed". Several recommendations were met with responses stating the government does not want to tell schools how to teach their students.

The government did acknowledge that "the current ICT programme is insufficiently rigorous and in need of reform". It pointed out that it was in the process of revising the national curriculum, although a spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) admitted on Monday that this review does not yet have an end date.

There is even a chance that ICT will be dropped from the curriculum altogether.

"The government recognises that, in the event of ICT not remaining part of the National Curriculum, attention would still need to be given to ensure children could acquire computer science skills," the response states. "The government would work with the sector to find the best way to achieve this."

The government said it supported E-Skills UK's 'Behind the Screen' pilot, which is working on possible changes to the IT GCSE curriculum. It also hailed the Raspberry Pi low-cost computing project, saying it "could provide the platform for teachers and pupils to gain hands on programming experience".

Upbeat welcome

Despite the lack of any firm official commitments, those behind the Next Gen report gave an upbeat welcome to the government's response.

The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) noted that the government had acknowledged "the crucial distinction between ICT and computer science". The National Endowment for Society, Technology and Arts (Nesta) said the government had "now committed to explore in the next few months how to get higher-quality computer science teaching in schools".

UKIE, Nesta and a variety of other players including Google, the British Computing Society and Microsoft, also announced a new campaign on Monday, aimed at making sure computer programming skills really do make it into the new curriculum.

Theo Blackwell, the manager of the Next Gen Skills campaign, told ZDNet UK on Monday that the government's response meant "doors have been opened to more formal and constructive conversations on a proper policy".

"Where we are now from where we were two months ago is a world of difference," Blackwell said. "What we need the government to do is join its thinking up between its various departments; to engage the Department for Education."

Blackwell particularly welcomed the government's recognition of the distinction between ICT and computer science. "ICT equips people on how to use computer programs, not create them. It's been used as a false proxy for computer science and programming," he said.

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