IT teaching to get radical shake-up

Calling the current ICT syllabus 'harmful and dull', education secretary Michael Gove has said it will be scrapped and lessons will focus more on the basics of programming than on the use of Microsoft Word
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Computing education in schools is to be radically altered to focus on "rigorous" computer science and programming, with curricula that will not be defined by government, education secretary Michael Gove has revealed.

Michael Gove MP

Education secretary Michael Gove has announced broad changes to the teaching of IT in the UK, ditching 'boring' ICT in favour of computer science and programming. Image credit: Conservative Party/Flickr

The current ICT syllabus is 'harmful and dull', Gove said at the BETT educational technology show on Wednesday.

"Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum," Gove told the audience in London. "Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch."

Efforts like the Raspberry Pi project to build low-cost Linux-based computers will give children the chance to learn the basics of programming and generate the same appetite for computing that the BBC Micro did in the 1980s, he added.

Gove said that by 16, children "could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for smartphones". Curricula should emphasise problem-solving and programming skills, rather than how to use specific software, he said.

The education secretary called on universities and businesses to develop curricula and exams, including new computing GCSEs. Under the government plans, schools will have to teach computing-related subjects, but will be free to choose curricula. Schools will be free to choose their own ICT curiculum from September 2012. A new version of the National Curriculum, which may include ICT, will be brought in in September 2014.

In an open-source world, why should we accept that a curriculum is a single, static document? 
– Michael Gove MP

"In an open-source world, why should we accept that a curriculum is a single, static document?" Gove said. "[We need a] collaborative approach to developing new curriculum materials; using technological platforms to their full advantage... This means freedom and autonomy."

The British Computer Society (BCS), which lobbied the government in 2011 in its review of computing in the National Curriculum, welcomed the minister's speech. It is "absolutely tremendous that we've got the secretary of state for education saying ICT is important", Bill Mitchell, director of the BCS Academy, told ZDNet UK. 

"One problem is: where are the government going to get computer science teachers from?" he asked. The UK's general shortage of people with high-level IT skills extends to teachers, which could put a spike in the government's plans, Mitchell noted.

Teachers' skills 

In December, Ofsted said lacklustre teaching of IT meant that thousands of children are leaving school without the skills to pursue a career in technology. Another "huge problem" with the plans will be to give head teachers a reason to improve IT teachers' skills, Mitchell said, given that a major performance measure for schools, the 'English Baccalaureate', does not include ICT.

The timing of changes to the National Curriculum needs to allow teachers time to train, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) said in response to the announcement.

"The consultation on ICT should... be considered in the context of the current review of the National Curriculum and any changes made to the ICT curriculum in schools should happen at the same time," said NUT general secretary Christine Blower in a statement. "Piecemeal changes only disrupt the preparation that teachers have to make when initiatives are introduced."

In a written ministerial statement on Wednesday, Gove said the Department for Education will launch a consultation on the government plans shortly.

Business involvement

Facebook, which has been involved in formulating social app-development courses for children, welcomed the plans.

"We need to improve our young people's skills in this area for the UK to be truly competitive in the digital age," said Richard Allan, Facebook's director of policy for Europe. "By creating space in the curriculum for teaching courses like this that are innovative and relevant for young people, government will boost the spread of skills that benefit both individuals and employers."

While large technology companies are already playing a part in developing syllabuses, small UK businesses could find themselves left out, Mitchell suggested.

"Nibble-sized companies may not get their voice heard," he said. "I struggle to see how they will put forward their views on how computer science should be run in schools."

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