Merlin John Online

Nov 25th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Please update your Flash Player to view content.
Please update your Flash Player to view content.
Home Policy Curriculum 'Swap the E-Bacc for a T-Bacc' says Stephen Heppell

'Swap the E-Bacc for a T-Bacc' says Stephen Heppell

The looming ICT curriculum debacle brings calls for a fresh approach for England
Michael Gove MPThe Department for Education’s surprise decision to hand responsibility for the ICT curriculum to the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) is already stirring controversy.

The views of schools, teachers and learners are thought to have been sidelined, and one of the leading thinkers and practitioners  of learning with technology, Professor Stephen Heppell, said that it was time for education secretary Michael Gove MP to forget his E-Bacc and bring in a more relevant T-Bacc.

The DfE has signed a memorandum of understanding with the BCS and the RAEng to give them responsibility for producing the Progrmme of Study for the new ICT curriculum (see "Government hands over ICT curriculum to industry"). The dramatic schedule imposed on these organisations looks increasingly likely to compromise their ability to reach schools, teachers and learners, and make the task a poisoned chalice. The Programme of Study for the current ICT curriculum was "disapplied" (scrapped) by Michael Gove after he reported that industry considered it pedestrian and students regarded it as boring.

As well as questions about their own capability and capacity for the task there are also worries that the BCS and RAEng do not fully represent either schools or the ICT industry. It is understood that they have not involved the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) which represents the community of suppliers who create specific solutions for schools, for example educational software.

'I don't think the brand damage will be repaired with the E-Bacc,' warns Stephen Heppell

Professor Stephen HeppellThe problems facing the new curriculum are "complex”, warned Professor Heppell. Many subjects "are tech-dependant everywhere except at school where a special tech-free version of these subjects gets taught and tested".

“Our government and professional gainsayers have done a pretty damaging hatchet job on English education, one of our big earners and a hugely important cultural brand. Wales and Scotland have been relatively unscathed to date. I don't think the brand damage will be repaired with the E-Bacc (English Baccalaureate), with or without better computing and creativity.

“If you buy the need for a matriculation of some sort (cue another debate altogether), then what is needed is perhaps a T-Bacc (where T is technical) with subject content that really reflects this millennium and that means whole swathes of work that can only be attempted or completed through computational power, requiring ingenuity, collaborative endeavour, creativity, connectivity and modern internships. It would of course be über cool. Obviously coding and a broader constructivist maker culture needs to be a part of that. And it should be an international qualification, not an 'English' one.”

It’s not just the perceived narrowness of the curriculum project that is causing concern – the BCS is associated with the computer science area of the curriculum rather than the wider ICT brief, and the RAEng is not exactly well known in education – but the failure to sufficiently involve the people at the heart of education, learners and teachers.

'Akin to teaching a painting lesson with just black and white paint' – Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor, headteacher of St Nicholas C of E Primary School, Blackpool, and an active representative of the National Association of Headteachers, warns on his bog on The Educator's PLN that “the ICT educational world is holding its collective breath about the DFE’s handing of the ICT PoS to BCS...

“Essentially an ICT curriculum without the input of professionals working in schools with the children and inspiring them and motivating them to learn is akin to teaching a painting lesson with just black and white paint. Primary education is about lighting a fire of learning which burns with children as they move through the compulsory phase of education. Only that way will they stay motivated and see a relevance.

“We have experienced 20 years of prescription ever since the introduction of the original national curriculum and have delivered a politically driven curriculum which teachers have tried valiantly to make interesting. Mr Gove has said he wants to hear from teachers and the profession. It’s now in the hands of the British Computer Society to make recommendations about the new ICT entitlement. I am sure that they will consult with the profession and take on board the impact of work such as that carried out by Dave Mitchell at Heathfield in Bolton. Consigning Dave and his children to a life of code when standards have risen so dramatically would be criminal.”

Similar sentiments are being expressed by secondary school leaders. Paul Hynes, vice-principal of George Spencer Academy, Nottingham, says: "As an assistant headteacher in a secondary school with responsibility for ICT and computer science I very much welcome the action on this issue. It has been a long time coming.

"But I have some reservations about the time scale and the fact that this brief period for a consultation seems to be restricted to an unknown group of people. I am anxious that teachers and pupils should have a say in the new programme of study. We need to make sure that the opinions of the learners are also sought for the consultation"

'Unthinkably foolish, unutterably irrelevant'

For Professor Stephen Heppell, however, the whole context of the reforms, as well as the approach, is completely out of touch with current needs. “The fundamental problem is that in a world where collaboration, coursework, stretchingly extended projects and time immersion are largely squeezed out by a mantra of time-limited solo exit examinations, a lot of key subjects – from art and music, to design technology and computation – will struggle to ‘test’ students in an O-level way.

“Many folk will remember before the ridiculous nature of a set of questions ‘about’ computer science rather than being about actually ‘doing’ programming and beyond. So what do we get this time around? A multiple-choice test on Python? Spot the syntax errors in a swathe of Ruby on Rails code? Guess the pin-out values on a Raspberry Pi? Unthinkably foolish, unutterably irrelevant.

“Back at BETT, post-Livingstone Hope and post-Eric Schmidt, our secretary of state said, wisely, that the industry thought what was being done with computers in school was irrelevant, the kids had told him it was boring, and it needed sorting out. So I guess the short answer is that whatever pain is inflicted on computer science to make it fit the E.Bacc will be unlikely to make it relevant to our creative and high-tech industries and will not be likely to delight children either.

"Lots of good folk are involved in the attempt, although no students (oddly, since their engagement is surely one of Michael Gove's criteria?), and you would wish them all huge amounts of good luck. But surely it is time for a world class, global, third millennium T-Bacc and that is where our efforts should be directed?”

'ICT teachers regard programming a low priority for computer science'

Ironically, these new developments come at a time when research by National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) reveals that ICT teachers think that computer programming is a low priority for the forthcoming computer science curriculum. Out of a sample of 770 ICT teachers only 14 per cent thought that computer programming would be a high priority for their schools, while 30 per cent thought it would be a low priority and "12 per cent reported it was not a priority at all".

More than half of those consulted (55 per cent) said they felt 'very confident" or "confident" about "teaching a more flexible ICT/computer science course, a notable minority (18 per cent) reported ‘not being very confident’ or ‘not at all confident’".

“The findings suggest that more work needs to be done in equipping ICT teachers with the skills and expertise required to teach computer science and in communicating to them why it is needed,” warned NFER research manager Matt Walker.

NFER research announcement

Comments (7)
7 Thursday, 18 October 2012 13:59
Crispin Weston
Stephen and Merlin,    
I am very pleased to hear that you are both so critical of huffing and puffing and of personal attacks.   But I need to point out...    
1. if 'Unthinkably foolish, unutterably irrelevant' is not huffing and puffing, then I would like to see Stephen when he *is* trying to blow someone's house down.    
2. Merlin, you say that "Professor Stephen Heppell is a highly respected educator whose expertise is sought by governments worldwide" and that he is "one of the leading thinkers and practitioners of learning with technology". If that is not a puff then I am not sure what is. If you make an argument, Merlin, on the basis of Stephen's personal reputation, then you bring personality into the debate and you cannot complain if others attack that reputation. The reason why I attack an argument based on personal reputation is precisely because I do *not* want to see the argument being swayed by personality. I want to debate the issues - and if you read my blog, then I hope you will agree that I do that with some care and thought (though I have to admit that in my most recent post I did give you a slight puff too).    
However, I am grateful to Stephen for posting a reply and I for one would be very happy to discuss the issues constructively - which is what needs to be done if those who support the use of technology to improve learning in schools (not necessarily part of the current debate about the curriculum) are to put a case to government that is as convincing a possible.    
I am well aware, Stephen, of your opposition to the curriculum of Office and PowerPoint, as well as your support for Papert's constructionist pedagogies (me too). What I said was that the development of ICT in the 2000s occurred "very substantially under your influence", Which is a point supported by Merlin when he talks about your influence on governments - in which is certainly included the UK government of the early 2000s. It is one thing to have influence over policy and another necessarily to be happy with where that policy turns out. We cannot always predict the consequences even of our own actions.    
My case is that thinking behind the concept of "ICT" was unhelpful in two main respects:    
1. "ICT" was meant to be so much more than a specialist subject with a well-defined, academic syllabus. It was meant to permeate and revolutionise the whole curriculum and enable a whole new style of learning (which is what you are still arguing with the T-Bacc). If, I as contend, that vision was unrealistic, then it is hardly surprising that ICT should end up as so much *less* than a well-defined academic subject. Although Word and PowerPoint were not the kind of collaborative tools that you might have preferred to see coming to the fore, they are at least widely used in other subjects. So their primacy in the ICT syllabus follows quite logically from your position, that ICT should be seen as the enabler of learning across the curriculum.    
2. I am not so much interested in the teaching of technology as a subject, as much as in how we use technology to improve teaching and learning across the curriculum. The consequence of your conception of ICT is that there was a strong thread in New Labour Policy, running particularly strongly in the Rose Review, that ICT was the new literacy, and so the way that technology was going to improve the quality of teaching and learning was through the *teaching* of ICT as a subject. And that meant that transformation needed to be led by teachers or - more radical still, by students. But the truth is that neither have the resources, skills or motivation to lead such a complex transformation and they never will.    
The theory diverted attention from the possibilities for a completely different type of transformation, led by industry innovation, creating education-specific applications that will largely work out of the box. If you look at almost any other sector, that is how transformation is generally achieved. Such industry-led innovation was *also* suppressed by government procurement policy - so the confused definition of "ICT" was only of many contributing factors - but I think it was a significant one.    
The two (and maybe more than two) approaches need not be incompatible. I am not against immersive projects and cross-curricula work. But the relevance of technology to other subjects is a matter for specialists in those other subjects to decide, not the technologists. I am all in favour of using technology to enable creative projects. But as I have argued in my post on Sir Ken Robinson (and I have seen you making the same point by putting a coaster on your head) creativity is difficult and generally needs prior knowledge and skill. The lesson that I draw from that point is that creative work is developed (and not suppressed) by good quality, traditional teaching.    
Re. the argument about end-of-course exams, which is what you were attacking in particular, it is surely perfectly common in a subject like Art to have a one- or two-day end-of-course practical under controlled conditions. Why should you not have a similar approach to computer programming? The move to "O" level style exams means moving to *less* structured questions in exams - in the humanities, for example, moving back to essays instead of formulaic short paragraph answers. The direction of movement is the opposite to what you are suggesting. Coursework certainly would allow extensive creative work, of course, but in asserting that this is the answer, you do not address the many problems that have been identified with coursework (such as cheating by middle class children with helpful parents). How can anyone take seriously and argument which just pretends the counter-arguments do not exist?    
Even after a second, careful reading of Merlin's piece, it seems to me clear that you are not just complaining about the end-of-course exams but also about subject-specialisation. Maybe I misunderstand the implications of the term "T-Bacc", but to me it implies that you see technology permeating the whole curriculum and not just being taught in a single, specialised discipline. Which takes us back to your original argument for ICT, which we both agree did not turn out well.    
I have made these arguments in more detail on my blog ( and would of course welcome your comments there. But if you do not wish to engage in that debate - and I quite understand that you do not have time to debate with everyone - then I would at least have expected you to have made a substantive response to the Royal Society report ("Shut down or restart"), which echoes my own post ("Scrapping ICT"), when it makes a detailed case against the term "ICT". By your own account, this term and much of the philosophy that lay behind the term, was created by you.    
Merlin. Rest assured that I have nothing to do with the new draft PoS and as I say above, the *teaching* of technology is not my primary interest. Not being interested in personality either, I am not that bothered who is doing the work - but I shall certainly be interested to see the result, when it is produced. That is when I shall make my judgement.    
6 Wednesday, 17 October 2012 21:14
Tony Parkin
So glad that Stephen has taken the time to correct some of Crispin's wilder statements... I had been mulling a reply of my own, but was waiting to let indignation settle. And as ever Stephen has said it better that I would have anyway! :)
The bit that had me 'huffing and puffing' was the part laying blame for the dodgy 'boring' curriculum at the Heppell door – an appalling distortion. Those of us who remember the wonderful conferences in the early 1990s up at the University of East Anglia will remember it as a haven for those railing against the errors being introduced in the new curriculum – with Stephen at the forefront! I still have the t-shirt 'Never mind the technology, what about the learning?' Stephen was the first opinion leader I ever heard talking about the importance of children as makers and creators. I reckon that was about 1986 - and he was probably saying it before then, but that was when I first appeared on the scene and heard it.
I was inspired enough to work with a colleague on creating a multimedia toolkit to try and let RM Nimbus users (remember them?) experience some of the creative delights he described. Trying to merge the best of Seymour Papert's LOGO and Bill Atkinson's Hypercard. Great fun... terrible timing, cos along came the dull, dull, curriculum.  :)
Only now are we seeing a larger body of educators catching up with this creativity dimension. I paraphrase from Sir Ken Robinson, on being asked on the radio on the 10th anniversary of his report on creativity, what he would have changed with hindsight. "Asolutely nothing, because they haven't implemented any of it yet!" Stephen has also consistently pressed this message for more than quarter of a century – you need to look elsewhere to lay off your blame, Crispin!
5 Wednesday, 17 October 2012 20:17
Bob Harrison
I am not going to respond to Crispin as life is too short and I have fallen into that trap before! Needless to say he is wrong again on so many counts. I am one of the privileged "stakeholders" involved in the drafting of the new PoS and suggest you have a look at Peter Twining's blog for the latest insights
4 Wednesday, 17 October 2012 18:38
Stephen Heppell
Can I just clarify a few of Crispin's misunderstandings, and perhaps calm his huffing and puffing? The existing ICT curriculum  was most certainly not "very substantially created under Heppell's influence". I have been a very vocal and implacable opponent of it from even before it was published. Indeed QCA were kind enough to allow some of us to pioneer a radical alternative to KS4 ICT, much lauded at the time, in the eVIVA project.  
I have been a consistent lifelong supporter of children programming - from my own early days teaching Logo, Prolog and Lisp through to Scratch today and beyond - indeed my central feature stand at the BETT Show last year featured a group of children learning to programme from (and with) Scratch in four days, eliciting much discussion. One of my current PhD students is looking at what can/should happen in the pre-school and early years to cue children up for a better ICT curriculum with programming and a constructivist 'maker' culture at its heart. And of course, after spending so many years helping steer the creative industries along I was bound to be full square behind Ian Livinstone's helpful NextGen report and have been loud and clear in my support. I even warmly applauded Michael Gove for saying last year at BETT that the industry thought the ICT curriculum was irrelevant, the kids thought it was boring and as SoS he didn't know, so wanted the industry to sort it out and quickly. Wise words.    
I do appreciate that Crispin is busy at the moment, but if he had read, rather than grumpily skimming, Merlin's piece he would have seen (my words clearly in inverted commas) that the bit I was describing as "Unthinkably foolish, unutterably irrelevant" was the final examination-only based E.Bacc and was (and am) concerned that "a lot of key subjects – from art and music, to design technology and computation – will struggle to ‘test’ students in an O-level way" and will be/are being marginalised if they can't be. I taught and examined enough computer science to know how hard that is. My twopennyworth is to push for a different sort of matriculation, a T.Bacc, with technologically rich and relevant subjects, with ingenuity as well as creativity rewarded, and at its heart substantial projects and internships that might keep subjects grounded.  
OF COURSE I have always fought hard and vocally for "pupil-friendly programming environments such as Scratch, educational microcontroller kits such as PICAXE and Arduino, and robot kits such as Lego Mindstorms" and Hypercard and ToolBook too in the past too – the problem is how to accredit them in a world of E.Bacc terminal exams and not end up with them treated as second class subjects. I am pleased however, that the whole T.Bacc idea is gaining a lot of traction – not the least at the current party conference rounds,     
I don't expect that Crispin will apologise, but I am heartened by the very widespread laughter at his suggestion that I would in any sense have endorsed the dismal ICT curriculum of Office and Powerpoint, given my track record of opposition - including at BCS events!. It afforded me a decent chuckle too. Every cloud...
3 Wednesday, 17 October 2012 17:11
Merlin John
I'm not aware of any "endless puffing up of Stephen Heppell" and you certainly won't find any on this site. Professor Stephen Heppell is a highly respected educator whose expertise is sought by governments worldwide who want to improve learning. I just hope they are pinging emails in your direction too. I'm disappointed that you have chosen to personalise the debate about curriculum reform with what are rather unpleasant and erroneous remarks about Stephen Heppell (he had a hand in the Stevenson Report which informed the Blair Government strategy – yes, it had a strategy for ICT and learning - but he was not responsible for the ICT curriculum). Why don't you extend your personal focus to the expertise in learning of the architects of the new ICT Programme of Study? Most people in the education community don't even know who they are.
2 Wednesday, 17 October 2012 09:10
Crispin Weston
I grow rather tired of this endless puffing up of Stephen Heppell as the great wise one - and the deferential recital of his increasingly shrill pronouncements. Who is Heppell to call this initiative "unthinkably foolish, unutterably irrelevant" when there is such a widespread consensus that the existing ICT curriculum (very substantially created under Heppell's influence) has been such a disaster - and that industry is crying out for students with a better grasp of computer science ?   Who has ever said that the new Computer Science curriculum is likely to consist of multiple choices tests on Python? The RCS report specifically recommends "pupil-friendly programming environments such as Scratch, educational microcontroller kits such as PICAXE and Arduino, and robot kits such as Lego Mindstorms" ( page 9). It is not the mark of a respectable academic to set up false bogeymen in order to look good knocking them down.   By his own account, Professor Heppell was "the man who put the C into ICT" (see my blog at The RCS report (see link above) is damning about ICT. Where is Professor Heppell's response to the RCS's closely argued criticisms? and if he has not made one, why should anyone continue to take him seriously?
1 Friday, 05 October 2012 15:40
john Hobson
Completely agree that the Gove et al on the one hand seem to want a Victorian curriculum yet on the other want to totally disreguard technology, creative arts and digital literacy. Whilst the CS lobby has won the argument, the victory is likely to be pyrrhic as who is going to code in primary schools never mind find teachers confifdent enough to go beyond tinkering with Scratch at secondary? Or maybe in reality Kodu is going to be sum total of this change.
However, the ICT lobby has only itself to blame. Having spent years castigating OCR Nationals,  the only alternative they had was ICT GCSE which is mostly writing word-processed reports full of screenshots about using Office! My students utterly loath it.
Instead of worrrying about things I can't change I'm actively puting together what could be termed a T-Bacc. With 3d printing on the horizon there are going to fundamental changes to manufacture hence technology, the creative arts and IT that Gove's EBACC and CS model totally miss.

Add your comment

Your name:
Your email:
Your website:
Please update your Flash Player to view content.