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


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