After building a consensus for the draft ICT programme of study, the project has hit controversy

Essa AcademyThe British Computer Society (BCS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) have gone behind the backs of their education partners in the group producing the draft Programme of Study for the new ICT curriculum – which includes Naace – and made a personal plea to secretary of state for education Michael Gove MP to change the name of the subject from ICT to Computing.

This flies in the face of a previous agreement by the group that a change in name for the subject was not up for discussion because it would require legislation. It is also felt to be unsuitable for a wide-ranging subject that goes way beyond the current debate about programming.

According to the draft programme of study that the BCS and RAEng has just submitted to Michael Gove, Computing is just one strand in the much wider ranging subject of ICT (information and communications technology). As one school leader involved quipped, "It's a bit like calling a car a steering wheel rather than a car. Computing is just a component of ICT."

The secretary of state's decision to hand over development of the Programme of Study for the new ICT curriculum to the BCS and RAEng rather than than the English education community was seen as unusual from the outset (see "Government hands ICT curriculum over to industry"). These two organisations were associated specifically with computer science rather than the broader approach to ICT which includes ICT across all subjects as well as computer science which clearly needed more development.

In fact it was only feedback given at the last public meeting in London to discuss the first draft of the ICT PoS that the DfE was alerted to the fact that ICT ought to be at least mentioned in other curriculum subjects. It's understood that English, for example has no mention of the benefits that technology can bring to writing.

Mistrust where there was once consensus

The decision to try and change the name of the subject at such a late stage, and without a full discussion with partners, is regarded by partners of the BCS and RAEng as underhand. There is now mistrust where once there was consensus.

The two organisations, which are not known for expertise in teaching and learning, had been required to involve a range of education people. The list included Naace, the member organisation made up of advisers, teachers and consultants. Despite them being fairly uneasy bedfellows (educators felt that the BCS and RAEng were making an unjustifiable 'grab' for the curriculum – see footnote) the feedback from the project was generally positive and the draft was generally well received before it underwent final modification after feedback from educators.

The PoS has certainly become more realistic even though the computing element may not yet be deliverable by the current workforce. Gone are the plans to get infants involved with programming and algorithms, but not the uninspiring first vision statement with its stress on "computational thinking" which might not appeal much further than the technology community: "A high-quality ICT education equips pupils to understand and change the world through computational thinking, and provides a sense of empowerment and excitement in developing and using digital technology."

Separate letters to Gove

However, the last-minute bid to change the name of the subject revealed something that the BCS and RAEng had on their agenda all along. The BCS' Bill Mitchell, who has lobbied Michael Gove for the name change, said this week: "The BCS and the Royal Academy of Engineering fully backed the Royal Society report when it was published in January this year, which includes the recommendation that the name ICT should be changed to Computing.

"Bill MitchellBCS has not pursued that recommendation because we had thought it required primary legislation and therefore was out of the question, but very recently we found out this isn’t the case. That means it now appears DfE could choose to change the name of ICT if they wished to without requiring primary legislation. Whether they do wish to is not something I have any knowledge of.

"In light of this, BCS and the Royal Academy of Engineering have each sent separate letters to Michael Gove reminding him that we have always supported the recommendations of the Royal Society report including such a change of name."

Bill Mitchell claimed that had he thought the name change was possible at the outset, he would have raised it with Michael Gove then. However, that is not likely to placate partners who are now experiencing trust issues.

Naace chief executive Mark Chambers feels that Computing is far too limiting for a subject with such broad scope. He said: "I am very much of the position that any consideration of a name change should be subject to the same healthy debate that the drafting of the PoS has been noted for. And I think the wider membership of Naace, would not start that debate with a fixed and blinkered viewpoint but a willingness to engage in a mature, constructive and productive manner that has as its ambition and focus a recognition that what is important is that young people are engaged.

'Lobby group come lately to an enthusiasm for school-level education'

"I’d go so far as to say, the name of this subject area should be a persuasive appellation that by its nature encourages young people to engage with this, in our opinion, vital aspect of the curriculum rather than simply reflects the opinion of a lobby group come lately to an enthusiasm for school-level education.

'I have been pleased to report to Naace members the open and positive dialogue that has characterised the workings of the drafting team bought together by BCS/RAEng. As a community we have responded to this, sharing our enthusiasm, knowledge and experience in the full recognition that the existing ICT curriculum needs not only to be reviewed now but reviewed far more frequently than any other aspect of the English curriculum.

"As technologists we should be able to handle this change technically, as educators we can certainly handle it pedagogically and as a mature fellowship we can certainly handle it without being insecure about a title change.

Controversy stirred up by the back-door approach to Michael Gove might not reflect well on the Computing at School organisation in which Bill Mitchell and the BCS are major players. CaS is currently building a "network of excellence" to help schools build their capacity for teaching Computing.

"Our goal is to put the excitement back into Computing at school," says the "About us" section on the Computing at School website. However, the name-change spat is probably not the kind of excitement the organisation's sponsors, Microsoft and Google, had in mind when giving their support, particularly after Michael Gove referred to children being "bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers" in his speech on ICT at BETT 2012. (Interestingly, the ICT curriculum contained nothing that remotely suggests such classroom practices. Pedestrian use of Office in ICT lessons can only be attributed to certain teachers, advisers and school leaders rather than the curriculum or even Microsoft.)

Technology required for Computing 'is very cheap'

When Michael Gove considers the curriculum name change he might want to return to the Royal Society report so cherished by the BCS and RAEng: "Given the lack of specialist teachers, we recommend that only the teaching of digital literacy is made statutory at this point." It says that enabling all children to learn ICT and Computer Science at school should be a long-term aim, something that should be supported by a Government action plan which is, so far, not in place. And the indications are that the Government feels that Computing is something which can be done cheaply with technology like Scratch and the Raspberry Pi, despite the obvious challenges to the workforce, as the following Hansard record of recent parliamentary exchanges reveals.

For example, schools minister Liz Truss, replying to a question on mobile technology by Barry Sheerman MP. Her response has nothing to do with tablets or laptops, but everything to do with "cheap" technology for Computing, which will surprise educators.

"3. Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to encourage the use of laptops and tablets in the school learning process. [130871]

"The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): Technology provides a great opportunity to get high-quality teaching materials and experiences from around the world into our classrooms, but it is key to remember that the quality of teaching is paramount in educational achievement. That is why we have given heads the power over their own budgets to decide how best to spend money.

"Mr Sheerman: The Minister will not be surprised to find me disagreeing with her analysis. The fact is that there is a growing digital divide between schools that take technology seriously as a way of learning and those that do not. It is up to this Government, who got rid of the Department’s e-learning unit, to realise that leadership in this respect will take us to an educational system for the future.

"Elizabeth Truss: We are extremely keen as a Government that children do not just use technology but understand how it works because they are able to code and programme from an early age. We are working with leading experts to develop programmes in computing so that children are able to do that. In fact, the technology needed to achieve it is very cheap. A parent or school can get Scratch from Massachusetts Institute of Technology for free and the Raspberry Pi device for under £20. This is not an issue of funding but of teaching and inspiration, and the leadership that we are showing."

MMIT's 'Scratch: favoured by education minister because it's free

 

More information

BCS is now lobbying for Computer Science to be included in the English Baccalaureate in its new report, "The Case for Computer Science as an Option in the English Baccalaureate", according to an article in SecEd. In that article Bill Mitchell is quoted as saying: “We need computer science to be a significant part of a renewed ICT curriculum that also encompasses digital literacy and information technology"



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