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Michael Gove heralds an ICT education revolution

13 January 2012

Following my comments in a previous leader about Cisco's survey into young peoples' attitudes to mobile computing and the Internet, I couldn't exactly ignore education secretary Michael Gove's unequivocal attack last week on the current state of ICT (information and communications technology) teaching in UK schools. Vowing to scrap the current curriculum, which he claims sees children “bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers”, he proposes in its place, to introduce new courses of study in computer science.

The IT industry wasted no time in congratulating the secretary of state; these changes are long overdue, they say, echoing recent comments by prominent industry figures like Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, who accuse the nation’s education system of betraying our great heritage in computer science.

From September, the current programme of study will be withdrawn. Technology in schools will no longer be “micro-managed by Whitehall” and teachers will be given freedom over what, and how, to teach. Moreover, universities, businesses and others will have the opportunity to devise new courses and exams, and to create computer science GCSEs and curricula that will encourage schools to make use of computer science content available on the web.

Mr Gove wants to see 11 year-olds writing simple 2D computer animations using tools such as MIT’s Scratch. By 16, he says, pupils should have an understanding of formal logic that previously would only have been covered by university courses, enabling them to write their own Apps for smartphones.

Richard Allan, director of policy at Facebook, Europe, welcomed the announcement, saying that we need to improve our young peoples’ skills in this area for the UK to be truly competitive in the digital age. He also welcomes the secretary of state’s invitation to businesses to play their part in helping to equip young people with the digital skills they need.

Like others disenchanted by the progress of ICT teaching in schools, Facebook has grasped the initiative, recently working with partners Apps for Good, A4e and ‘Techlightenment’ to develop a programme giving young people the chance to learn how to design, code and build social applications.

Other organisations, including the British Computer Society and ICT professional association Naace, also believe the current curriculum to be dull and unsatisfactory. Some respondents to a 2008 e-Skills study said that GCSE ICT was “so harmful, boring and/or irrelevant it should simply be scrapped”. Microsoft, Google and Cambridge University are already working with organisations, such as the British Computer Society, to produce free materials for schools, and more are expected to follow.

Naace general manager, Bernadette Brooks, described the move as an “extraordinary step”. The only constant in ICT is change, she says, and teachers will see this as their opportunity to bring innovation and creativity to their classrooms. Like its industry peers, Naace is already working with partner associations, teachers, pupils, school leaders and commercial organisations to develop new curricula and supporting materials that it hopes will prove world class.

Joining the chorus of approval, Liz Wilkins, who is the senior marketing manager for Adobe Education UK, says this positive move will not only increase student engagement but also support the development of creative skills required by today’s employers. Technological change continues at an exponential rate, she adds, and every school pupil today has grown up with PCs and technology around them, unaware that a world before the Internet ever existed. “Traditional ICT classes - often run in isolation to the rest of the syllabus - no longer meet the needs of our young people, having stifled creativity and held back pupil progress.”

Ms Wilkins believes that, to have a real impact, schools must make technology integral to each and every part of the curriculum, incorporating it across the syllabus rather than treating it as a discrete subject. “With the right framework and support from teachers, this approach has the potential to transform lessons by encouraging creativity and a deeper level of pupil engagement. Students will benefit from developing industry standard skills in preparation for University and the world of work.”

By no means the least of all those encouraged by Michael Gove’s announcement is the British Computer Society, whose Academy of Computing director, Bill Mitchell bemoans the shortage of both intellectually challenging GCSE qualifications and teachers with expert computer science knowledge. “It is vitally important that schools are able to offer computer science as part of the curriculum in order for the UK to remain at the forefront of the digital revolution and economy,” he says. “If we do this successfully we will be able to give children the opportunity not only to use technology but also to be creative and innovative through computing and have the opportunity to be the entrepreneurs and innovators of the future.”

Les Hunt

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