How changing the subject title from ICT to Computer Science in the National Curriculum won’t fix anything

Thomas Curtis thinks that Michael Gove is introducing a 'new crowd-pleasing policy' with 'no clear approach or time frame on how to actually start teaching it'.

Computer Science GCSE A Level

Ah BETT, always good for a laugh. The Better Education Through Technology show is a year event at The Olympia in London dedicated to offering solutions for today’s educational problems.

Walk through the event and you will find a myriad of vendors, suppliers and management companies peddling their wares, it often reminds me of some sort of travelling snake oil salesman. Got an under stimulated class? Try our new 3D projectors and screens! Going on a field trip, how about one of our nifty GPS tracking devices! Tablets, get your Android tablets here, nothing revolutionises education better than a £100 low spec Android tablet.

Roll up; Roll up, plenty for everyone.

Michael Gove Computer Science

Michael Gove announced that he was removing ICT from the national curriculum and replacing it with Computer Science

BETT is also the time for the Secretary of State for Education or similar government body to make an announcement about education or announce a new policy. This year was a doozy as the Right Honourable Michael Gove announced that he was removing ICT from the national curriculum and replacing it with Computer Science.
And the crowd went wild!

ICT has been the poster child for everything that is wrong with computing in education, but if you are not familiar with the subject as it is currently taught in schools, lets take a quick look at what is covered in the key stage 3 & 4 ICT program which covers children aged eleven to sixteen.

First, the outcomes of ICT are defined as:
Learning and undertaking activities in information and communication technology (ICT) contribute to achievement of the curriculum aims for all young people to become:    

  • successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve              
  • confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives   
  • responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.                           

I am not quite sure how ICT is supposed to help with those outcomes but the lack of any reference to technology doesn’t sound good. Perhaps its just the summary not wanting to get bogged down in details but if you read the explanatory notes accompanying the guide the information revealed is not encouraging.

2.2 Developing ideas:
c) Test predictions and discover patterns and relationships, exploring,
evaluating and developing models by changing their rules and values

Predictions and patten finding, sounds promising! Sadly the guideline recommends that this could be tested by altering variables and formulae in a spreadsheet model.
The question is, why do they suggest a spreadsheet when you can use Ruby, Python or Prolog which students can demonstrate similar results but the teacher can then explain why and how  they happened.

But wait, whats this in the very same section?

“e) Use ICT to make things happen by planning, testing and modifying a sequence of instructions, recognising where a group of instructions needs”

And the explanatory notes make the first mention of coding!

“..using HTML to create web pages and using other programming software and control programs.”

Computer Science GCSE A Level

However its one mention in a forest of ‘use, evaluate, present and describe’, but perhaps I am getting ahead of myself after all KS3 is for children aged eleven to fourteen and we need to cater to all abilities and frankly limited contact time. So what about KS4 (ages 14-16)? Surely after three years of ICT they are fully aware of what a computer is, what it can be used for and how to present that using office software. You would expect that these students are ready to start tinkering under the hood, however it appears to cover much of the same content as previous courses, for example:

The Develop efficient and effective ICT-based solutions to a range of problems requirement multimedia presentation, the suggested course work is defined as creating an interactive presentation or web presence and podcasting.

An interactive presentation! Get these kids to Silicon Valley because they are crying out for people with interactive presentation skills!

What about wider issues in computing? Do teachers discuss copyright with Students? Do they refer to legislature like DMCA, SOPA, The Digital Economy Act as a part of the Impact of ICT? Granted talking about the finer details of copyright law is probably a tad over the top but children need to understand the implications. After all, you can only use content created by others without their permission if the use is an educational one. This currently is not being taught in schools, if the students are conditioned to copy images without the consent of the original artist, will they think twice in later life?

Its clear that the former curriculum was failing children, changes needed to happen, but for those championing the return of Computer Science as a subject I have one question for you.

Who is going to be teaching those lessons?

The ICT Teacher.

We will have a brand new curriculum but most likely it will be taught by the same teachers, as identified there was ample scope for teaching programming in the old curriculum, yet the overriding theme of ICT was of ‘soft’ skills like presentation and office productivity packages.
But why is this? Why when there is scope in the existing curriculum do teachers concentrate on these topics?

Because these are the one they know.

In education there are some over used terms Digital immigrants and Digital natives but trite or not they readily explain the situation. They refer to the concept that we as adults have experienced a time before technology was fully immersed in our society, we are the digital immigrants. Our children do not know of a time before colour TV, before the Internet, before streaming before being able to share everything, with everyone. They are the digital natives, they will learn technology faster than you, adapt faster and will most likely end up teaching you how to use it.

Computer Science GCSE A Level

Programming is not easy, it can be beautiful but it can also be maddeningly infuriating. At the same time we need to create a program to train teachers, from scratch that will enable them to deliver this new curriculum in the full knowledge that it takes time to become a good programmer and longer to become an excellent one. It is clear that there are few Computer Scientist in schools, those that have the skills required find far less stressful and far more lucrative jobs in the private sector. It is going to take some heavy inducements for encourage Computer Scientist to leave those roles and become teachers and with the public sector pay freeze I do not see how this will be possible.

However I am worried that no one seems to have stopped to think if they would actually make good teachers? The skills needed for programming and teaching are vastly different, simply understanding your subject matter is only a part of teaching. It may be generalising but those who are at the top of the game in development may not have the patience to teach, it is certainly not a job for everyone.

With the ICT curriculum we were teaching future generations to use computers instead of understand them. I am excited about the possibilities that a new Computer Science program can offer; perhaps it will foster a new resurgence in bedroom coding similar to that which occurred in the 1980s. However what we have at the moment is a new crowd-pleasing policy, with no clear (at time of writing) approach or time frame on how to actually start teaching it.

Thomas Curtis is a tech devotee and former web developer  in education now running his own marketing company. He’s honest, passionate, hypercritical and expects the best, now. 

How much extra training will ICT teachers need in order to deliver Computer Science syllabuses? Does this mean skills based around ICT should no longer be taught - despite the fact that many people still lack basic and fundamental office software skills? Should Computer Science be compulsory – and should it be viewed as a fundamental skill? Should we be removing compulsory ICT altogether?  IS Computer Science really a replacement for ICT? Will Computer Science in schools just become an unattractive, and male dominated subject like physics? How can these issues be overcome?