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John Spencer

Dr John Spencer began his teaching career in 1981 armed with a Sinclair ZX81, thereby demonstrating two things at once: Firstly he was in at the very start of ICT in the classroom and secondly he is a sucker for duff technology. Thereafter he taught joining a start-up open source company as their Head of Education in 2002. Now John is bringing his iconoclastic disposition and tendency to throw a spanner in the works to blogging.

You wait forever for a Computing GCSE and then 27 come along at once

Can they still deliver the GCSE? Of course they can, as only half of the 27 qualifications have any computing in them!

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By 2014, schools will be able to design their own ICT and Computing curriculum, which will enable them to respond to local needs. Naturally there will be limits to this otherwise unbounded freedom, in that schools will be able to pick ‘n mix from a suite of options. 

Sounds good?

This approach is a well-trodden path and is the system used by the BTEC vocational programmes. There will be 27 qualifications possible at Level 2 (meant for 16-year-olds), yes, that's right, 27 for ICT and Computing.

To quote from the guide:

All but one are standard GCSEs.

Of the 27 qualifications that will count  the 2014 
performance tables (not including Level 1 courses, IGCSEs 
or Level 3 courses)
11 are a mix of IT and Digital Literacy
10 are a mix of IT, Computer Science and (often) 
Digital Literacy
3 are devoted to Computer Science
2 are devoted to Digital Literacy
1 is devoted to IT
6 are GCSE qualifications. 5 include Computer Science. Most 
are a mix of IT and digital literacy.

There are many more, of course, but the key phrases above are: "all but one are standard GCSEs" and "that will count for the performance tables".

I am sure you appreciate that the qualification path is slightly more complex than before. I have a problem with this in itself, because elaboration (usually in the guise of increasing choice) is always, in my experience, the product of second-rate minds who think that they are really quite clever. I call it "Gordon Brown Syndrome". To illustrate, just think of the benefits system.

BTEC’s experience with menu-driven qualifications is very sobering. In reality, the course reflects the skill-set of the staff and the resources available to the school. It does not take a genius to work out that this means an enormous variation in the quality of delivery, from excellent, to truly dire.

To labour the point a bit, just consider that school X has clapped-out kit and clapped-out ICT teachers with no computing skills, is cash-strapped and has "pragmatic" leadership ( i.e. a typical school).  

Can they still deliver the GCSE? Of course they can, as only half of the 27 qualifications have any computing in them! In this scenario, "local needs" do not include the needs of the students, which brings me to my second point.

My experience with BTEC in science and computing has convinced me that even if you design a brilliant course from the "menu" that nourishes and challenges students, times change. Teachers leave and new ones arrive and the menu changes accordingly. This means that when you sign up as a student, you don’t actually know what you are going to get!

Compare the above to a hypothetical new qualification in Computing and IT. Imagine it is well-made, requires highly-qualified teachers and some investment in facilities to deliver it. Of course, this means that fewer schools will be driven to offer this subject, for exactly the reasons that favour the pick ‘n mix approach.

Now think about the students. Lucky blighters, that they would be, to opt for such a course.

But this is not what is proposed. What we have is the OPTION to change. Maybe this is better than before and I guess that is the judgement of the Government. You can actually feel the arrogance of civil servants as they sneer at the worthy-but-not-so-bright pedagogues writing their schema.

But I know what will happen in reality and so do you. Computing will make an appearance in a shiny Academy or two (that also offers Mandarin naturally) and for the rest it will actually get worse than it is even now, but don’t blame the Government, as they gave you a "choice".

One final thought - if you are a parent and struggle with the qualifications on offer right now,  then brace yourselves. If ICT GCSE’s reboot involved a 1:27 contention ratio, then if you apply this to a total of 9 subjects then there will be over 7 thousand billion combinations. 

Gordon would be so proud.

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