School IT is failing students and it is failing British businesses by driving students away from computing-based courses, or sending them out with poor skills. The question is, what are we to do about it?
Ofsted’s report into information communication technology (ICT) in primary and secondary schools (The Importance of ICT), published last week, confirms many concerns that computing departments in universities have about the school IT curriculum.
The report paints a worrying and damning picture of ICT in schools that threatens the IT profession, the future of UK computing departments and the wider economy. Put simply, after primary education, the IT curriculum is failing students and not preparing them for degrees and then careers in the IT industry.
The dismay of Ofsted inspectors is clear, for example they note that “...many students were following qualifications of doubtful value.”. Looking more deeply the report notes that “...standards in using spreadsheets, databases and programming remained low.”.
Furthermore, teachers gave too much emphasis to teaching students to use particular software applications. One may then ask, where's the challenge and excitement? The Ofsted report makes it clear that this is non-existent.
“Students were spending considerable time demonstrating proficiency in what they could already do..., rather than being introduced to new and more challenging material and skills.”
The report makes no mention of the confusion in the educational establishment between IT user skills and IT as a profession. This strikes at heart of the problem. Much of what is taught in schools is use of office packages.
Any parent can tell you that children are already adept at this by the end of their primary school education. The ability of students has been grossly underestimated. It is no wonder that the able students are put off.
It is no surprise that ICT qualifications become a vehicle for schools to meet league table targets. The Ofsted report notes that it is possible to gain twice the GCSE points with half the lessons with some ICT qualifications. Though GCSE and A-levels in ICT are also deficient, the implication is that ICT is something to give the weak students to do.
This is a national scandal in the making. The IT industry is key to the UK economy and poses some of the most difficult problems in our society. It requires bright, able students to graduate from our computing degrees.
The IT industry needs more from graduates, due to the challenges of globalisation. For universities to better deliver this, students need to be challenged and inspired at school, as the scope of a three-year degree to remedy earlier deficiencies is finite.
The above has clearly contributed to the fall in student numbers on computing degrees and the supply of highly skilled IT professionals. These concerns are not new. The 2007 Developing the Future report made this clear, along with earlier studies, for example from the British Computer Society. Recent reports by the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing provide clear evidence of the dismay felt by computing departments in this regard.
Attempts have been made to address this situation. City University London is one of the group of universities that supports the E-skills UK's RevitaliseIT campaign. E-Skills also runs the Computer Clubs for Girls initiative. There is no shortage of engagement in this regard but the options available cannot address the damage being done. The excitement needs to be in the classroom.
We need to have a clear separation of roles between 'use of IT' at primary school and the teaching of IT as a subject and profession at secondary school. We must bring the challenge and excitement of modern computing into the classroom, by offering real problems for students to solve by producing software solutions.
In this regard we are spoilt for choice. Robotics and artificial intelligence? Games programming? Business systems? Its there for the taking. We work in one of the most exciting professions, we just need to ensure that students get to see it.
This means that the IT profession and universities need to provide leadership. It requires us to confront those who presently gain from the currently insane state of affairs, and provide expertise and guidance to develop something we can be proud of.
Finally we need to support the teachers. I have met many hard-working, committed ICT teachers who wish to inspire their students in the way I have described above, but are frustrated that they cannot. They are trapped within a system not of their making. I have seen some leave the profession for that reason. Let us help them deliver the curriculum that our children deserve.