Has Gove Saved the UK IT Industry?

The last six months or so have seen some dramatic changes in the education policy landscape. The question that IT professionals may be asking is to what extent will it affect the future IT profession? As I have written before, there are...

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The last six months or so have seen some dramatic changes in the education policy landscape.

The question that IT professionals may be asking is to what extent will it affect the future IT profession?

As I have written before, there are problems in the IT skills pipeline. The IT syllabus has become uninspiring with a focus on office skills over the challenging topics in computing. There is a perception that IT is something that the less able are given to do: an Ofsted report notes that some IT qualifications are used to distort league table targets.

The increasing gap between what is taught in schools and what is taught in universities both mismanages expectations and fails to attract the talent the IT industry needs.

One of the probable causes of this is the system and policy in place concerning IT teaching and qualifications, and the lack of clarity behind this. More often than not, seemingly perverse actions by individuals and groups are in fact locally rational. If by mechanisms of central control such as league tables, school leaders are drawn to ignore wider educational objectives to hold onto funding and people's jobs, then they will.

The fact that the wider public does not understand what IT and computing really is about allows their abuse to happen more easily than a traditional academic subject, where unfortunate changes would be far more transparent to parents.

One of the changes to watch (in England at least) is the 'English Baccalaureate' (EBacc) championed by Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. By focusing on a core of five academic GCSE subjects, including English and Mathematics, it showed a more realistic picture of the extent of student achievement, once the distortion of weak qualifications in IT and other subjects has been removed (only 16% of students made the benchmark of five A*-C in the EBacc subjects).

In this regard, the developing EBacc may become a boon to the IT profession, if it is used to set policy expectations.

The very qualifications that many consider to be the problem in attracting good students to our profession may now have their existence put under threat. The ecosystem of government targets, school pressures and examination systems that have kept poor quality IT qualifications in business has potentially been starved of its food supply. A barrier to real reform may at last have been lifted.

In the school system, policy confusion around the use of IT, IT as a profession and computing as a discipline needs attention. If we can bring clear thinking and ambition around this, I suspect things can move a long way. One barrier is crumbling, we now need to identify and work on the others.

Before we achieve this clarity in policy, in bringing computing into the EBacc we face the real danger of watering down of the computing syllabus due to league table pressure.

Of course, if we get it right, bringing an exciting computing GCSE into the EBacc as a science subject would be a big win for students and our industry. Schools could aspire to meaningful targets and students get the best of what computing can offer them.

Whether Gove had the UK IT industry in mind is immaterial (and admittedly unlikely), but it is an area where the direction of education policy will undoubtedly have an impact on us. If IT professionals wish to influence the future, now is the time to engage.

Posted by Dr Andrew Tuson, Department of Computing, City University London


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