Let the private sector guide the schools ICT curriculum

Exam results are out again and, for the IT sector, make for disturbing reading. It’s not the actual results that are the real problem - it’s the worryingly low number of runners and riders. This summer, a paltry 4,002 people took IT...

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Exam results are out again and, for the IT sector, make for disturbing reading. It’s not the actual results that are the real problem - it’s the worryingly low number of runners and riders. This summer, a paltry 4,002 people took IT at A Level (just 0.5% of the total number of students).

Mathematics had a similar problem a while ago. This year, its number of A-level students is up 7%.

Unfortunately, IT is heading in the opposite direction. A-level take-up is down 1.8% on last year - a continuation of a worrying trend that has seen IT attracting less and less students for 8 consecutive years.

At GCSE, the swell in disinterest is even more dramatic - IT’s adoption rate has plummeted by 23% this year alone, and when compared to 5 years ago, by an alarming 57%.

Add in the news that some schools could be removing IT A-levels from their curriculum - due to a reduction in funding for Sixth Form students - and it looks like the decline in IT student numbers is a trend that will continue for many years yet.

Coming at a time when Information Technology is more important than ever - where computers touch every aspect of our lives - this situation, long-term, is a potential time bomb for the IT industry.

Unless this situation is addressed effectively, there could come a time when IT is sent offshore not just for reasons of cost effectiveness, but because there’s no-one left in the UK who can do the job anymore.

But, the example of A-Level Mathematics proves that the situation is not hopeless - it proves that young people do listen when the benefits and opportunities of taking a particular option are made clear to them.

There are opportunities in IT. The skills are in demand. We need to make sure, as a nation, that we take steps to fill this gap and ensure that the UK IT professional does not become an extinct species.

There is an argument for making IT compulsory at GCSE, but not apparently, with the current course content. I read an article recently where John Hoggard, programme manager at Intellect said: "Take up of IT courses is falling and the basic IT skills being generated by the education system are not meeting learners' or employers' needs.

Technology companies often have to spend considerable time up-skilling new employees as a result."

It brought to mind my recent comments during the Guardian Online offshore debate. I suggested that, in an attempt to reduce the temptation to offshore, the government should encourage private sector organisations to provide UK citizens with accredited skills training.

Tax concessions could be offered, or covenants built into the tender when big business is competing to win a government IT contract. Bidders would be challenged to demonstrate their skills and training programmes to develop the talent in their area….

I know that big companies like IBM, Microsoft and Capgemini already run apprenticeships. This is fantastic - more companies should offer universally-recognised skills programmes. But, what I’d like to see, is employers getting involved in deciding how kids learn IT in schools. This would take things a step further.

If government lets the private sector get to grips with the Information Technology curriculum, perhaps even to the point of training teachers, or seconding technical staff into classrooms - it could bring classrooms alive, with real life examples of the full spectrum of IT work, and projects based on actual industry issues.

A whole new generation of potential IT professionals would have their eyes opened to the wealth and breadth of opportunities in Information Technology. Win-win-win: Employers get better candidates, school leavers have improved prospects and the UK gets to keep its IT sector onshore long term.