Who destroyed IT in UK schools?


This post is prompted by some outstandingly depressing UK statistics:

The summer 2008 will see fewer candidates taking GCE Computing than even the previous year's low, approximately 5000 out of the total of 800,000 GCE's, of which barely 600 are female; secondly the drop out rate for Computer Science at University is now the highest of all subjects at over 10% and to top it all our projected industry demand for IT professionals is estimated at a massive 150,000. If all our computing GCE students went to university to do computing they would amount to under 2% of demand.

How on earth do we find ourselves in this position? To set the scene before we look at what actually happens in schools I will remind you that some months ago I predicted Linux will dominate school desktops in 5 years through low cost personal computers. Since then HP and Dell have lined up their own Open Source offerings in this sector so it may be a lot quicker than I first thought. There will be an accompanying growth in demand for Open Source engineering services. If we are to meet this demand for new engineers able to work with Linux then the statistics are even more worrying.

The Rise and Rise of ICT

A survey of school IT qualifications provides the clue. There are today a plethora of examinations relating to using computers in schools. The majority, the overwhelming majority, are ICT qualifications: this is to say qualifications in Information and Communication Technology, a title that needs a little exemplification...

ICT qualifications are offered by various QCA approved awarding bodies: AQA, EdExcel, OCR, E-Skills, ECDL, BCS and INGOTS to name most but not all. The qualifications themselves subdivide into categories: Key Skills, GCSE, GCE (AS A2), GNVQ, CLAIT (cert and diploma), BTec, HND and of course the new Diplomas which are due to replace a lot of them. We are not quite finished with categories; all of the above are divided and united into 'Levels'. Thus CLAIT operates at Level 1 through to Level 3, Key Skills are Level 3, INGOTS Levels 1-2, GNVQs Levels 1-4 and so on. AS and A2 GCE's are levels 3,4. Many have proxy transferable Levels between categories. Confused? I hope so, most teachers are. In any case whatever qualification you get, ICT means 'Office' skills, lots of coursework (mostly institutionalized cheating) with a bit of other social stuff added in.

There are scores of intersecting ICT courses barely differentiable from each other, the vast majority date from 2000 (floppy drives anyone?), all talk about social impact of ICT, none know about social networking; all instruct about copyright, none mention patent issues or intellectual freedom; none except INGOTS know about open standards. It's not all doom and gloom though. Buried deep in the OCR course list is a nugget or two. Did you know that the OCR GNVQ course iPro is a gem or that one of the new ICT Diplomas has a great Sys Admin Level 3 course? I thought not. It's all too complicated. ICT qualifications are manifold because IT literacy is seen as an imperative and awarding bodies make lots of money from qualifications.

What does ICT really mean?

ICT courses mean proficiency in presentation, word processing, e-mail and spreadsheets. Ho Ho, I should have said, MS Power Point, MS Word, MS Outlook, MS Publisher and MS Excel. Actually, unlike a few years ago, no publicly examined course today dare explicitly require a single proprietary package for its qualification (except CLAIT which has no such qualms), but when reality on the ground is taken into account, an ICT qualification in UK schools really means proficiency in MS Office. Nice work Bill, how did this happen and what are the consequences?

The infamous MOU

The great change happened in 1997 when the newly elected Labour Government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Microsoft for ICT in schools. The MOU still exists but Becta is less than happy with it nowadays as I have referred to in previous posts. I can still see a happy smiling Prime Minister and the CEO of Microsoft beaming the good news through my television screen (I no longer own a television just in case). Almost overnight on a wave of funds and 'advantageous' educational licensing, ICT replaced IT in schools. No ICT course has a programming or a systems module, instead students are taught to be mere consumers of technology, and operators of applications. Complex fragile networks in schools also mean that students are locked out of the system and potentially invasive coding activities are deprecated. Thus in barely one school generation ICT wiped out computing.

If you think I am over egging the pudding, here is a timely reminder courtesy of Labour's David Lammy MP at a launch of a new 'literacy in IT' Government initiative this week. The answer to bridging the divide for the estimated 17 million digitally excluded from ICT is ...Microsoft's Digital Literacy Curriculum ! Yes thanks to a $ 12 million donation from Bill those non-Microsoft users missed out by UK Gov-MS plc will at last get their chance to join the fold.

Ways Forward

Most computer engineers I know are self-taught. You will commonly hear mention of Atari, Commodore, BBC Micro, even Win 95 as platforms on which they cut their teeth. I have yet to hear of XP/Vista script kiddies. Coding and engineering requires open systems (you knew this was coming), the legendary taking the clock apart as an indication of nascent techno behaviour would not have happened if we started with quartz mechanisms; you simply can't get under the bonnet (hood). The same applies to modern appliance like computers you are not encouraged to find out what makes them tick. Open Source software gives us the tools to play with the clock again. Here is my recipe for the success of computing in our schools.

1. Move ICT courses out of the Level system of the curriculum. The accrediting and examining QA processes just freeze content. ICT is not like chemistry, it changes uniquely and continually and has no core knowledge. ICT courses should live or die according to their usefulness and should not be promoted by the state.

2. Increase the availability of computing courses at all Levels within the system. Engineering principles have a much longer shelf life and make very good qualifications as it happens.

3. Becta should do as did Newham Council last week and drop MS's MOU

In summary for as long as school computing amounts to little more than how to use MS Office, our technological base will continue to erode. We cannot hope to compete in the modern world by relying on a few, intelligent self-motivated and self-taught individuals to escape the education system. As a first step in liberating the next generation why don't we give them a tweaked copy of Ubuntu's excellent live Linux distro. On it with all the other usual goodies will be the developer environments for Python, Ruby, Java, Gambas. Go kids, reboot those closed boxes from your live CD and learn about freedom. At least then we may have someone homegrown to recruit in the future.

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