Opinion: What’s missing from the new computing curriculum for schools

By Crispin Weston
26 Feb 2013 View Comments
crispin-weston

The proposed changes to school ICT curriculum have been ruffling some feathers.

When Michael Gove announced that ICT would be "disapplied", many assumed that this would leave schools to devise their own, "open source" curriculum. There was therefore some surprise last September when the DfE asked the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) to develop a new Programme of Study.

Further reading

Although the first draft was produced in consultation with teachers' representatives, surprise turned to dismay when it was found that the second draft, published by the DfE earlier this month, had disregarded most of the profession's previous input.

Some members of the ICT teacher's community reacted by questioning the rationale of the whole exercise. In an article in Computing on 5th February, it was claimed that "evidence produced by Ofsted...said that in over two-thirds of the schools, especially primary schools, the teaching of ICT was ‘good' to ‘outstanding'". If ICT wasn't broke, then what was Michael Gove trying to fix?

But this is not what Ofsted said. Its report, "ICT in schools, 2008-2011" gives the following figures for the proportion of surveyed schools that were rated "good" or "outstanding" in each of four criteria.
schools-table
Every one of these ratings is lower than the average for teaching and learning across all subjects, which currently stands at 70 per cent. The proportion of schools in which the teaching and learning of ICT were rated "good" or "outstanding" is less than two thirds for primary and less than half for secondary. The ratings for student achievement and the quality of the curriculum are even lower.

The report's Executive Summary concludes that, although primary schools are making satisfactory progress in addressing their weaknesses, the situation in secondary schools is serious and has not improved since 2009. Students regularly repeat work, the needs of the more able are being ignored, teachers lack subject expertise, and take-up of advanced courses is weak. At the heart of all these problems lies the poor quality of the curriculum.

Reluctant to recognise these problems and continuing to fight for a model of ICT that the evidence shows to have failed, it is not surprising that the profession's arguments have been brushed aside. Teacher representatives have in turn responded angrily on the social networks with accusations of bad faith and commercially-motivated conspiracies.

The reality is that by refusing to recognise the facts, teacher representatives have effectively absented themselves from the negotiating table, leaving the way clear for BCS and RAEng to draw up a curriculum that is almost wholly focused on Computer Science.

Whatever the merits of Computer Science, most commentators appear to agree that an element of "digital literacy" is also required. The Royal Society report, Shut down or Restart? defined this term as follows:

"The basic skill or ability to use a computer confidently, safely and effectively, including... the skills that teachers of other subjects at secondary school should be able to assume that their pupils have, as an analogue of being able to read and write".

But to the proponents of the old ICT curriculum, the term means something significantly different. To them, "digital literacy" is about educating "digital citizens", equipped with "twenty-first century skills" that are supposed (on the basis of no substantive evidence) to improve teaching and learning in a new education system that will value creativity more highly than knowledge. It is an account of "digital literacy" that amounts not to a curriculum but to an ideology.

It is time that credible teacher representatives returned to the negotiating table and ensured that digital literacy, as defined by the Royal Society, is included. When the prospect of teaching office skills is brought up, proponents of "twenty-first century skills" and academic Computer Science both invariably cry "dull and boring!" But if children cannot use a word processor, how are they going to draft and redraft all those essays that they will be writing for the new, rigorous eBacc?

Crispin Weston chairs BSI's expert committee for education technology

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