Preparing digital citizens


Dr Peter Twining argues that ICT must become a core subject, and while computer science is key, digital literacy and other key skills are just as important.

Earlier this month, the government announced its decision to disapply the Programmes of Study (PoS) and attainment targets for ICT. From September, there will be no official curriculum for ICT and no metrics against the evaluation of whether teaching is effective or not. 

Education secretary Michael Gove had initiated a consultation on the disapplication in January. Many of the respondents expressed concern that if he went ahead there would be no realistic mechanism for holding schools accountable for teaching ICT, no requirement to report ICT performance to parents, and no impact on league tables of poor (or no) ICT teaching. 

We are now faced with the very real danger that many schools will reduce the funding and effort given to ICT. One could argue that it is appropriate for schools to focus their resources on areas for which they will be held accountable. However, I would recommend that they don’t do this, for two reasons.

First, the reality is that technological developments march on and our pupils, armed with the latest devices, continue to navigate the web and social networks. If schools are to remain relevant to pupils, employers and the needs of society, they need to prepare pupils to be effective “digital citizens”.

Second, the government has announced that ICT will return as a subject in the revised national curriculum from September 2014. Thus, schools need to continue developing their capacity to deliver an effective ICT curriculum in order to meet the new requirements in 2014.

If there is a problem with ICT in the national curriculum currently, it is to do with how teachers have interpreted the PoS. Most teachers in key stages 1 to 3 have relied upon the QCDA scheme of work for ICT. This resulted in rather unimaginative teaching of ICT, which has not kept pace with developments in technology and social media. 

Even though the PoS and/or attainment targets have been disapplied, my advice would be to continue using them, but to jettison the QCDA schemes of work. This ensures schools have metrics against which to assess the success of their teaching (the attainment targets) and guidelines to help ensure continuity and progression between key stages 1 to 3 (the PoS). 

The PoS cover all the things that are important in a broadly based ICT curriculum, including elements of computer science such as programming. There is also plenty of scope within them for using new technology in creative ways. 

This is something that the VITAL Subject Portals are designed to help teachers do, by highlighting some of the best (usually free) resources on the web and advising how to use them effectively. Organisations such as CAS (focused on computer science) and Naace (the subject association for ICT) also provide relevant guidance.

At key stage 4, which I would argue is where the real problems lie, the national curriculum has been marginalised by GCSEs. Three key problems are evident: a focus by the exam boards on IT, which in practice has often meant using Microsoft Office; a shortage of ICT teachers with post-A level IT qualifications, who often lack the confidence to be more imaginative in interpreting the GCSE syllabi; and little or no targeted teaching of ICT for those students who are not taking an ICT GCSE.

There is currently a great focus on developing new, more interesting and rigorous GCSEs, particularly in computer science, to replace the old IT GCSEs. So at key stage 4 my advice is to look to the new computer science GCSEs, which offer real hope of overcoming the well documented problems with earlier IT qualifications – so long as suitably qualified teachers are available to teach them.

The discussions about what the ICT curriculum in the revised national curriculum should look like places an overemphasis on computer science. While I agree that computer science is an important discipline, like all disciplines it is a specialism. As such only a minority of students will study it in depth at key stage 4 and beyond.

In contrast, every student needs to be digitally literate in the broad sense of understanding the impact of technology on society, right through to being competent users and creators of digital media. This includes an element of computer science, but is much broader, and is a pre-requisite for being able to operate as a 21st century citizen.

The revised national curriculum needs to have ICT as a core subject, which includes elements of digital literacy, IT and computer science. In addition we need to ensure that every other subject uses ICT effectively, reflecting the impact that it has had in the world outside school and its potential to extend the repertoire of all teachers.

  • Dr Peter Twining is senior lecturer at the Open University & director of VITAL professional development. Visit

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