Whose draft ICT curriculum is it anyway?


Expert advisors on the ICT curriculum were shocked when the DfE made more than 50 changes to their draft programmes of study. As approval looms for the controversial document, the row over what ICT education should look like continues. Bob Harrison explai

According to a senior Department for Education (DfE) official, “unless there is an overwhelming response for change” during the final consultation, the new computing programmes of study drafted and finally edited by the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) will gain ministerial approval and will be published this September, for first teaching a year later.

Curriculum reform has been a drawn-out and tortuous process which began with the Royal Society report Shut Down or Restart, commissioned by Microsoft, Google, and university computer science departments concerned about the quality and number of graduates and plummeting enrolments.

This prompted education secretary Michael Gove to label the teaching of ICT in schools as “dull and boring” and disapply the national curriculum programmes of study in order to allow schools to be more creative in their approach.

This judgement did not correspond with the Ofsted report on ICT teaching in schools, which did not support such a statement.

In any case, ICT teachers had little time to experiment because a few months later the DfE commissioned the BCS and RAE to “co-ordinate the rewriting” of the ICT programmes of study to an impossible timeline of a few months during the summer of 2012.

Simon Peyton Jones, a senior researcher from Microsoft, a BCS member, was handed the mantle and did a remarkable job with such a wide group of stakeholders and diverse series of views.

With the resources and support of BCS, he led two working groups and many individual consultations, leading to a rigorous and detailed drafting and redrafting process. It was a tall order given they had been limited to two sides of A4.

Mr Peyton Jones skilfully brokered a document which had the full support of all stakeholders and which concluded that ICT had three essential components:

  • Digital literacy.

  • Information technology.

  • Computer science.

The major change from the previous ICT programme of study was a much greater emphasis on computer science, although digital literacy and information technology were also significant parts of the proposed new curriculum.

It was obvious that schools and initial teacher education providers would need to undergo a significant amount of up-skilling if they were going to be able to successfully teach the new curriculum.

What happened next?

On February 7, the DfE published the new programme of study. Many of those experts involved in the drafting were shocked to find the DfE’s published draft had almost 50 changes and some significant chunks of important study had been cut altogether. In addition the computer science element had been significantly increased.

It became clear from a statement on the BCS website that after the final draft was submitted on November 30, the DfE, at the request of the minister, asked for substantial changes. It is less clear who within the BCS decided not to reconvene the working group or even consult them, but produced the revised version. BCS endorsed this version, it gained the approval of the minister, and is now out for public consultation.

Many teachers are bewildered by the final draft. Some of those involved in the drafting process are furious that all their hard work has been ignored, and some technology industry representatives have complained about the lack of transparency in the process. It is understood the DfE has received several Freedom of Information requests.

It is in this context that a Westminster Education Forum took place this week, focused on the future of the ICT curriculum. Around 100 people heard the perspectives of Miles Berry, chair of Naace, Ian Livingstone, author of the Next Gen report, Phil Bannister, ICT lead at the DfE, and HMI David Brown.

However, it was teachers Ian Addison, head of ICT at St John Baptist in Hampshire, and Carrie Anne Philbin, ICT subject leader at Robert Clack School in Dagenham, who stole the show and gave the DfE and the rest of us some serious food for thought.

Mr Addison told the Forum: “I think that the draft curriculum produced by the DfE has a huge gap, and that is creativity. I am really worried about how it will be interpreted by teachers. 

“They may see it as a big emphasis on computer science and programming and little else. The use of the word data worries me too – does this mean just storing and saving files or does it include video, audio and photos too?

“My main concern, whatever the programmes of study say, is where are teachers going to get the necessary CPD? Without this I am afraid it is bound to fail.” 

Ms Philbin, founder of the Geek Gurl Diaries website, was keen to emphasise the need for women to engage with the computing agenda.

She opened with: “Hello, I am a teacher, and I have to say not all ICT teaching was poor, and while we could do with some more computer science graduates coming into teaching, not all computer scientists will make good teachers.”

Sue Nieland, director of education at the employer body e-skills, chimed with Ms Philbin about the need for more women in IT and added that e-skills members also didn’t just want computer scientists: “Employers tell us it’s not just about computer science and that there was still lots of stuff missing from the latest draft of the programmes of study.”

A number of delegates commented on the irony of the current and increasing need for teaching, support and technician up-skilling and the closure this week of the very successful Open University Vital project (with more than 11,000 members) which supported teach-meets, online learning and the valuable subject portals.

Meanwhile, the Twitter debate raged, with SecEd editorial board member Ben Solly, vice-principal at Longfield Academy in Melton Mowbray, commenting: “The development of computer science in schools is welcome but it should not be at the expense of ICT. Schools should be developing personalised pathways for the pupils that are suitable and appropriate. 

“Computer science is likely to exclude many students due to its complex nature and without significant investment in teacher training and in-service CPD many schools will not have the expertise to effectively deliver it.”

So as the rubber-stamping of the heavily changed new programme of study for ICT looms, the debate continues and the key messages at the Westminster Education Forum were loud and clear:

  • Too much computer science/ programming.

  • Insufficient emphasis on creativity or digital literacy.

  • Insufficient focus on e-safety at all key stages.

  • Urgent need for resourced CPD for teachers, support and technical staff.

  • Employer feedback is needed for broader and balanced curriculum.

However, the question remains, will the messages be heard at DfE and ministerial level? The consultation is open until April 16 and I would advise teachers to consider the following questions if responding:

  • Do you agree with the emphasis on computer science at all key stages?

  • Will you have the knowledge and skills to teach the new programme of study? What support/resources will you need?

  • If not, how and when will you develop that expertise?

  • How do you feel about the balance between digital literacy, creativity and IT?

  • Do you think e-safety should be taught at all key stages?

  • Do the proposed changes enable progression and continuity between key stages? 

  • Bob Harrison is education advisor for Toshiba, a school governor, and chair of the DfE/Teaching Agency ICT expert group. He was a member of the BCS/RAE second working group. Email bob@setuk.co.uk

Further information
Download the draft curriculum documents, including the ICT programmes of study, at www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/nationalcurriculum2014


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