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Teaching Computing in Schools

'Keyboard' by john_a_ward on Flickr

There has been quite a lot of recent press coverage of the Next Gen. report, by Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope. One of the key issues raised has been the way that computing is taught in British secondary schools.

At the moment, Information and Communication Technology, ICT, is essentially a crash course in how to use Microsoft Office. That is, for many secondary school pupils, almost the entirety of the coverage of computing in the curriculum.

[The curriculum] focuses in ICT on office skills rather than the more rigorous computer science and programming skills which high-tech industries… need

For someone passionate about technology and computers in many different ways, my experience of this manufactured ‘ICT’ subject in secondary school was utterly, utterly uninspiring. I don’t think this was a particular fault of the school, I think it was a systemic failure of the curriculum.

It is, of course, important that school-leavers are capable of the kind of basic office productivity tasks on computers. These are skills that many employers will need and I don’t question the educational value of that for a moment, even if it is a little dull.

For someone like me, however, this ‘ICT’ subject completely failed to recognise and encourage my talent and enthusiasm in computing. I therefore developed my skills outside of school. It is troubling, though, that there will be many other children who may have huge potential in this field who may not have opportunities to develop computing — computing beyond merely using a word processor — outside of school.

Research by e-skills UK has shown that young people find the existing ICT curriculum to be boring, poorly taught, too basic, and perhaps most importantly, too narrowly focused on office applications. This has a knock-on effect on their perceptions of computing- related careers as poor, dull, repetitive and low-paying.

It is again, very concerning that ‘ICT’ is creating a perception of computing as mundane, tedious and with little future potential. The job of the education system isn’t just to produce qualified people — it is to inspire people in subjects they might not have even considered before, and to develop and nurture the talents of the individual.

I am sure there are individual schools, and individual teachers, doing a better job than the curriculum mandates, and for that, they should be applauded.

The good news is that this report is being listened to by the UK government:

… the Government recognises that the current ICT programme is insufficiently rigorous and in need of reform.

I hope that this country can make progress in this area. The current state of affairs for computing in UK secondary schools is not just disappointing, there is a real danger of missing great opportunities — for individuals, and for the whole country.

Image is a modified version of Keyboard, by Flickr user john_a_ward. The image is licensed under CC-BY 2.0.