At the end of this month, the new key stage 3 National Strategy for ICT will be rolled out. It's a significant event and the spin coming out of the DFES is that it's a radical overhaul of ICT at this level. So you'd think that most, if not all, ICT teachers would have some idea about what's to come. Yet the contents of the National Strategy have been a closely guarded secret. It seems its creators decided it would be unwise for IT teachers to see what materials were being produced - even though we will be using them in the classroom. But whatever form the new National Strategy takes, I suspect many IT teachers will be surprised if it can solve the core problems we face at key stage 3. It will take more than a new set of clothes wrapped around the 1996 National Curriculum statement of attainment for ICT to solve these problems.
A fundamental issue is that the national curriculum level descriptions defy their intended use as a means of judging pupils' competence in IT. For example, take part of the description on presentation (meant to be a guide for awarding level 4 attainment): "(Pupils should) present information in different forms and show they are aware of the intended audience." Now go up to level 5 where students should: "Present ideas in a variety of ways and show a clear sense of audience." You could swap the two and not notice the difference. The descriptions are ambiguous and, like Alice in Wonderland, can mean whatever you want. These problems don't exist with the maths, English or science descriptions, which specify the required skills. And what am I doing assessing "awareness of audience" anyway? Shouldn't I trust the English department to be competent to do that?
The stock reply to such concerns is that you should read the descriptions, read the programme of study and then use your professional judgement to award a level. I was non-plussed to find that my day's training on assessment involved sitting down with a group of equally baffled teachers and trying to engage in the circular task of awarding what we thought were the levels to each others' portfolios of pupil work. You might think this shouldn't be difficult, after all, we are talking about assessing the work of 12- to 14-year-olds in what is a fairly straightforward subject. So why can't I have a clear list of skills the pupils should develop at each level?
The answer lies in the educational philosophy surrounding IT in the early Nineties that led to the drafting of the National Curriculum in 1996. In those days, IT was to be taught across the curriculum. Everyone was going to be an IT teacher, indeed, it wasn't going to be IT any more, it was going to be ICT, because we were now going to include communication. No surprise then to see ICT target statements appear that would be more at home in humanities. It was also felt that IT was evolving so rapidly it would be foolish to specify the skills in particular applications - they may not exist in a few years' time. So instead of referring to levels of skills in the main software applications, we have a curriculum concerned with finding out, developing, exchanging and evaluating. It was even rumoured there would be online testing, but then the general consensus was it would be impossible to write questions to assess such an abstract curriculum.
Now in 2002, we are told IT should be taught as a discrete subject by specialist teachers. We can forgive the folly of those who thought otherwise, but we also need to become more rational about it. IT doesn't need to do it all - we now have plenty of computers in subject areas with teachers who are being NOF-trained to apply IT. IT should know its place as the servant of the other subjects and focus on delivering the skills to do that job.
As an IT teacher, I do not need a scheme of work that tells me how to produce a newspaper. Nor do I need assessment criteria that rewards pupils for their appreciation of the needs of the audience. I can trust, say, history teachers to come up with a project to assess these skills. In turn they should be able to trust me to teach the pupils how to use the software. When it comes to assessing IT competence, we need to define a core set of skills in the main applications and give the pupils the task of making as much progress with them as possible. That isn't to say IT lessons should become boring sessions that simply involve working through a menu of skills. We need a clear, objective, fair and workable means of assessing progress in IT, while drawing on the exciting content from the rest of the curriculum.
Objective means of assessing progress in IT skills already exist outside the National Curriculum. The European Computer Driver's Licence is backed by the British Computer Society and is being taken up by industry. It's not suitable for children, but it provides a rational model for assessment. Not everyone will agree on the core applications and regular revision would be needed, but this approach would be far more efficient - and motivating for pupils - than the curriculum we have. If pupils are given clear objectives and the incentive of reward for achieving them, you won't be able to hold them back. And once they've developed those skills, they'll surprise you with the quality of their work.
Mark Thomas is head of ICT at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey Mark Thomas was talking to George Cole