Bugs in the system

10th February 1995 at 00:00
Jack Kenny looks at the implications of the new Order's emphasis on creating autonomous computer users

Information technology in the national curriculum has changed from a tick-list to a wish-list," murmured an IT adviser after the briefing from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority on the final version of the national curriculum.

The remark was prompted by the request in each of the subject documents that some consider to be indecisive and ambiguous: "Pupils should be given opportunities, where appropriate, to develop and apply their information technology capability." The phrasing was defended by SCAA: "We have tried the big stick; now we will try encouragement."

There is encouragement in the document. SCAA did listen to the consultation. All those IT co-ordinators who criticised the omission of IT from the subjects have been heeded. Quite an achievement when everything else was being cut.

It is clearly intended that IT should be cross-curricular. Anyone who wishes to teach IT in its own right will not be debarred from doing so, but they will be working against the spirit of the document. The cross-curricular nature of the subject is stressed by the issue of the non-statutory guidance, the first instalment of which will be delivered early in 1995 and aimed at subject teachers with examples of how IT can enhance their subject. The National Council for Educational Technology will provide further instalments of guidance.

The problems for co-ordinators are still there. IT will continue to be difficult to track across the curriculum. It will still be necessary to avoid clashes, to ensure that it is being taught and used to ensure progression. There is still the challenge of trying to inspire staff to use IT when there are so many competing pressures.

"Autonomous users" is arguably the most important idea in the document. The creation of independent users is in the background of key stages 1 and 2; and in the foreground of KS3 and KS4. Quite simply, what the document is asking us to do is to enable all pupils to become autonomous users. However, the implications of that phrase are extensive: for the ways that pupils should be taught, and how schools should deploy their equipment. Can you develop autonomous users in a school where the bulk of the equipment is stored in a couple of rooms which are locked for much of the day? What is the ratio of computers to students necessary to develop independent users? Is the IT capability of the average teacher good enough to carry out all that is in the document? Is the Department for Education going to review the resourcing of schools and the training of teachers so that this largely admirable document will stand a chance of working?

Is the Order "future-proofed"? That was part of the purpose because the Order is meant to have a five-year life. Bill Gates of Microsoft thinks that the computer will mainly be used as a communications device. We can already see the beginning of that and yet there is the irritating impression that the authors of the document are still seeing IT as it was five years back: spreadsheets, databases, word processing, control devices and little else. In five years' time we will still be doing those things, but the distinctions between them will not be as clear as they are now and, in addition, the computer will be a supercharged communications tool.

SCAA is anxious to keep assessment in perspective. There is an obvious concern to ensure that assessment issues do not start driving the curriculum; IT must not disappear under the weight of assessment as it did before. Although it can seem as though assessment is being down-played, it should be emphasised that there is a professional duty to ensure that all work has to be assessed in order to decide how to move forward, but the system used should not be cumbersome or burdensome. The real task is to get IT into the curriculum, across the curriculum.

What the document does make plain is that there is a statutory duty to ensure that IT is delivered at all four key stages. The monitoring of much of this will be through the OFSTED inspections. Frequently IT is not inspected with the rigour that it deserves. Unfortunately, few inspection teams have IT expertise and not enough inspectors have a firm grasp of IT issues. One inspector remarked: "Too many inspectors enthuse when they see IT used and too few question whether the pupils are using the IT effectively and appropriately. Many miss the real implications of IT capability. How many inspectors are looking for the autonomous use of IT?" The key to the successful implementation of the new Order is training. It is ironic that the Order is unveiled at a time when severe cuts in schools' budgets have been announced. We have to get behind the rhetoric and acknowledge that there is still a very long way to go before IT is embedded into the curriculum in the way that it should be. The cynics will argue that the task is too difficult. It is probably more difficult now than it was in 1988 - the teams of IT advisory teachers recruited then are either much reduced or disbanded. Teachers entering the profession are still coming in with poor skills and an even poorer understanding of how IT can enhance learning. If we are moving towards the information society, we need a profession that considers IT illiteracy as unacceptable as verbal illiteracy.

This is probably a better Order than we could have hoped for a year ago. Now it has to be implemented. It has to be more than a wish-list.

* Jack Kenny is an adviser with Hertfordshire IT services.

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