Curriculum - Back to the motherboard

18th September 2009 at 01:00
With an extra 10,000 undergraduate places in 'Stem' subjects, how can teachers encourage sixth formers to take the technical route into higher education? Hannah Frankel reports

So you thought the dot-com bust in 2001 spelt the end of the computing boom? Well, that's not what the Government thinks. Despite the chronic shortage of university places this autumn, it recently announced 10,000 extra undergraduate places for the so-called "Stem" subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths.

So in the wake of this announcement, should sixth-form teachers be encouraging their pupils to try a more technical route into higher education? If they want a job at the end of it, then yes, argues Simon Peyton-Jones, principal researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

He points to recent research by the UK Council of Professors and Heads of Computing, which predicts that demand for IT professionals will increase by up to 15 per cent in the next eight years. But, chances are, these vacancies won't be filled by UK graduates.

Since 2000, the number of Britons applying to read computer science has dropped by an alarming 60 per cent. The number of British students aiming for jobs in the industry has also fallen by half.

Mr Peyton-Jones believes this decline can be traced back to the curriculum in schools, which focuses more on Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and less on computing or computer science.

"ICT is like learning to drive a car, while computing is like learning how a car works," he explains. "Schools currently focus very strongly on ICT, but do much less computing than they did 20 years ago."

While computing is an intellectually exciting, fast-moving and important subject, bright pupils are often left feeling that it is irrelevant and dull, he adds.

Judith Hartley, an IT teacher at Sheffield College, agrees. She has noticed a drop in the number of 16-year-olds taking IT courses at the college over the past four to five years, despite the fact that each new cohort at the college is ever more comfortable using wikis, podcasts, blogs, online videos and Twitter.

"IT in schools mostly consists of word processing and spreadsheets," she says. "Pupils think it's boring and aren't aware of things like programming, which can be more interesting."

While the Rose review gave ICT in primary schools a well-received boost earlier this year, there have been calls for more rigour in the secondary sector. An Ofsted report in March found that GCSE courses in ICT lack challenge or stimulation and have contributed to a 45 per cent dip in the number of girls taking A-level computing since 2004, and a 31 per cent drop among boys.

The Computing at School Working Group, which promotes computing in schools, goes even further. It describes the pre-sixth-form computing curriculum as "a disaster".

Lessons for the GCSE in ICT are "boring and demotivating", it said in a 2007 White Paper. A-levels, meanwhile, contain "little of the foundational material on which a first-year university course might build".

But in the bid to get results and move up the league tables, teachers are tempted to pursue "easier" options - such as the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) - as opposed to anything more challenging or interesting, argues Ms Hartley. Admissions tutors often see through this, though. One officer at a leading university will not accept the IT A-level because, she claims, it is not academically stimulating enough.

In Ms Hartley's opinion, the diploma level 1-3 is a more rigorous qualification, alongside an A-level in computing and some of the modules in the BTEC national diploma in computer science. "Pupils need to be looking at hardware and how to develop databases that include programming, informatics, systems analysis, how to set up websites and technical aspects of multimedia," she says.

"There's so much more to fire their imagination than simply putting together PowerPoint presentations."

Understanding the huge relevance of the subject will also boost its appeal, argues Miles Berry, a former teacher who is now a senior lecturer in ICT Education at Roehampton University.

"With the right teaching at school level, which lets pupils recognise the usefulness and intrinsic fascination of a field at the core of so much of modern life, prospective students shouldn't need much persuading to continue their study beyond 18," he says.

Sophie Davies, a 16-year-old pupil at Gleed Girls Technology College in Lincolnshire, is finding out for herself how relevant it can be. As part of her Advanced Diploma in Information Technology, she has organised a theatre production, including the arrangement of ticket sales, the creation of a database and the design and distribution of marketing and advertising.

She's still unsure how she will use her skills in the future, but believes the IT diploma will help keep her options open, clearing the way for a possible career in events management. Her next project is to design a website.

"The website project will allow us to use multimedia," she says. "So we'll be using applications such as Dreamweaver, Flash and PowerPoint, just like a real web- design company."

Whatever pupils' interests, there should be a degree course that fits. Universities offer everything from animation and game design to information and knowledge management, cybernetics and computer science. Beyond this, there are joint honours courses and an increasing use of ICT tools in all disciplines.

However, not all teachers will know about the various university options, or have the subject knowledge to prepare pupils for its more challenging components.

Mr Berry is running an introduction to programming course for primary teachers next term, while the Open University is starting a new programme of support for IT teachers, which aims to keep them up to date with new developments. But there is still a serious shortage of teachers from all sectors with the necessary background or training in computing.

"There's certainly a need for further continuing professional development for teachers who want to move their pupils beyond office skills," says Mr Berry. "But many teachers are making use of the internet to support their own, informal professional development."

The lack of uptake at school level can deter teachers from investing in more formal IT training, warns Paul Springford, professional officer for Naace, the professional association for ICT teachers. "It's a bit of a catch-22 situation at the moment," he says. "With less pupil demand, provision will drop."

He would like to see ICT receive a radical makeover to raise its appeal. "At the moment, the stereotype is of (the TV comedy) The IT Crowd. Like 'boffins' or engineers, people think of them as the 'geek squad', with no social skills. In fact, ICT is massively creative, fun and socially useful."

Instead of forcing pupils to study it at university, teachers should encourage suitable candidates to consider it as a viable option. "If that addresses a national shortage while fulfilling the pupil's personal potential at the same time, that's got to be a good thing."

Yet most pupils are woefully ill-equipped even to consider taking this mathematical, challenging subject at university, let alone pursue it as a career. Simon Humphreys, a teacher at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge and member of Computing at Schools, has seen his pupils thoroughly turned off the subject by endless lessons on Microsoft Office.

"It is no wonder that when being taught, usually for the third or fourth time, how to put a bullet point in Word or do a mail merge, they switch off," he says. Although he welcomes the increasing focus on Stem places at university, he believes the money would be better spent in schools.

"Significant resources need to be given to developing a new school curriculum that includes computer science as a core discipline where pupils can be introduced to programming, algorithms and computational thinking at a much earlier age.

"A curriculum that asks how predictive text works and follows with a rigorous exploration of the algorithms behind it is much more likely to grab pupils' attention and encourage them to explore their digital world with far greater curiosity."

Things are moving in the right direction, not least with the introduction of the first ever GCSE in computing, which the OCR exam board is due to pilot next September. But it will take a great deal more if UK plc is to compete with emerging markets in Eastern Europe, China and India.

Teachers will need to be trained and the curriculum reshaped, argues Mr Humphreys. But there is one thing that schools can take heart from: young people's inherent interest in technology. Many are already extremely sophisticated consumers and creators of digital tools and toys - from making their own iPhone "apps" to developing scripts in the virtual world Second Life and everything in between. The trick is to build on that natural thirst for knowledge.

Currently, bright pupils who could forge a career in computing progress in spite of, not because of, their school education, says the Computing at School group. By harnessing their ability and interest, schools can prepare young people for a challenging and fulfilling degree and career; and provide Digital Britain with the talent it needs to become and remain a world leader.


- Ensure pupils are aware about how to stay safe online. Record incidents where safety has been compromised.

- Ensure value for money. Thoroughly evaluate and research ICT planning and provision.

- Improve the assessment of ICT. Establish pupils' attainment on entry, track their progress and include their ICT achievements in other subjects.

- Audit teachers' training needs. Provide extra support to improve subject knowledge and expertise, particularly in data logging, manipulating data and programming.

Source: The Importance of ICT, Ofsted, March 2009


- Allows primary school children to create their own interactive stories, animations, games, music and art, and share them on the web.

- Google Summer of Code (GSoC) is a global programme that offers student developers stipends to write code for various open source software projects.

- A magazine that introduces pupils to "the fun side of computer science" through solving puzzles and being creative.

- A programme of workshops for pupils and teachers, run by the University of Glasgow.

- Information about computing degrees from a pupil's perspective. Also offers careers advice.

- Group that promotes the teaching of computing at school.

- Organisation of employers, educators and ministers that provides advice and programmes.

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