She had no formal training in teaching ICT, but helped review the national curriculum for the subject. Chris Johnston meets the QCA's Clare Johnson.
Like many teachers back in the days when computers in schools meant floppy discs the size of vinyl records and luminescent green screens, Clare Johnson ended up teaching a computer studies class after walking down the corridor and catching the deputy head's eye just as he was looking for a likely candidate.
As it meant being able to avoid taking hockey in the middle of winter, she was only too pleased to say yes. From such humble beginnings, Johnson has gone on to become the principal manager for information and communications technology (ICT) for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, where she has played a key role in revising the national curriculum for ICT in recent months.
Her career began at Averyhill College in Greenwich, where she trained as a primary teacher specialising in maths. However, her first job was in a Lancashire secondary school - it was a time when graduate teachers were very expensive for primaries. After returning to London, Johnson taught maths in Bexley and, following the fateful encounter in the corridor, set up a computer studies department even though she was not trained in the field. "I was not unique - there were large numbers of people doing that job with no formal qualifications," she recalls.
An obvious enthusiasm for the area led her into helping to run courses at Bexley's computer centre and a job as its deputy head. Johnson went on to become an advisory teacher and, later, Bexley's IT advisor before joining the QCA in January.
The national curriculum review has taken top priority of late, but she describes the changes as very much a process of evolution rather than revolution. Big changes are not needed because, according to Johnson, great strides forward have been made in the past decade and most teachers understand the document's aims. To improve comprehension even further, she says the revised curriculum has avoided technical language as much as possible.
It also reveals a shift in attitude to reflect the changing role of technology in our lives: "We've tried to look forward to showing ICT as a process rather than training pupils in applications." The new curriculum also takes into consideration the vast quantities of information that the Internet makes available by encouraging pupils to be more critical of what they read on websites.
Johnson says it is clear that using the Internet to access resources on a subject such as history will be beneficial for students, but she does not believe it is the history teacher's job to teach ICT skills. "We have to start recognising that division. It's not about teaching history to teach pupils why different search engines give you different results." This requires a recognition of how the skills taught in the subject of ICT can help students in all their subjects.
Rather than fearing the demise of ICT as a subject, Johnson says the opposite is true, as more secondary schools are teaching it while also trying to use those skills across the curriculum. It is dependent on equipment but, in her view, the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) funding has made, and will continue to make, a difference.
She would also like to see teaching in the subject aim higher, so that some of the more powerful aspects of network management and the programming involved in Web creation and control technology are explored in greater depth. "I'm really interested to see what we can do about raising standards at key stages 3 and 4 and harness those much higher level ICT applications," Johnson comments. The key is to ensure pupils leave with good transferable skills so that they are relevant to any field.
Some people might have balked at replacing Niel McLean - now director of schools at the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA) - who had an enviable reputation. Johnson, however, says she is not trying to fill his shoes. "I want to bring to this job the things I am good at and the passions I have. If they are different to Niel's, I think that they are still leading us in the right direction."
More important, in her opinion, is the fact that all the players, from the Teacher Training Agency to the Department for Education and Employment, BECTA, the Office for Standards in Education and the QCA, want to work together to achieve common goals. "It's about a coherent strategy - all of it has to work together if we are going to raise standards of achievements in schools for all pupils," Johnson says.
Although recent Office for Standards in Education reports have been critical of achievement in ICT, Johnson says it would be wise to hold off making pronouncements until 2002, when NGFL funding and other initiatives have had a chance to make an impact. "I would be extremely surprised if we didn't see major gains and big changes."
There are other reasons to be positive. Johnson points out that Britain is the only G7 country to have ICT as part of the compulsory curriculum. The appointment of DFEE minister Michael Wills to oversee the NGfL and other aspects of ICT in schools is another first. "Some of us are passionate about this because we have seen the things that kids can do when given access to good software and hardware and the Internet. It's very powerful."