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That’s right, folks. It’s a typography joke.

There has been an understandably frenzied response to the initial findings of the National Curriculum Review expert panel report that was released earlier this month, particularly from ICT teachers who are facing the prospect of their subject being marginalised, or others who think it will be removed altogether.

While the implications are less immediate for me here on St Helena, a British overseas territory where the NC is non-compulsory (in the same company as academies and free schools…), there is still a part of me that worries whether my subject will exist when I eventually return to the UK. That same part of me is eyeing the history shelves on my bookcases and considering a spot of investment.

Though the effects of any National Curriculum changes will affect me just as much as colleagues in the UK, my position here in the middle of the Atlantic has given me a slightly different perspective which I’d like to share through a series of questions.

ICT’s ‘coherence’ is questioned. Are we surprised?

Despite their importance in balanced educational provision, we are not entirely persuaded of claims that design and technology, information and communication technology and citizenship have sufficient disciplinary coherence to be stated as discrete and separate National Curriculum ‘subjects’. We recommend that:  […]

Information and communication technology is reclassified as part of the Basic Curriculum and requirements should be established so that it permeates all National Curriculum subjects. We have also noted the arguments, made by some respondents to the Call for Evidence,58 that there should be more widespread teaching of computer science in secondary schools. We recommend that this proposition is properly considered.

                Expert Panel Report, p24

One of the things I’ve been trying to work on as part of my role in teacher training here is the idea of firm foundations. When considering any kind of educational plan, from a lesson plan to a scheme of work to an entire programme of study, what do we consider to be bedrock? What is the unassailable, irrefutable foundation which we all agree upon, understand and feel confident that we can build everything else?

In the case of St Helena that lies in assessment, with wild disparities between levelling across the three primary schools and the high school from Key Stages 1 to 3 – a familiar problem for most teachers in the UK, though I’ve never seen such differences before. One of my year 8 students’ attainment record showed him to be a level 4a by the end of year 6, then seemingly as the result of one term’s teaching at high school he plummeted to a level 3c by Christmas of year 7.

This is part of the problem in the UK, but the wider issue here is the issue of what is ICT? I can’t argue with the lack of “disciplinary coherence” described in the report. In some schools ICT encompasses a large amount of graphic design, video editing or other multimedia work that might otherwise fall under Art & Design or be omitted from the curriculum entirely, while in others ICT lessons entail a great deal more in the way of computational thinking with a focus on data handling & programming, while many more consider ICT to involve understanding how to use computers in an office environment.

ICT is not ICT everywhere. It’s an issue at interview, as one candidate’s definition of the subject may be completely at odds with the interviewer’s understanding of the subject. The very best ICT departments cover all the bases, offering as rich and varied a curriculum as they can, but this relies partly on investment in software/hardware & in staff expertise.

The end result of this disparity in defining the subject is a huge variation in teaching content, and teaching quality. There are pockets of excellence, with individual schools, or sometimes individual teachers, enjoying enormous successes, but among many qualified to comment there is a grumbling, begrudging agreement with the findings – the value of the subject isn’t questioned, but its coherence is. That’s an important difference, in my mind.

The role of the expert panel members is to devise a curriculum that covers as many key areas as possible, while not imposing requirements on schools like “you’ll need £12,000 for the Adobe Creative Suite,” or “you’ll need a computer scientist and graphic designer in the department”. These things cannot be legislated as they would be setting most schools up to fail, but there remains nothing to preclude them from happening.

ICT teaching is poor. Can we fix it by removing ICT as a subject?

I have a few issues with this. The first lies in the uncharacteristically poor way the BBC announced a recent Ofsted review. The headline read “ICT ‘poor in secondary schools’, Ofsted says”. The subhead included the qualifier “in a fifth of secondary schools”. Add to that the pathetically small number of schools in the sample group mentioned (74, visited between 2008 and 2011) and the article crumbles into a poor lambasting of the subject with little actual substance… which is kind of irritating for those of us who don’t disagree with the main point. There is a lot of ICT teaching that is, in the words of Schools Minister Nick Gibb, “far too patchy”.

I do try not to get even the slightest bit worked up by the swathes of vitriol and drama that have become staples of the TES ICT forum over recent years, but this well-meaning post from a prospective PGCE trainee really annoyed me:

I have been offered an interview for the ICT PGCE I am not so much worried about the interview rather I am concerned that if get a place I will struggle due to weak subject knowledge.  I am quite a confident teacher in other subjects but did not have the relevant degree to get on the PGCE in those areas. I have been advised to get my foot through the door and then explore other possibilities. I also feel it is not fair on students if the teacher is not confident in their subject.

Any advise would be much appreciated.

Some replies included:

Not your fault that even the Universities see ICT as a subject that you can shoe-horn anyone into but you can easily get confident in the subject – just start background reading.

I’m surprised that Universities still offer the ICT option. The University I did mine at abandoned it, describing it as “worthless.” That description has permeated the Education system and I’ve heard it repeated quite a few times.

To which the original poster replied:

 I would have liked to teach primary but I was told that with a 2:2 and only a small amount of experice to go for ICT as it would be easier to get a place rather than apply for primary and potentially end up with nothing. […] Many of my friends who teach IT say the same thing, be an expert in MS Office.

I hope it wasn’t just me digging my toes into the carpet while reading that. The first reply came from a subject leader I know & respect, and it certainly doesn’t reflect his own expertise, nor would the potential trainee be likely to land a job in his department upon qualifying unless he’d worked hard at becoming far more than “an expert in MS Office”, but such are the prevalent attitudes towards the subject at the moment.

The situation isn’t helped, of course, by jackassery from the likes of Toby Young, publishing three pathetically easy multiple choice questions from an exam paper in the Telegraph, and claiming that constitutes a representative view of the subject. A perfectly reasonable opinion piece on those questions, and others like it that exist in every subject’s exam papers now, would be in feeling the need to give throwaway marks early in GCSE exam papers, but no – it’s almost become fashionable to knock the subject.

To Toby Young, I’d invite him to join my A level students in their January exam to see whether his representation of the subject they have been working hard to master is representative. As for the rest…

Surely there’s no smoke without fire?

I don’t claim for a moment there aren’t problems in ICT teaching. When looked at country-wide, there are issues. Issues that stem from the widespread notion of “anyone can teach it”, that lead to claims of “but this is shocking… apparently it isn’t rigorous!”

However, there are problems too with the solutions being considered by policy-makers. Try two on for size:

Stop teaching ICT as a discrete subject

There is poor-quality teaching going on in ICT lessons. Remove ICT as a subject, and what do those teachers do? Go home? Some might, but others will be forced to find jobs in other subject areas that they are equally uncomfortable with.

Replace it with Computer Science!

This stemmed from Google boss Eric Schmidt’s speech in which he criticised the UK for ‘ignoring our programming heritage’. I’m not a computer scientist, but I firmly believe that some of the fundamentals would be hugely valuable to youngsters – I’ve settled on embedding computational thinking in our new curriculum down here.

As I said, however, I’m not a programmer. I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking on an A level Computing class – but I’m open to learning. Give me the time to study on my own using the vast number of resources available online, or train me up, and I’m there… but if this is rolled out nationwide, who’ll foot the bill? There are precious few comp sci grads in teaching due to the disparity of pay between education & industry. Where will all the teachers come from? If they’re the existing ICT teachers, surely in a decade’s time we’ll be having the same discussion, substituting ICT for CS…

Computer Science would be an excellent addition to the curriculum, but I don’t see it as a replacement for ICT.

So what can we do?

The tone of this post so far has largely reflected the sources quoted, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Fundamentally, the pockets of excellence that existed across the UK prior to the recent media outpour will be no less excellent.

Rebranding

There is a stigma with our subject, but I don’t believe that can be changed by rebranding what is already a solid subject – there has been talk among several of my #ictcurric colleagues on Twitter about rebranding ICT to Digital Studies, but I just don’t see the virtue in it… I know for a fact the people considering the rebrand are committed to delivering a rigorous, challenging curriculum –shouldn’t that be enough? Will rebranding make it any more rigorous or challenging?

Focus on what’s important

We should do what we’ve always done – focus on what’s important. Establishing firm foundations for a subject on decidedly shaky ground is a challenge, for sure, but I don’t believe it’s impossible. There is some undeniably good stuff going on in ICT classrooms around the country & around the world – the first response to the NC review from the teachers in those classrooms should not be to change how they teach.

ICT is an application subject, and I’ve maintained for years that if we teach it isolated from other subjects, we aren’t doing it right. Marrying up discrete & cross-curricular ICT can be very difficult, but without it we’re teaching kids to make presentations about presentations, and spreadsheets about spreadsheets.

For my part here on St Helena, a significant part of the new ICT curriculum will involve thinking skills, independent working, communication & creating content. On January the 12th I will be leading a working party that spans the three primary schools and the high school along with senior members of the Education Department to agree three things:

  • What ICT on St Helena should be
  • What we need to cover in order to achieve that
  • How we intend to assess progress

Curriculum strategy 101 – start at the ground & build up. It may be easier here in isolation, with primary & secondary schools that work together, but I’d recommend at least asking these questions of your department/school to see whether you’re all on the same page, even if you know what you’re doing is working.

ICT, and those of us that teach it and believe in its value, is having a hard time at the moment. There may well be more cause to jump ship in the near future, but all is not lost – the review report sets out nothing that I’m truly worried about, my worry is in school leaders’ interpretations of it, and the implementation in the 2014 NC.

I’m not saying we won’t have cause to worry, but I don’t believe we do at the moment, so focus on the good stuff.