Naace and the Education and Skills Commission warn of rush to change ICT curriculum, writes Bob Harrison
Michael Gove MPMichael Gove MPEducation secretary Michael Gove MP has received the first considered responses to his proposal for dropping key ICT requirements from the National Curriculum.

Naace, the body representing the educational ICT professional community (advisers, industry consultants and some teachers) and industry body the Education and Skills Commission have delivered a thumbs-down. While both welcome the opportunity to improve ICT opportunities for learners, and provide a better link to employment, they view Gove’s plans as tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The response of the Education and Skills Commission, reported in, reflects fears that “the removal of existing mandatory activities will result in some schools not providing ICT education at all for two years”. (See“Skills Commission warns government against withdrawing ICT curriculum”.)

Proposals could 'widen the gap and lead to even greater problems by 2020'

The chairman of the commission, which is part of The Corporate IT Forum representing top UK organisations, is John Harris, chief architect and head of IT strategy at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. He told "We already have a major ICT skills crisis. These proposals, if they go ahead, could widen the gap between the best and the worst ICT teaching in schools to an unacceptable level and lead to even greater problems by 2020."

The Naace contribution to Michael Gove’s consultation, announced in his speech at BETT 2012 goes under the curiously uninspiring title “Naace Disapplication Response”, a reference to Gove’s intention to “disapply” many of the curriculum requirements (called programmes of study) which he said were regarded as boring and out of date.

The key Naace “Nos”, with reasoned arguments, were delivered for the following three consultation questions?

1a) Do you agree with the Government's proposal that the statutory Programmes of Study [PoS] for ICT should be disapplied in maintained schools in England from September 2012?

Naace agrees on the need for revision as part of wider curriculum changes but believes dropping them is not the answer. And it gives a specific warning: “If the PoS are disapplied without a replacement being provided, the progress, performance and opportunities available to pupils will be placed at risk in many schools. Many schools require guidance if they are to deliver a broad and balanced ICT curriculum and without such guidance some schools will fail to deliver an adequate ICT curriculum. The ICT curriculum that children receive will be in real danger of becoming a ‘lottery’.

“In addition, where primary schools review and replace the current ICT Programmes of Study with one of their own, given that secondary schools take pupils from a number of different primary schools, progression to Key Stage 3 may be severely compromised and pupil progress potentially hindered as secondary schools would no longer be able to assume a common baseline of skills, knowledge and understanding.”

The real 'boring' and 'out of date' problem is at key stage 4

Naace is very critical, as are others, of the programmes of study at key stage 4 especially the perceived disincentives to continue to learn programming skills: “Although these skills are not precluded, they can be interpreted at a relatively low level: The omission of programming and other aspects of computer science from the KS4 PoS has led to many ICT courses and qualifications at KS4 not having sufficient rigour and being regarded as ‘boring’  and ‘out of date’, with many taken as a relatively easy way for students to achieve ‘league table’ points. More than this, the KS4 ICT curriculum and qualifications have incentivised some schools to be selective about the PoS for KS3 and to neglect the required problem solving and programming requirements in favour of the applied use of ICT in the KS4 PoS and a number of GCSE or other qualifications…”

In conclusion, Naace suggests that while in urgent need of renewal, the current Key Stage 1, 2 and 3 Programmes of Study, if followed, do allow schools to provide an adequate route through to KS4 qualifications in ICT and computer science, providing that teachers make good use of the freedoms that are already available to them. This suggests that schools will need more support and guidance to be made aware of and take advantage of their current freedoms.

The key issue here is where will that support come from. Becta no longer exists, the DfE has disbanded its Technology Policy Unit, most local authorities no longer have the capacity to provide the support, so perhaps there is a role for RBC’s with their Grids for learning and the remaining CLCs’? Or does the government expect the private sector to step into the breach?

Naace has a warning postscript to this first question: “If these PoS are disapplied the progress, performance and opportunities available to pupils will be placed at risk in many schools,

“Schools need an ICT PoS written by experts in order to prepare pupils fully for learning and the world of work. This Programme of Study should be written so that it is flexible and not only allows but encourages schools to innovate. This is the only way that we can ensure that a broad and balanced ICT curriculum is taught to all pupils,” 

The next question in the DfE consultation also gets a resounding “No” from Naace.

1b) Do you agree with the Government's proposal that the statutory Attainment Targets for ICT should be disapplied in maintained schools in England from September 2012?

Matrix screenWill there be an 'ICT v programming' curriculum land grab?Again Naace suggests that while the statutory attainment targets are not perfect there is greater danger in scrapping them. It also suggests that schools need more support to be challenged and inspired and the lack of focus created by having no attainment targets will create a “postcode lottery” (a recurring theme) and a lack of consistency across the country.

“Whilst agreeing that the attainment targets are in need of revision," argues the Naace response, "disapplication would leave schools without a national benchmark against which they can measure pupil progress and against which parents can measure the progress of their children and the performance of their school. As one member says, “We are not convinced that those schools currently failing to address the attainment target in a challenging and inspiring way will fare any better if it is disapplied.”

The next question is concerned with assessment and once again Naace believes the government proposal is wrong and will lead to ICT not being a school priority.

1c) Do you agree that the statutory assessment arrangements for ICT at Key Stage 3 should be disapplied in maintained schools in England from September 2012?

“By removing the statutory assessment arrangements, schools and LAs will not have the information they need that will help them to prioritise appropriately for learners to develop broad and balanced ICT skills or to provide experiences that are relevant in their own context, personalised for each learner’s needs. Data that may be collected in the absence of statutory arrangements may not be reliable or comparable and thus hinder higher level strategic decision making.”

Naace is convinced that dispensing with the existing programmes of study and attainment targets will have a detrimental effect, and feedback from the large number of schools who have used the (ex Becta) Schools Self Review Framework and have achieved the Naace Quality Mark strengthens its view: “Many schools are interpreting the potential disapplication of the existing PoS and attainment targets, with the expert panel’s recommendation that ICT be reclassified as part of the basic curriculum and the exclusion of ICT from the English Baccalaureate, as an indication that ICT is no longer valued by Government and that it is not something against which their performance will be measured. In this climate schools are unlikely to invest time and resources needed to develop their own PoS.”

Issue of 'postcode lottery ICT' will be exacerbated

Naace also warns that the the proposals could widen the gap between schools “who know best” and those that are struggling to keep up, and “Without a statutory entitlement for learners to a clearly defined ICT curriculum, professional development opportunities are likely to be increasingly diminished as schools focus on other subjects that provide a measure of their success, exacerbating the issue of “postcode lottery ICT”. 

Michael Gove’s BETT speech was regarded as his final recognition – after an 18 month silence and behind the scenes lobbying by educationists, industry and more switched-on Tory politicians – that technology has an important part to play in learning and teaching. It was a superficially positive speech, with multiple references to key UK ICT success stories provided by DfE civil servants in the Technology Policy Unity which he has since disbanded (see “Is the DfE’s ICT love-in over? Technology Policy Unit axed”).

The speech concluded with the announcement of his intention to dispense with ‘unnecessary’ and cumbersome curriculum requirements, and to open new approaches to computer studies/programming. It was the best anyone could expect without expenditure, and had been predicted earlier in 2010 by DfE representatives who had suggested that there might even be a forthcoming policy for ICT and learning. That is now highly unlikely.

Stage set for 'ICT v programming' curriculum land grab?

The DfE will be receiving responses to its ICT curriculum proposals from a range of interested parties, and it will undoubtedly consider them in that light. Naace is viewed as a responsible and credible voice in this debate (more than 2,500 schools are now part of their online self review framework/quality mark), but the minister has shown himself far more open to meeting the likes of News International, Apple and Pearson than grass roots organisations like Naace. And there are others who do not share Naace's broad view about the “ICT brand”. A curriculum “land grab” is likely as the new-found, press-encouraged fervour for computer programming skews the arguments, despite the workforce's lack of skills to support it.

Naace’s “Disapplication Response” is based on careful reasoning and a broad picture, and is linked to its own constructive ‘framework’. But whether the organisation carries weight with a government department clearly out of touch with technology for learning remains to be seen. There is a real danger that the polarisation of the arguments into “ICT v Computer Science” will blur the most critical issue. And that is how can we ensure that teachers, schools, the curriculum and the assessment process can support all learners to use technology to achieve their potential, whatever their ultimate paths to fulfilment and employment might be?

Not all pupils want to be computer scientists but they will need to use technology effectively in their work and social lives and the technology industry will also need skilled technicians. The biggest danger now lies in letting ministers decide.

“Naace Disapplication Response's “Skills Commission warns government against withdrawing ICT curriculum”

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services and Toshiba UK. He runs Support for Education and Training

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