Tinkering with the curriculum is doomed if children are not engaged, policy-makers warned
Model for ICT from Bill Mitchell of BCSModel for ICT/computer science from Bill Mitchell of BCS"The Department [for Education] is less in charge of ICT than it ever has been," said Vanessa Pittard, the civil servant in charge of ICT, speaking at the “Next steps for the ICT Curriculum" debate organised by Westminster Forums.

It might have been encouraging for the groups trying to reshape ICT and restore computer science – like the British Computer Society and Computing at Schools – but the message from teachers present was starkly different. Headteacher Neil Hopkin said the wrong people were discussing the curriculum, and were designing a camel rather than a racehorse.

The executive head at Rosendale Primary in West Dulwich and Christ Church Primary in Brixton asked why children up to 11 are “so effective” at learning outside school but “so ineffective” within school. For him, the fact that learning occurs in a natural way in language is the key. He warned delegates: “What we are getting wrong, and what we are in danger of getting wrong in this conversation we're having this morning, is that we are not understanding what is important - and that's children's engagement.”

He reminded them that at the previous Westminster Forum ICT event in 2011 he had shown a “movie” made by a two-year-old on an iPod Touch: “Why? because he was engaged.”

“Why is it that people are not taking up ICT in its very many forms? Why has it flatlined as we have been shown? Because we are not engaging young people. Why are we not engaging young people? Because we are getting this wrong.” He went on to point out how educationists had been excited for a fleeting moment at BETT 2012 when it appeared that education secretary Michael Gove MP had done a u-turn to embrace technology (“Perish the thought”).

‘It’s about engaging young people, inspiring them and taking off the limits'

Neil HopkinHeadteacher Neil Hopkin“What a dangerous mistake we have made to let politicians tell us what we ought to be interested in in education,” he said. “We know. It's about engaging children.

“It's not about computer science, it's not about ICT, it's not about consumers, which our children are, and we all are. Nor is it about being producers of ICT. It's about engaging young people, and inspiring them and taking off the limits. We need to change... otherwise we are about to invent the Blackberry of education rather than the iPhone.

“The reality is that what we have actually got to do is to create something which understands the spirit of what we want children to achieve. This is coding.

It would be wrong to consider this an attack on the interventions of industry groups like the British Computer Society or Computing at School; but it was a clear warning from the grassroots that tinkering with the curriculum, however well-intentioned or needed, would fail if it didn’t keep engagement and the hopes of children at its heart.

The sentiment was echoed by Eileen Poh, head of the business and ICT department at Hendon School, London. She called for a more holistic approach to teaching ICT, working together and being honest about what children need.

'ICT doesn’t need “re-branding – just a “makeover'

"ICT doesn’t need “re-branding, she warned – just a “makeover”. And the curriculum should not be hijacked for computer science or for ICT. “ICT is a little bit like the car industry: the design section where you are creating new designs, new cars; you’ve got the middle section, the service industry where you need to make sure those cars are well looked after and they are serviced and are fixed when they go wrong; but equally, you have a lot of people that need to be able to drive those cars effectively and you need creativity there as well.

“Not everybody needs to be experts on all three levels, but they do need experts at all three levels.”

There were two headteachers on hand to demonstrate how they had already successfully integrated computer science into their curricula. And to remind delegates that we have been here before, Professor Richard Noss from the London Knowledge Lab commented: “Thirty something years ago, LOGO was introduced to schools as a brilliant revolutionary innovation and a few years later it apparently didn’t deliver what it promised.  

“The reason why it didn’t deliver what it promised is that people were using it without being clear why they were using it and teachers were having trouble understanding how it fitted in to what they do. Now I think the Raspberry Pi is a fantastic idea and I agree with you Ian [Livingstone, of the NextGen report], every pupil should have one, maybe they should have two to save them taking them home. But how do we ensure that we don’t try and squeeze this fantastic revolutionary idea into what is a deeply conservative institution, namely schools?

“Is there something we can do, that you can do with your colleagues in the industry, to ensure that teachers know why they are doing it, what they want to do with it, and can exploit the kids' inherent activities with it?” (Professor Noss’ persuasive new report from the Technology Enhanced Learning Research Programme, “System Upgrade: Realising the vision for UK education” has just been published.)

If UK schools still have problems with maths, how will they cope with computer science?

His Institute of Education colleague Professor Celia Hoyles, whose career has creatively focused on addressing the UK’s failure to successfully engage young people with maths, was also present to underline what should be obvious links between ICT and computer science and maths and science. The unstated but obvious issue here was, if UK schools still have problems engaging learners with maths, how will they turn them on to computing?

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison: 'myth of death of ICT'Education adviser, Bob Harrison, who chairs the teaching schools’ New Technologies Advisory Board, welcomed the curriculum review but warned about workforce capacity. He wanted to dispel a myth: “Stories of the death and demise of ICT are unfounded, it exists as a National Curriculum subject now and will continue to exist in 2014.”

The “how” was more important than the “what”, he said, and he warned: “If the ICT teaching is so bad in our schools, how will the disapplication of some programmes of study on its own make any difference whatsoever? It won’t.”

Education initiatives had the unfortunate tendency of over-promising and under-delivering, he said, and he was worried that this would be the same for ICT and computer science. The key question was: “How are we going to provide these teachers?”

This was just the beginning, he said. There were now 100 teaching schools, and should be 500 by 2014, so it was crucial that all the groups involved in ICT and computing should collaborate for maximum effectiveness and to avoid waste.

Bob Harrison concluded with a story from personal experience, how his stepson Kieran, who has a close interest in ICT, attended a Stamford Digital Academy summer course in the USA some years ago and developed three computer games using a prototype of Scratch. He proudly brought home his certificate and the games on a CD-Rom, and asked his teacher at Urmston Grammar School whether the work could be accredited for his ICT GCSE . “Not relevant,” he was told.

He got an average grade at GCSE for ICT, lost interest and dropped the subject. “It wasn’t a programme of study that stopped Kieran going on to do ICT,” said Bob Harrison. “It was the assessment criteria and a teacher. We need to focus on the teacher and the assessment regimes.”

There was consensus at the Westminster forum debate on the need to realign the curriculum to reassert the importance of computing, which had been eclipsed in the drive to get ICT into schools in a relatively short time and embed it across subjects. And key players were present, like Bill Mitchell, the British Computer Society’s director of its Academy of Computing, Ian Livingstone, architect of the influential NextGen report, and Ben Upton, director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation behind the innovative and cheap new computer being hailed as a new-generation BBC device.

They provided familiar statistics demonstrating the alarming skills gap facing Britain and familiar and convincing arguments for the role of computer science. However, there didn’t appear to be much of a consensus among them and others on a holistic curriculum for technology in schools and how to achieve it. In fact, there were various roles presented for ICT, computing and ‘digital literacy’, some of them conflicting. And Ian Livingstone’s concluding “So, ICT, going, going, gone” remark drew more than a few murmurs.

'Disapply' doesn't mean schools shouldn't use programmes of study

Vanessa PittardVanessa Pittard: DfE viewVanessa Pittard reprised the view from the Dfe and said that the hands-off approach should be a good thing for technology in schools. She reminded delegates "ICT will remain compulsory at all key stages and will still be taught at every stage of the curriculum, from September 2012, even after it’s disapplied." And "disapply" didn't mean that schools shouldn't use them or even improve on them.

She reassured forum attendees that ICT would continue to be at the heart of the curriculum and a new promgramme of study, much lighter, would be issued in 2014 when it will be a foundation subject. The Government did not have a vision to impose so it was importand that there should be a "collective set of visions" supported by emerging networks. She recognised the importance of the support from Vital and from the teaching schools' New Technologies Advisory Board: ""Schools don’t necessarily listen to everything that comes out of the Department all the time."

For those at this Westminster Forum who are unconvinced by the apparent Damascene conversion of ministers and sections of the press on the need for technology in a vision for a modern UK, the reminders of institutional and cultural barriers were timely. And none more so than Sarah Lamb, founder of Girl Geek Dinners, a proud “digital native and technologist”.

ICT disengagement of girls a worldwide phenomenon

A campaigner to increase the number of girls and young women taking up technology, Sarah Lamb warned that disengagement wasn’t just a UK phenomenon. “At the moment we are seeing an awful lot of girls dropping out of ICT related subjects,” she said, “whether that’s maths, science, engineering, you name it. I all of those subjects there’s a huge decrease over the past two to three years. This isn’t just happening in the UK, this is happening worldwide, globally.” It’s such a global concern that the United Nations is getting involved.

The problem starts way before any talk of GCSEs, she said. At primary boys and girls are generally on a pretty level peg. “However, when girls get to puberty they tend to lose their self confidence, particularly in subjects where they don’t necessarily feel like they belong... maths, science, engineering, the kind of subjects that generally you are pushing against stereotypes and boundaries.

“Why are they feeling like that? Because they are not seeing that positive reinforcement. So if we can positively reinforce that and actually make them feel like they belong and actually support them in their choices, when they are excelling in these subjects, we don’t want to necessarily point them out as the experts in their class because actually what they want to do at that age is hide.

“They don’t want to necessarily stand out from the crowd, they just want to get on and do it, but you need to be able to gently persuade them to do it without affecting their ability to shine.”

'We ought to be making sure that the learners can do the leading'

Her observations chime loudly with those of Neil Hopkin and his insistence on the primacy of engaging learners: “If we want children to be using Kodu and using that powerfully and competing in a global marketplace by producing games that everybody around the world wants to buy, and if we want them to understand the coding that enables games to be produced, actually we have to empower their imagination and start taking the limits off.

"What’s the issue here? The issue is the difference between the vehicle and the content. We are making a mistake. We are thinking that we have to stipulate one thing and that the children should run down that track, when actually the only things we are interested in is what learning do we think children should be achieving? How they achieve that is a route that they will bring their imagination to, and when we allow that to happen, as that particular vehicle of learning, we will find that actually their learning races ahead."

Bringing in another technology analogy, he presented it as the the difference in the approaches of Apple and Microsoft. “They [Apple] were producing stuff that they wanted to use themselves. What we are not doing in school is actually producing things that the children want to learn themselves. Why?  Because we are leading the learners, whereas really we ought to be making sure that the learners can do the leading.  

“So take the limits off.  We have children that pre-statutory age that have the imagination to fire up how learning can happen. Let’s let them do that.”

And if your school likes its advice in a nushell, here it is from Vital's Peter Twining: "Stick to what you are doing and ditch the QCDA schemes of work."

More information

 Westminster Forum Projects  

See also:

"Computing at School sets brave targets for GCSEs"  
"Teaching schools ICT group starts research with audit"