Why IT education is bottom of the class
The first steps for tomorrow’s programming professionals carry them through the junior school gates. The sad fact about the education system’s shortcomings is that computers in the classroom hold so much early promise. “Children love it – they can’t wait to go into IT lessons twice a week,” said Cheshire primary school teacher Cath Kinnear. “The smart boards make lessons so much better – they’ve revolutionised the way we teach and how much more attention children pay. Boys don’t like just sitting – they want to be touching, and the interactive board makes it all so much more visual and exciting. At the end of primary school, children can do most basic tasks on a PC, from data and word processing to research on the internet.”
Once they arrive at secondary school, however, industry experts claim children’s IT skills aren’t stretched far enough. “What they’re teaching in schools at the moment isn’t necessarily too basic, but it is too straightforward -they’re teaching students how to turn on a computer, how to do data processing and how to organise a spreadsheet,” said Andrew Herbert, the managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge. “That’s all very necessary, but it’s just a basic extension of the three Rs. It’s like learning to drive a car, but it doesn’t give you the skills to design or develop new cars for the future.”
Such mundane tasks are miles away from the high-minded creativity of the computer clubs in schools 20 years ago when men in corduroy jackets were excited about pupils making BBC computers draw blocky graphics. “Schools’ prime concern when it comes to IT is preparing young people to be computer users – if not, they’re going to be isolated and excluded from economic and social development,” claimed Rob Northcott, headmaster of Langley Park Boys’ School, which boasts some 500 computers for its 1,600 students and is regarded highly as an IT school. “We need to make them all confident users of packages like Microsoft Office, and to apply those skills to other subjects. Of course, none of that comes anywhere near the needs of the computer industry, but most students are happy to use the PC and don’t care what’s going on inside the box.”
It isn’t only pupils who don’t care – one Kent ICT teacher claims government meddling has ripped the heart out of ICT teaching. “It’s a numbers game, ticking off boxes so the government can fall back on statistics, saying how much progress has been made. But a lot of teachers are just going through the motions, doing what they have to do to ensure the students have the best chance of passing, even if that means not teaching them how to think about anything outside the strict time and contents restraints of the syllabus. In terms of rigour, it’s getting weaker all the time,” he said.
Courses past their sell-by date
Not only are some IT lessons failing to inspire children, they’re already out of date before the term starts, according to ICT teachers. Flick through the textbooks and you’ll find references to dial-up modems and technology that was important two years ago when the syllabus was drawn up, but won’t be around next year. Technology moves so fast that it’s almost impossible for administrators to keep pace, especially given that the books and courses take at least two years to put in place.
What’s even more galling for pupils who sit through those outdated classes is that they count for very little once they move on to university. “People who’ve been through ICT courses are no better off when it comes to studying computing at university than someone who has just maths or possibly physics. Some lecturers even discourage people from taking ICT at A-Level and just to go straight into computer science at university so that the set ideas they’ve picked up don’t need to be undone,” said one ICT teacher, who preferred not to arouse the wrath of his department head.