Friday, August 28, 2009

ICT for schoolchildren

@bryanglick (editor of Computing) worries as the number of GCSE ICT students falls again, reckons it's not good for UK IT.

I asked Bryan if he thought our kids need a GCSE to become computer-literate? Bryan agreed that GCSE is not a measure of computer literacy, but interprets the fall in numbers as an indicator of how few kids are interested in a career in IT (link). I disagree with Bryan's interpretation, and I also disagree that this is a cause for concern.

The Computing story itself provides two main explanations for the falling numbers.

  1. ICT as a subject is now considered irrelevant by many children because ICT is used as a tool in so many other subjects. 
  2. ICT is seen as a soft touch at GCSE and A-level by many employers (and universities).

At GCSE level, the focus of the ICT course appears to be life skills rather than vocational skills - the computer as a means to an end. My son uses the computer and the internet to do his GCSE coursework in science and history, and for this he has needed to learn techniques for effective search and evaluation of information sources, as well as effective graphical and verbal presentation. Besides his schoolwork, he also uses a range of social tools, from Facebook to Spotify.

As a parent, I am much more concerned about his grades in mathematics, science and history, because these are the subjects that are taken seriously by universities and employers. If he did want to study computer science at Cambridge, for example, the best choice of A-levels would appear to be mathematics, further maths and physics [source: Cambridge University]. ICT is on Cambridge University's list of "soft" subjects, along with home economics and sports science [BBC News, 7 January 2008].

As it happens, my son's school no longer offers a GCSE in ICT anyway. The school has adopted a new diploma called DiDA; we are promised (although with little evidence as yet) that this will be regarded as equivalent to GCSEs. So the total number of kids doing GCSE in ICT is influenced by decisions made by parents and teachers and exam boards, and is not an indicator of how many 14-year-old kids (which is when they choose their GCSE options) want a career in IT.

The fact that schools are downgrading their ICT education needn't be a bad sign for the UK IT industry. As computer and internet literacy among teenagers continues to increase, schools can hopefully go back to teaching more intellectually demanding subjects, at least to those capable of tacking them.

Meanwhile, what does a career in ICT look like - either now or in the future? If I wanted to be provocative, I could identify several tiers. The top jobs in ICT would go (as always) to extremely bright, extremely creative people, from a broad range of intellectually demanding academic disciplines. (Many of the computer pioneers studied mathematics or physics. People who had studied Latin and Greek sometimes became outstanding software engineers.) There would be a middling tier of competent systems developers, who have had a more vocational education including ICT and business studies. And a bottom tier of data entry clerks and operators.

If my son did want a career in ICT, I hope he would aspire for the top jobs. The route to the top jobs in ICT doesn't go via a GCSE in ICT. The health of the UK IT industry depends more on the number of top maths grades than on the number of ICT passes. If the GCSE in ICT vanished altogether, I can't see it would be the end of the world.

The GCSE is a qualification taken by UK schoolchildren, usually across Years 10 and 11 (ages 14-16). Children may take GCSE in a number of subjects; schools generally offer some compulsory subjects (including Mathematics and English) and some optional subjects; pupils need to choose their GCSE options when they are 13 or 14.


  1. Hi Richard,

    This is such an interesting and important debate - one conducted much more effectively here than in 140 characters on Twitter!

    I agree with you completely that the current ICT exams at GCSE and A-level are, frankly, a bit of a waste of time. I doubt there is a single IT employer who looks for prospective staff to have taken the exams, and as you point out, even universities don't mandate ICT as a precursor to studying ICT! That is a reflection of an outdated and inappropriate curriculum that meets the needs of nobody - students, universities or employers. An Ofsted report earlier this year highlighed just this problem - more here:

    But we do have a major problem in IT education in the UK. e-Skills UK estimates we need 140,000 new entrants into the IT profession every year for the next 5 years - that figure may be revised down during the recession, but we have a huge skills gap emerging.

    There is a difference between IT literacy - needed to do pretty much any office job these days - and IT skills. Kids pick up IT literacy now by osmosis. But we are not developing enough children who want to become IT professionals - without them, UK firms will have increasingly little choice to satisfy their need for IT skills than to offshore their work to countries such as India and China that are churning out IT-educated graduates in their hundreds of thousands.

    If - as we surely must - we want to retain the IT skills needed to become a leading knowledge economy, then that has to start in school. A child that is left disillusioned by the prospect of an IT career at 14 - especially one who is so keen to use technology in every aspect of their lives - is lost to the IT profession.

    Of course, we will still recruit maths, science, engineering, language, social science etc students into IT to get the necessary diversity of skills. But a meaningful IT GCSE and A-level, that excites kids about the prospect of a career in IT, is surely essential to the future of the UK IT industry.

    Bryan Glick

  2. Bryan, you agree that ICT exams are a waste of time. But you still think kids should start thinking about an IT career at the age of 14 (I certainly didn't), and you expect schools to push them in the right direction.

    To close the skills gap in IT, we do need to attract intelligent young people who can think creatively, reason logically and communicate effectively. The schools can and should teach some of these general skills, but surely the last thing we want is for students to gain a false impression of an IT career from the feeble kind of ICT they are likely to do in most schools.

    How should students learn the positive side of a career in IT? Instead of schools attempting to communicate this kind of thing, I think the leadership should come from media organizations such as the BBC and of course Computing.

    There are many valuable things that could be done - national competitions for under 17s, proper work experience (not just making coffee for two weeks) - and you could probably make a real difference.

    I'd be delighted to help.

  3. Hi again Richard,

    I wouldn't say ICT exams per se are a waste of time, but by all accounts I hear the current ICT curriculum is. We need a more relevant curriculum and exam that enthuses students and better prepares them for a potential career in IT - whether that is part of a corporate IT department or developing games.

    There is quite a lot of the sort of activity you highlighted going on, led mainly by e-Skills UK, who have been putting various programmes in place to get kids more involved and excited about a career in IT - see for an example. On that site you'll also see a competition for "budding technology journalists" that Computing has sponsored, offering the winning teenager the chance to have an article published in our weekly magazine.

    Employers also have a big part to play here, through things such as meaningful work experience, as you suggested, and by better outreach programmes to schools.

    No one thing is going to make a difference, and nothing is going to change overnight - but I still think that the one thing that has to be right is the ICT exam. Building a course that kids want to study, and to follow through to A-level and university, has to be a priority.

    Computing will certainly do what it can - and by raising this as an issue, and engaging in exactly this sort of debate, I hope we can contribute to that process.

    Thanks for your interest.

    Best regards

  4. I fundamentally disagree that the school ICT curriculum should be focused on a potential career in ICT. Children don't learn geography in order to become explorers, they learn geography in order to understand important aspects of the world. They learn science and politics and history, because these are important things for any citizen to understand, not just because we want more of them to become scientists and politicians and historians.

    Likewise ICT, which is likely to be an important part of any adult's world. regardless of the chosen career. The future of the IT industry doesn't just depend on the number of kids who want to become programmers, it also depends on the number of doctors and nurses and pharmacists and lawyers and clerks and historians and scientists and explorers and journalists and above all managers and politicians who have a good appreciation of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of ICT.

  5. Erm, I'm not quite sure that's what I said Richard - I wouldn't disagree with anything you have written there.

    I didn't say the curriculum should be focused on a career in IT, but it should prepare kids for a career in IT by giving them a better idea of what such a career would entail - precisely the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats you describe. I don't think I suggested anywhere that ICT as a topic of study should be treated any differently from any other important topic of study.

    But surely the ICT exam should be oriented around the real world - just as science and history and geography should be - and capable of enthusing its students about the subject, some of whom may later decide to pursue a career in IT. The key phrase in my last comment to you was "building a course that kids want to study". The problem at the moment is that it doesn't.