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.
- ICT as a subject is now considered irrelevant by many children because ICT is used as a tool in so many other subjects.
- 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.