‘Boring’ label shows industry is ignorant about GCSE ICT – A CW Readers response

Over the past few months, quite a lot has been said in Computing/IT magazines/forums and discussions on the state of affairs of the current GCSE in IT/ICT within the UK. That includes me as well, as I have referred to the state of IT education etc in previous blogs – Nurturing future IT Professionals and leaders and The future graduate and the IT and computing skills shortage. I was trying to catch up with my obligatory reading and had just reached page 14 of ComputerWeekly (CW 3-9 Nov 09) when I came across Ruth Nuttall’s letter. I found it was a breath of fresh air and an interesting read as it’s not often that we receive the views of teachers on this important subject. I could have just inserted a link to the page but in spite of my best efforts to find the article on CW’s site, I couldn’t locate it. So, I have actually done it the hard way as I just wanted all of you to read it, so I have actually sat down and re-typed Ruth’s entire letter. Reproduced thanks to ComputerWeekly and Ruth Nuttall, ICT teacher and computing co-ordinator Hazelwick School, West Sussex. Ruth said:

I read with increasing irritation the article “Boring IT GCSE must go”. I am a computing and ICT teacher at a school in West Sussex, and this article summarises all of the assumptions and lack of knowledge typified by journalists and certain types of business people. The headline itself displays a basic ignorance of ICT/ computing in education – there is no such qualification as a GCSE in IT.

We teach GCSE ICT and an equivalent course called OCR Nationals (ICT). In an educational context, the subject is called information and communication technology. There are many different qualifications at GCSE level that can be opted for, including the courses we offer, the DiDA course, BTECs etc. I am not disputing that the subject of ICT has suffered in recent years – in the past it has been taught by non specialist teachers, as it was not possible to train as an ICT teacher until relatively recently. This use of non specialist teachers is one of the main reasons that the subject has come to be seen in some schools as boring and out of date.

In my department, most ICT teachers did a degree in an ICT or computer science field, or have worked in the IT industry and trained as ICT specialist teachers. We are constantly updating what and how we teach to engage and inspire the children who do an ICT GCSE at my school. Most GCSE syllabuses allow schools the flexibility to adapt the course to suit their needs – the GCSE course that we follow has four coursework projects, two are proscribed (spreadsheets and databases) but the other two are free choice, and could be on any topic from programming to web design to animation or game design.

However, due to the lack of subject specialists in some schools, often teachers choose to do topics such as word processing and desktop publishing as their free choice. This is what can lead to the idea that ICT is boring. It is not clear from your article what role E-Skills has in the development of future syllabuses. The GCSE ICT offerings from each of the major exam boards are already changing next year, and these specifications have been finalised and approved.

There is an IT diploma that is being developed and is in its first year of delivery – this is something that E-Skills has been heavily involved in. Is it possible that you have confused this with the GCSE ICT offerings? The diploma is aimed at 14- to 19-year-olds and can be taken at three levels, and so could be equivalent to GCSEs or A-levels. There is also a GCSE in computing being offered by the exam board OCR as a trial in September 2010. At this point it is worth noting that ICT and computing are related but very different subjects, somewhat like the difference between business studies and economics, or geography and geology. Not all ICT teachers have the academic background required to teach computing.

You seem to use the terms ICT, IT and computing interchangeably in your article, and to have confused all of these different types of qualifications. The final comment in your article from British Airways CIO Paul Coby is deeply offensive to me and my fellow teachers – “GCSE IT teaching is appalling and out of date”. How precisely does he know this? How many schools has he been in and seen what is being taught? Or is this based on anecdotes and preformed opinions?

We work hard at school to motivate and inspire pupils, and we have a large and successful ICT department that offers a variety of ICT or computing courses. We may be the exception that proves the rule, but to dismiss all teachers and a whole subject area out of hand and without a voice from teachers is foolish and lazy.

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Nurturing future IT professionals and leaders

My blog has been nominated for an award within the CIO/IT Director category, recommend my blog for the shortlisted candidates at:

http://www.computerweekly.com/nominate.Voting for shortlisted entries will open on 27th October

(This is a sister article to – The future graduate and the IT and Computing skills shortage)

“The price of greatness is responsibility”- Sir Winston Churchill

So, there we have it. Churchill, grasped the essence of my topic, quite aptly. Today’s CIOs, local government, schools, colleges and universities owe it to future generations to support and nurture our future IT professionals and Leaders. It just isn’t good enough for us (everyone involved within the IT industry) to pass the buck anymore. We can all either sit on the fence and do nothing and continue to whinge over the future, or, hey, let’s just be positive and do whatever we can as individuals to inspire youngsters to join our beloved profession. So, what can we do? Actually, quite a lot. It’s like JFK said;

Think not what your country can do for you, think what you can do for your country,”

or if you are a Hoff fan, like me;

You were spared to lead the great fight. Don’t turn away in fear. One man can make a difference and you are going to be that man”.

Let’s be those men/women. Here is a starter for 10, to get you going.

1. Join Computing’s, tomorrow’s IT Leaders initiative and their associated LinkedIn group.

Now, don’t just join this initiative but become active participants. Your thoughts and interaction will push this initiative to a successful conclusion. What do you think should happen to encourage youngsters? How can we engage and involve local CIOs, local government, schools, colleges and universities? All these types of questions need to be asked.

2. Why can’t we have a standard degree and masters across the UK/accredit the e-skills Information Technology Management for Business (ITMB) degree nationally? (Taught at 13 universities already)

There are too many versions of IT degrees nationally. As such, employers are never certain of the skills that a new IT graduate will bring with them. Is the answer to have an IT degree/masters standard?

3. For IT leadership (CIOs), City University, London is launching a new masters course. Again, why can’t we have such a course at a national level?

4. Work placements and open days, organised by CIOs.

Almost, every UK town and city has organisations that have CIOs. Every CIO should be advertising at least two work placements every year. In addition, open days should be held by IT departments for school delegations of up to 30, twice each year. The format should include representatives from every department, showcasing how these departments utilise IT and the benefits, cost savings etc enjoyed by that department with the IT department explaining why that solution was chosen and the process, for example, invitation to tender (ITT) and project management methodologies used. This would give school children a unique overview of IT within an actual organisation while showcasing the commercial, business and IT elements by those departments.

CIOs also need to consult with local councils etc to organise open career days within schools where CIOs explain the merits of a career within IT while explaining popular career paths etc.

The e-skills council is currently organising many similar activities but I feel that the e-skills council need to include the above and e-skills also need to market all their activities with a renewed vigour as the message that they want to deliver is still not getting through.

To finish the article, the other good news is that the current GCSE ICT syllabus is being replaced for a new GCSE ICT syllabus in September 2010. There was always concern within the IT fraternity that the current GCSE ICT syllabus did not provide the foundation required to enter the profession and was ill equipped to handle recent developments within ICT. The new syllabus is much better and has taken into account the maturity of IT within organisations and as such provides a much better foundation for aspiring ICT youngsters.

The finishing quote for this article, had to be from my favourite builder, Bob the builder;

“Can we fix IT?” “Yes, we can!”