Where next for computing/ICT?

Entries for GCSE computer science are increasing, whilst those for ICT are in terminal decline, with the last GCSEs for ICT being sat in the summer of this year (2018). Overall the number of examination entries for computing related subjects are in decline, totalling fewer than 25% of the number for mathematics. Perhaps more worryingly, computer science appears to be reducing the diversity of take-up, for example, the early signs are that it is far more attractive to boys than girls.

I have an MSc in computer science and strongly support the educational value of such an academically demanding subject, with an intense relevance to the modern world. I have long held the view that computing/ICT has become so fundamental to all aspects of human endeavour, that it should be classed as a core subject, at least on a par with science and probably slightly ahead of it, whilst bowing to the pre-eminence of English and mathematics.

When the new national curriculum subject of computing was launched in 2013, I was disappointed that the majority of what I read was concerned with justifying the computer science element. There did not appear to be a strong underlying vision for the whole subject – it seemed to be a watered down version of the old ICT, with computer science bolted on. Most of the accompanying commentary was regarding the computer science element.

I could not find any statement of what was wanted from the new subject, either. Just comments pointing towards a growing need for computer programmers. Whilst this might be the case, it seemed clear that the vast majority of young people would still grow up to be users of digital technology, as opposed to authors of the next generation of software tools and I believe that is still the case.

Aims for computing curriculum

My own view is that the aims of the computing curriculum should be along the lines of the following.

  1. To demystify digital technology.
  2. To provide all learners with a wide range of knowledge, skills and understanding to allow them to use digital technologies effectively to support them in future learning and whilst at work, as well as in their everyday lives.
  3. To allow all learners to develop into fully engaged, digitally competent, citizens.
  4. To inspire the minority (albeit a growing minority) of learners who will go on to further specialist study of computing and become the next generation of computer scientists, programmers and ICT experts.

It could be argued that schools and teachers needed the incentive of the withdrawal of ICT qualifications in order to fully commit to computer science, which was always going to be a very challenging process, requiring a lot of new learning. However, simply making computer science an Ebacc subject may have provided enough incentive to begin the transition, allowing the system to evolve more slowly, yet more securely. Training and financial incentives could have been added to speed up this transition.

It does seem that the baby was thrown out with the bath water and there is a strong case to be made for the creation of rigorous, high quality ICT qualifications, to sit alongside computer science. These should attempt to fulfil the aims listed for the computing curriculum, whilst also acting as potential stepping stones onto computer science courses, instead of closing off this avenue of study, because of decisions made at ages 13-14.

Some might argue for GCSE qualifications in computing, that better represent the National Curriculum blend of computer science, ICT and digital literacy. My personal view is that such courses would end up being too general to be useful and that some measure of specialisation at KS4 is appropriate.

Finally, I have long struggled to see the need for any young person to have more than a single GCSE (or equivalent) in computer science/ICT, as part of a well-rounded education. However, it is essential that the qualifications on offer should be of the highest quality, designed to interest, stretch and inspire, rather than lead to the maximum accumulation of league table points.

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