IT in Schools

Education ministers and policy-drivers often go to great lengths to emphasise that education should do nothing if not prepare students for the world that awaits them when they leave school and enter the world of work. And a noble aim this is. While most would agree that education for its own sake is an enriching and rewarding way to spend your time, few would contest that education should also reflect the ‘real world’. It is in this spirit that subjects such as ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) have been steadily introduced to the curriculum.

ICT (including computing, or computer science) would appear to be a perfect choice for those looking to provide themselves with a skill that holds some currency on the job market. More and more jobs require more than a basic grounding in computer programmes, and technology start-ups and businesses form a vibrant part of the economy. Furthermore, IT has come to form the backbone of many more established industries, including, notably, finance.

Despite this, only 10% of students sitting their GCSEs in 2013 chose ICT as a subject. While this number is a huge increase (of 38%) from 2012, this explosion is from a frightfully low base. What explains the low uptake?

The answer may lie in the fact that technology moves incredibly quickly, making it hard for the exam boards that develop curricula to keep up. Even those designed in conjunction with tech giants (such as AQA’s collaboration with Microsoft) run the risk of giving students a thorough grounding in technologies that may be too narrow, or may soon be obsolete.
Ronan, an IT professional with 12 years’ experience working in the industry, points out that a crucial problem is that there are simply too many different technologies, coding languages, and frameworks in use. Moving from one IT job to another, even within a company, may require entirely different sets of skills, a breadth that is hard to condense into an exam-based curriculum. This is not just a challenge faced by schools, universities are just as prone to creating computer science degrees that are effectively worthless.

Exam boards have set about addressing this problem by focusing on the fundamentals, such as how computers interpret and use data, but, at GCSE level, many courses still feature too much of the ‘how to use Powerpoint’ material, leaving students bored senseless. Newer course materials feature some introductions to coding, and problem-solving using advanced technologies, but this doesn’t solve the obsolescence problem.

To further compound this issue, there is a distinct scarcity of highly-qualified computer science teachers at GCSE and A-Level. This is largely due to the fact that those with the relevant knowledge are working in the field, rather than teaching. Of those who have entered the teaching profession, many graduated with their degrees in computer science too long ago, making the information and technologies that they studied out-of-date.

What we are left with is a seemingly impossible task: to create a curriculum that provides a strong foundation in the key technologies, whilst simultaneously providing the skills for an ever-changing field; a curriculum that anticipates a changing jobs landscape without being too in hock to trends; a programme that helps students develop skills to a reasonable degree of proficiency, whilst acknowledging that focusing on one or two sets of skills or technologies ignores the sheer volume of other systems in operation.

The answer to this dilemma may very well be to treat ICT qualifications almost like a vocational course. IT resources and materials are available in large quantities online, and are often free to use. The relative abundance of ‘self-help’ materials encourages students who are passionate about computer science to strike out on their own and develop skills they find interesting or relevant. Additionally, job placements are very often the best way to develop IT skills.

Ronan confirms that entering the workforce with any amount of real-world experience is more valuable than any qualification or degree. ‘You may start out doing menial tasks, like migrating data or fixing minor bugs, but eventually you move on to bigger or more complicated tasks, and grow your skill set from there.’

Working with companies to create internship-type placements for GCSE or A-Level students could be a promising way to create an environment in which fundamentals (however those are defined) are learned in the classroom, and the ‘nitty-gritty’ of coding, systems, and frameworks is learned in real-world situations, thus also encouraging students to learn crucial job-market skills and teaching them to adapt to new challenges, think on their feet, and study independently.

Exam boards are right to review skills such as creating documents and spreadsheets and using databases, but their focus needs to be beyond this; on programming for mobile technologies, web-based technologies and programming, and coding languages and frameworks. Only with an emphasis in these areas will British students emerge with a qualification that would ever mean something to an employer. Many examiners are moving decidedly in the right direction, but encouraging practical skill development in the workplace would better serve students.

Gove is Gone

It’s official. Michael Gove, in all of his divisive glory, is no longer the Education Secretary, and will be setting up camp instead in the Chief Whip’s office. Teachers across the country tripped over themselves in the rush to cheer his demise, but what does Michael Gove’s removal, and his replacement with Nicky Morgan, mean for education in the UK?

The decidedly unexciting answer is: probably not much.

Nicky Morgan, first elected to Parliament as Member for Loughborough in 2010, has moved to the education brief from a stint as a Treasury Minister. She will also hold the Women and Equality portfolio—something which is already raising eyebrows considering her votes against same-sex marriage and her points of view on abortion access. Apart from serving, for a time, as a school governor, little seems to qualify Mrs. Morgan for her role at the helm of the Department for Education, and her voting record suggests that she agrees with the vast majority of her predecessor’s reforms.

Many may laud the raising of a woman to such a high position, as opposed to the ‘pale, male, and stale’, but Mrs. Morgan’s privately educated background would appear not to be a vast departure from the Tory stereotype. Michael Gove’s personal story, and his personal experiences of education, may have been more of an asset to him in his Education role than Mrs. Morgan’s may prove.

More importantly, perhaps, is the timing of Mrs. Morgan’s appointment. With this reshuffle coming as close as it does to the next general election, it is unlikely that she is expected to implement anything real or new, and, assuming that she wanted to, there would be very little time in which to do it. For the time being, she is likely to remain a place-holder of sorts, and to be one of the many recently promoted female MPs intended to make the Conservative cabinet more representative of the party as a whole.

Though many of Mr. Gove’s reforms were controversial, and he singularly failed to get teachers and other academic professionals on-side, the broad sweep of his reforms was generally in the right direction. Moves to increase accountability, create a more rigorous curriculum, and free schools, teachers, and parents to create dynamic and independent learning environments have followed the patterns set elsewhere in the world that have achieved strong results for students.

That is not to say, of course, that every reform, or reform proposal, was on target. Nor did his abrasive approach win many friends. However, his time as Education Secretary forced schools, teachers, parents, and society at large, to think seriously about what is most important about education and different ways to achieve it.
If we are to take anything from Mr. Gove’s replacement, it is that the Government seems willing to acknowledge that the furious pace of his reforms needs a cooling-down period, and reforms need time to settle in. While teething problems with policies are worked through, it may be helpful to have a face in the Department for Education without such a strongly established agenda.

Abolishing the Eleven-Plus

Dr. Christopher Ray, the head of Manchester Grammar school has raised concerns at the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference this year about the ‘hot housing’ process that many children undergo at 11+ and 13+.

According to Dr. Ray, tutoring has become de rigueur for many middle class families when preparing for selective school exams. The problem arises after those students have entered their schools of choice, when intensively tutored pupils may struggle to keep up with their more academically talented peers. Students who have been too intensively prepared, but lack passion for their subjects or broader curiosity and work-ethic, may struggle to keep up with other students as school work becomes more demanding.

This raises an interesting question about the role of tutoring in academic achievement.

Every parent wants their child to do well, and for many, the best options are state-run grammar schools or private educational institutions. Entrance exams are notoriously competitive, leading parents to employ tutors to give their children an edge. But Dr. Ray’s comments highlight something very important: that tutoring should be about more than just a test.

Tutoring specifically for the 11+ or 13+ can have myriad benefits. Tutors can boost a child’s confidence, help them feel comfortable with questions or material that they may not have seen otherwise, and help them work on their study skills and time management. However, there is a danger in focusing tuition too exclusively on one exam. Teaching students only the skills necessary to pass an exam may neglect the wider basis required to form a strong foundation for GCSE and A-level success.

A truly effective tutor will work with children not just to prepare them for one exam or qualification, but will help them to develop their skills more generally. This means not just focusing on drilling through past papers and practice exercises, but broadening the scope of work to make sure that students understand, and can apply, a broad range of concepts and skills. A great tutor will recognise that, in order to succeed, a student needs help developing study and reasoning skills, not just knowledge of specific questions.

This means encouraging children to engage with literature, rather than just tackle comprehension questions, or to apply mathematical concepts and practices to everyday life.

There are, of course, limitations to how much of this broader goal tuition can accomplish on a weekly basis. This means that the most successful tutor will form strong working partnerships with parents to ensure that a student’s development extends beyond the hour or two a week that the tutor is there.

Schools are getting better at identifying which students have been intensively prepared and which are truly keen and able students. A greater emphasis on interviews in the admissions process has been part of an increased effort by schools to ‘tutor-proof’ the admissions process. Indeed, some schools, such as Mill Hill and Merchant Taylor’s, interview students prior to the written examination; further evidence of the increasingly important role that the interview is playing in the admissions process.

Even the interviews themselves are changing. Schools are asking a wider range of more challenging, and less concrete, questions, as a way of determining the potential and character of the interviewee. The questions are designed specifically to reveal those students who are naturally articulate, well-informed, and confident, rather than those who have been intensively prepared or coached.

In light of these developments, a much better use of the funds and time dedicated to tuition will be to make sure that tuition complements preparation for exams with more comprehensive skills development.

The best tutors, like the best classroom teachers, will already know how to inspire children to love learning. Ultimately, that is the quality that will serve the children best in the future.

To view Dr. Ray’s original comments to The Telegraph newspaper, please visit the link below.