Little_Mavis' rants and musings

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Computing in Schools

I’m a bit fed up of the furore about how “ICT” in schools isn’t proper programming but just messing around with Microsoft products.

You know what? That’s right. Mainly because it’s ICT and not Computing. To be fair, I didn’t understand before I began teaching either.

To give a bit of background, my original degree was in Chemistry. In my first job, I actually used what I knew. Subsequent jobs moved further and further away from this. When we moved north I took a short course in computer programming. We learned Cobol & RPG. (I’d previously done some programming in ALGOL at uni – using punch cards submitted to the Computer lab to be run overnight (sigh).

After that I worked for ten years or so in programming or software support using various languages before starting to teach adults in FE. We covered CLAIT, IBT2 and a City & Guilds qualification. These were all designed to teach people how to use proprietary software to enhance employment prospects. It did. I was also asked to teach the now defunct Key Skills qualification when it came out. This was also about using IT and was designed to give students competence in using various bits of software to help them with their main courses. The evidence they produced for their portfolio was ideally taken from work for a main subject. (A piece of design work from graphic designers, an essay for English students, a spreadsheet of results for Biologists). Not all places did it this way. In fact I had to fight to do it like this where I was working. Management favoured a single task that everyone would do so that we had more control over output and that sort of shows what the problem has been with schools.

When Key Skill IT first started, a GCSE Grade C or above would exempt you from the course. All other FE students were supposed to take it (there were similar qualifications in English & Maths for those without the GCSEs) They were a proxy for the GCSE for some higher education courses and jobs. Same level as GCSE but more focussed on the stuff that was considered useful. In theory, High Schools were meant to provide IT instruction, though not necessarily GCSE, up to 16. In practice many didn’t, leaving students poorly prepared for using ICT to produce work for A Level or vocational courses in sixth-form. Over time, other qualifications appeared that could act as a “proxy” for this qualification, such as DIDA. These courses had units which could be taken in various combinations to get different levels of the qualification. but included no programming. GCSE ICT isn’t about programming either.

I imagine these qualifications were created with the average employer in mind. None of them required that you used Microsoft products but these were often used because that’s what the schools had installed. At my college, the network manager would not allow any other software to be installed. A teacher wanted to install Apache Extensions to help the students with the Web Design part of their BTEC course. His exact words were “Not on my system”.

Clear so far? All kids expected to do enough training in using ICT so as to be employable and be able to use ICT to do their other work. I did my damndest to do that (with very good results) & produced a whole lot of kids who could do reasonable word processing, spreadsheets, internet searching, file management and so on. What they subsequently did with that depended on their subjects which varied from Sport Studies, through Performing Arts and Art to A levels of all kinds.

You didn’t do this if you took a BTEC in ICT or did A level ICT or Computing though Computing AS level was not a proxy for Key Skills (it didn’t cover the same subject matter).

BTEC is a wide ranging qualification available at level 2 You can choose from 36 different units (GCSE level) or level 3 (choose from 43 units) which can be the equivalent of 1, 2 or 3 A levels (depending on how many units you cover) and have a different slant depending on which units. The full list of units is here. Not surprisingly, colleges choose units which will attract students and fit with the competencies of their staff. Games design units are very popular. There are also programming, networking and customer support units in this. Students are usually guided towards BTECs if they have less than stellar results at GCSE.

Some schools offer BTEC ICT at level 2 but the range of units offered is usually more restricted than in FE.

A Levels are available in both ICT & Computing. When prospective students came to look around the college we used to give them a handout explaining the difference between Computing & ICT. Basically ICT is using it Computing is understanding and creating it. My college stopped offering Computing A level a few years ago because it believed the grades achieved were not high enough.

And finally to Gove (you didn’t really think I’d forgotten him did you?)

  • Computing is available, usually in sixth form not in schools
  • ICT is using things not writing them
  • Schools delivered ICT because it was designed to help with other subjects & provide skills business said it wanted
  • Many teachers are not able to deliver good standard IT skills
  • Microsoft products are used mostly because skills in those are what employers want
  • Many IT teachers would love to teach more up-to-date skills but are prevented by what is available/affordable

What do I think? Change may be good. I am not convinced that everyone needs to be able to programme. I do think everyone needs to be able to use software correctly. I don’t trust non-ICT teachers to do this (yet) I’ve had to teach vast numbers of students that every formula in Excel doesn’t have to begin with “=SUM”. But that is improving.

I do think Computing in some form (like other specialist subjects such as Media & Music Tech) should be offered at GCSE level with appropriately qualified teachers to deliver them. How this will square with Gove’s desire for everyone to use up most of the space in their GCSE timetable with “traditional” subjects, I don’t know.

I just wish this was not reported as “schools letting pupils down” Schools are doing what they feel is most likely to meet the targets set by successive governments, and these are not always in children’s best interests.