A new report from the Royal Society has called for a radical overhaul of the ICT curriculum in England to ensure that young people can be ‘creators of technology’, and not just users of it.

Shut down or Restart? The way forward for Computing in UK schools is the product of 18 months of discussions with teachers, academics and industry to explore the reasons behind the dwindling interest in studying the subject.

A Partnership Grants project investigating computer programming through robotics, with Dr Elena Turitsyna, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow and King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girls

A Partnership Grants project with King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girls

The report sets out some clear messages for the ongoing review of the National Curriculum in England, and explains how factors such as the supply of specialist teachers and support for their professional development is putting the UK’s proud Computing heritage at risk.

The report was led by Professor Steve Furber FRS, a principal designer of the BBC micro – an educational computer which is widely cited as having inspired a generation of programmers in the 1980s to pursue careers in this field. Professor Furber said “Today, when computers have become integral to every part of our lives, we see young people turned off by computing in schools. We need a new generation of teachers to take up the challenge of enthusing future generations of young people.”

Discussions with teachers revealed that sometimes the need for network security was holding back innovative teaching, with programming opportunities being thwarted by firewalls in the same way that ‘health and safety’ myths could stifle practical science. Teachers also explained that in some cases students were forced to spend more time documenting their work for GCSEs through screenshots than actually learning about the subject, and that more modern assessment methods were needed.

At the core of the report is a call for the phrase ‘ICT’ to be replaced by clear strands of learning that reflect the different elements of Computing – in much the same way as English Language and English Literature are presented. ‘Digital literacy’ is a fundamental skill in the same way that reading and writing are, but needs to be distinguished from ‘Information Technology’ – the use of computers – and the academic discipline of ‘Computer Science’ – how computers work. The aim is to ensure that teaching is not reduced to office skills, and that students are clear where different aspects of the subject might take them. This is already starting to have an impact, with exam boards considering new GCSEs in Computer Science and reviewing the titles and content of their qualification.

The report makes clear that there are convincing economic and educational arguments for teaching Computing at school, and challenges the government and the community to take forward the recommendations needed for the UK to regain its Computing crown.

Download the report in full. Find out more about the report on this month’s episode of the Society’s podcast, R.Science and listen to an interview with Dame Wendy Hall FRS.

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