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Why a gap year could leave IT in schools at the bottom of the class

Computing lessons in English schools are at risk of being scaled back after the government scrapped the national IT curriculum earlier this year.

Attempts to improve IT teaching in England may actually result in some schools scaling back computing lessons in the short term.

The risk of cuts to IT teaching stems from the government's recent decision to scrap the national IT curriculum for English schools,  Peter Twining, senior lecturer in the Open University's Department of Education, told TechRepublic.

"There is a real danger that schools perceive the disapplication [scrapping of the curriculum] as meaning that they will no longer be held accountable for ICT teaching. Indeed, one has to wonder how they could be held accountable if there is no specified programme of study or attainment targets," said Twining.

"I think that the challenge for the Department for Education is that schools will, quite rightly in my view, focus their efforts and resources on areas where they are going to be held accountable."

The IT curriculum was abandoned to allow primary and secondary schools in England to choose how they teach IT until a new programme of study is introduced in September 2014.

However, although the old curriculum had been widely criticised for turning kids off computing with its focus on office skills, the concern is some schools are now not choosing to invest in resources and teaching posts for IT.

"We have heard 'gossip' about schools saying that they are not going to replace ICT teachers and/or ICT suites due to the disapplication of the ICT programme of study and attainment targets," said Twining.

New IT curricula are being drawn up by teaching groups and tech industry bodies. For example Microsoft and Google have endorsed a study programme drawn up by the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

However it also seems the majority of teachers in English schools currently don't have the skills necessary to teach these curricula, with their emphasis on computer science and programming. Only a limited number of teachers in English schools have the ability to teach programming, according to a report by the national schools inspectorate Ofsted last year.

The Department for Education says that new training in "education technology" will be made available and that teachers will benefit from colleagues' technical expertise via new inter-school networks. However the level of funding for these measures has not been announced and there is no information about the extent of their availability. Teachers will also be able to use free online resources that make it easier to learn about coding, such as Code Academy and Mozilla's Hackasaurus.

Government is trying to ensure schools don't scale back IT teaching by requiring them to publish their chosen IT curriculum on their websites from September 2012, as well as tasking Ofsted with inspecting the quality of IT teaching in schools.

However with so many competing demands on schools' resources the OU's Twining questioned whether some might see the reduced centralised control on IT as an opportunity to scale back existing teaching.

"It remains to be seen whether or not schools, particularly in a context where they are short of resources, will hear or pay heed to these messages from the Department for Education," he said.

"There is a critically important job to be done in making sure that schools understand that they need to maintain their capacity to teach ICT because it will have a programme of study from September 2014 - if they lose capacity then it will be very hard to build it up again in that timescale."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "The policy is not intended to weaken ICT in schools, and we do not want schools to scale back their provision to the point at which they no longer provide a broad and balanced curriculum or actively disadvantage their pupils in the subject.

"We believe that the professionalism of schools, head teachers and teachers means that they will continue to recognise their responsibility to their pupils in this important area.

"We are currently considering how best to monitor and evaluate the effects of disapplication so that we have a rounded view of the health of ICT as a National Curriculum subject in schools and can develop appropriate policy and communications to schools."

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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