Reforming dire IT teaching in the UK needs more than just a light touch if it is to succeed, argues chief reporter Nick Heath

Computer science found an unlikely champion today in the shape of education secretary Michael Gove – who promised to put “dull and demotivating” IT teaching to the sword.

But while few will mourn the passing of an IT curriculum that turned a generation of students off pursuing a career in tech, its hasty destruction could leave a vacuum that schools will struggle to fill.

Under Gove’s proposal schools will no longer be bound to follow the current IT curriculum from September this year. From that point on they will be free to teach IT as they see fit, drawing on help from industry groups such as the British Computer Society (BCS), who have drawn up suggested IT curricula.

This freedom will, according to Gove, usher in a renaissance in IT teaching, one that will breed a new generation of tech-savvy students who will have created their first smartphone app before leaving secondary school.

Yet the precarious state of IT teaching in England highlighted in a recent report by Ofsted does not paint the picture of a school system with the know-how to reinvent itself by being left to its own devices.

The Ofsted report found that in more than half of secondary schools the standards of IT teaching were no better than satisfactory, and a limited number of teachers have the ability to teach topics such as programming.

Given that a sizeable number of schools are already struggling to teach a basic IT curriculum, one focused mainly on office skills, how are they expected to devise, implement and teach a new curriculum that will cover the likes of systemic thinking, software development and logic?

Classroom: ICT teaching is failing to inspire young people

What are the chances for successful IT reform?
Photo: Ben+Sam

Of course schools are not going to be alone – help will be at hand from industry experts such as the BCS, which has developed an IT curriculum for secondary schools with input from Microsoft, Google and Cambridge University. But teachers are the ones who must make those computational principles interesting to the kids and show them how they relate to the apps and games they use every day. Translating that curricula into engaging educational material will require teachers who at least understand the basics of the subject matter.

And while new training in “education technology” will be introduced for new and existing teachers, a Department for Education spokesman was unaware of any new funding to support this.

Given the difficulties that schools will likely face in getting staff up to speed and putting the new curricula in place you’d expect strong guidance from the centre to keep the transition on track.

Quite the contrary, under Gove’s proposals schools will no longer have to hit targets for IT attainment until September 2014, although Ofsted will monitor the quality of teaching.

With barely any carrot and only a hint of a stick, you have to wonder whether schools will have the motivation to undergo what will surely be a tricky transition to a new IT curriculum.

The lack of centralised oversight and the effort needed to address systemic weaknesses in IT teaching in English schools risks sinking Gove’s dream of a grass roots revolution in technology teaching.

No-one would knock the ambition to revitalise the English technology industry, or challenge the need for IT teaching reform.

But good intentions are not enough to ensure success, and when the problem runs so deep and the stakes are so high now is not the time for half measures.