No, Minister: why has it taken five years to reform the ICT GCSE?

Dick Vinegar asks who are the guilty parties in the failure to sort out the ICT GCSE, and worries whether its replacement will be up and running on time

Five years ago a group of academics, representing the parliamentary IT committee, visited the schools minister to tell him that the GCSE for ICT was not fit for purpose.

It just taught pupils how to do things with Microsoft Word and Excel, but did not engage with them at any more detailed or creative level. Nor did it prepare pupils for computer science A-levels or university courses.

My grandson, a digital native, who was 13 at the time, decided against doing the ICT GCSE because it was a waste of time. He told me that this was a common view among all his contemporaries. This made me sad, because he was saying farewell to any deep technological knowledge and the careers it opens up.

Two years later, because the Department for Education had done nothing, the group of academics visited the department again. And in 2009, a study by e-skills said that ICT GCSE was “so harmful, boring and/or irrelevant it should simply be scrapped”. It should be replaced by a “computer science” course, which teaches children how to make the computers do new things, and not just how to use Office software.

Already, academics, IT experts and, most importantly, the pupils, had built up a consensus that the ICT GCSE was no good. But still nothing happened.

I have often wondered about the amazing inertia of the British civil service when faced by a major challenge. This was a perfect example. Why did it take five years for anything to happen? Who was to blame for the inertia? Was it vested interests, the usual scapegoat?

Was it luddite opposition from the unions? They had a lot of members who had been teaching this subject for years, and were too far past their sell-by date to learn the new tricks of teaching children how to program, and all the other skills in a proper computer science curriculum. Abandoning the ICT curriculum could trigger massive redundancies among this ageing and inflexible workforce. So, maybe it was the unions who were the baddies.

The ICT teachers themselves were obviously happy with the current undemanding curriculum, and fearful of moving out of their comfort zone. I do blame the head teachers for not sounding the alarm, but they too were probably scared of upsetting the status quo.

Or was it just the inbuilt inertia of the senior civil servants in the Department for Education? There was little media pressure for change, and the sheer scale of scrapping the current curriculum and thinking up a computer science equivalent was just too daunting.

The ministers in change at the DfE during the period 2007-2010 were not techie enough to understand that there was a problem. And Gordon Brown’s government as a whole had long lost Tony Blair’s 1997 belief that IT would transform government. There had been too many computer cock-ups in the meantime. So, it was no wonder that there was inertia. As a result, a generation of children were short-changed, including my grandson.

I don’t often praise the coalition government, but it has taken up the cudgels. It happened as a result of the 2011 national curriculum review when the British Computer Society, Computing at School, technology skills specialist e-skills UK, the ICT association Naace, innovation group NextGen/Nesta and the Royal Society, all condemned the current national curriculum for ICT.

Education secretary Michael Gove reacted to the pressure finally on 11 January with a speech to BETT, the industry body for educational IT, in which he absolved schools from using the existing curriculum. He emphasised that “ICT will remain compulsory at all key stages”, but did not specify in what form it should be taught.

He seemed to imply that schools should make it up as they go along. He harked back to the golden age in the early 80s, when a thousand flowers bloomed on the back of the BBC micro. This new golden age would be similarly built around the £22 Raspberry Pi. New Computer science GCSEs would spring from the brighter schools, and be networked to spread to the less endowed. These GCSEs could be included as an option in the English baccalaureat.

This is a lovely unbureaucratic un-top-down vision, which appeals to those greying policy-wonks, who were young in the 1980s. It would be nice if it did work, but I have a nasty feeling that you can’t recreate a chaotic golden past. I foresee punch-ups in Cambridge pubs, as in the 1980s, but this time it will between writers of competing computer science GCSE curricula. An academic discipline, like grown-up computer science, needs a bit more structure nowadays. Otherwise, how can it be marked and ‘Ofsteded’?

At a meeting last month of the parliamentary ICT forum on the topic of these reforms to the curriculum, several speakers were worried that many headteachers, strapped for cash, would give up on ICT altogether, and not bother to think up and implement a computer science replacement curriculum. This is urgent, as there are now only four months before a new curriculum has to be in place.

So, come September, in many parts of the country, computer education may be in an even worse state than the deplorable mess it was in until now. Be careful about what you wish for.

This article is published by Guardian Professional. For weekly updates on news, debate and best practice on public sector IT, join the Guardian Government Computing network here.

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