Computing in schools: must try harder

23 July 2012
Computer code

As many members, parents and students will be aware, the school’s curriculum for ICT has received much media attention for all the wrong reasons, EurIng Alan Berry and Stephanie Fernandes report on the IET’s role in redressing this deficiency

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has recently said that the current curriculum does not prepare UK students to work at the very forefront of technological change. Schools, teachers and industry leaders have all agreed that the current curriculum can be tedious and boring with little to offer in the form of challenges and stimulation to want to learn more.

Whilst there is a need for students to be competent in the use of technology, much of what has been taught are basic skills in the use of office-based tools such as word processing and presentation tools. Whilst these are useful skills for entering the modern work place, most students have not had the opportunity to learn the fundamental disciplines of programming and coding which are the basis for nearly every modern system, appliance or device. This deficiency has been highlighted by a number of the leading institutions, including the IET, the Chartered Institute for IT (BCS), the UK Computing Research Committee (UKCRC) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) to government.

The failure to teach Computer Science well poses a significant risk to the UK. The UK, in the past, was a world leader in computing but now produces students with no understanding or training to innovate in this relatively new technology. If the UK is to remain an innovator instead of just a user of technology based on computing and communications then this deficiency needs to be addressed.

Apart from highlighting these issues to government, the IET has recently launched a number of initiatives to provide not only policy advice to government, but also investigating practical ways to promote computer science at schools. One of the unique strengths of IET Policy Groups is that is can draw on a broad range of cross-cutting expertise. In this instance we have drawn upon the IT, Communications and Education Policy groups to provide a holistic view to Government.

The recent DfE consultation on the disapplication of ICT in its current form from the curriculum, planned for September 2012 has highlighted some serious issues around the teaching of ICT. The IET has highlighted these issues in both the consultation response and with the DfE directly. The prime concerns are:

• If ICT is to be dis-applied from September 2012 then what will take its place? The worry is that those schools without the resources or vision to push ahead with computer science will leave students at a disadvantage, leading to a two-tire outcome: those able to build on their knowledge and those who will lack the opportunity to get a foot hold on what could be a well-paid exciting career.
• Assuming the Government makes a move to introduce computer science at school as a subject, then that will place an enormous burden on schools since very few teachers are qualified in the subject and as a result have not had any form of computer science training.
• The application of computer science as a discipline is not something that is easily taught out of a book or as a back-up subject. The skills required involve an understanding of hardware, software, and a logical approach to problem solving, all of which will require numeracy skills when it comes to implementation.
• A good understanding of mathematics is a prerequisite for writing computer code, irrespective of what language is used. This is another important factor that has been highlighted to Government.
• Not enough is being done to utilise computer science in existing core subjects. Many opportunities exist in the curriculum for the application of computing which, if implemented, will demonstrate the real world power and benefits of applied computer science.
• Another message that has been sent is that the teaching of computer science does not necessarily require large amounts of expensive software. Much of which is free or Open Source is available to run on existing school hardware. The bit that is missing is the knowledge of what is available. Take for example the GeoGebra maths package. This is an open source application which some schools are just beginning to become aware of as a powerful tool to assist in the teaching of mathematics

Other activities undertaken by the IET in computing at schools have included highlighting these messages to Parliamentarians. The IET president Dr Mike Short has represented the IET at the House of Commons speaking at an event organised by PICTFOR, the Parliamentary, Internet, Communications and Technology Forum, a group of Parliamentarians with a specific interest in ICT matters. Some of the key messages that came out of the discussions were:

• There was a consensus on how vital it is for the UK to get back to basics and re-grow skills in computing so as to maintain the UK as a global thought leader and innovator in the space. Many eminent high technology business leaders grew up in the days of the BBC micro and the Sinclair spectrum where they first learnt to program.
• The ICT curriculum should include a more comprehensive digital content where modern digital techniques are encouraged for all subjects. Today this is largely confined to Internet research, but use of cameras, editing software and social media should all be encouraged.
• Parents should be asking their local schools what steps are being taken to teach computer science in their schools.
• Internet safety: this will continue to be a concern if it is not addressed. Children are already more Internet literate than their parents. However, there appears to be a pretence that the Internet does not come into schools and on occasions there do seem to be attempts to ban it, or at least major parts of it. As with cyber bullying this is as unacceptable online as it is in the school yard. A more open dialogue is needed about solutions towards Internet opportunity and safety and some rebalancing in favour of a more digital education is needed.

School computer clubs may provide the opportunity to help bridge the gap until the curriculum changes take effect. This is an area in which the IET may be able to provide practical support through some of its volunteer organisations. Whilst it is still early days in terms of planning, members interested in this topic should keep a watchful eye on the future since the IET may well be contacting the membership for help.

Alan Berry manages the IT and Communications IET Policy Panels. Stephanie Fernandes manages the Innovation and Education IET Policy Panels.

IET Education 5-19

The IET’s Education Programme has seen some exciting activity in 2012. Staff and members have been busy at science fairs and festivals bringing engineering activities to children around the UK. Last month’s Faraday Challenge Day National Final was the culmination of a year-long competition which saw nearly 2,000 school children taking part in STEM activity days around the UK. A team of students from Church Stretton school in Shropshire were crowned the winners, receiving a cash prize of £1000 for their school. Other new initiatives include:

Scout Badge

The IET is now sponsoring the Scout Association’s Electronics Activity Badge, and is developing a pack of supporting resources and things to do for Cubs and Scouts. The Activity Pack will give participants insight into electronics, electrical safety and engineering, and will be available from late autumn 2012.


The IET has taken on the running of the global technology competition FIRST LEGO League for the UK and Ireland from the start of the 2012/13 season. Teams of up to ten students aged ten to 16 construct a LEGO Mindstorms-based robot to compete in a robotics challenge. Participants compete in regional tournaments at industrial or academic venues for a place in the National Finals, the winners of which go to the FIRST LEGO League World Festival in the USA.

Tomorrow’s Engineers

In collaboration with other institutions led by Engineering UK, the IET is developing engineering–related careers resources for students aged under 16, their parents and teachers. The materials are being produced under the banner of the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme and includes posters, postcards, guidance notes and a website full of advice and career case-studies. The free resources are available from the participating institutions and the Tomorrow’s Engineers website at www.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk

School Grants Scheme

Teaming up with the Institute of Physics and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the IET has joined the School Grants Scheme. UK schools can apply for up to £500 to purchase equipment or take part in activities which promote engineering or physics.

Get involved

Member support is invaluable for the Education Programme. If you’d like to get involved contact your Local Network Schools Liaison Officer.


PICTFOR Parliamentary ICT Forum

IET Response to Department of Education

Raspberry Pi

CAS Computing at School

GeoGebra Free mathematics software for learning and teaching

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