Mind the Gap – we need a Broad and Balanced Computing Curriculum

Chris Sharples recommends that we should focus on a broad and balanced computing curriculum, which includes computer science, but is not taken over by it. We need to find new ways for young people to demonstrate the digital skills required by employers.

Ahead of BETT14, I was invited last week to a Stone Group roundtable debate hosted by Simon Harbridge, CEO of Stone Group. There was a broad range of people from industry, education and non-profit organisations, with a brief to develop concrete suggestions to “How do we bridge the gap between education and the real world?”.


This is a question that I am always trying to address as a Head of ICT in a North Yorkshire comprehensive.  My colleagues and I need a broad and balanced computing curriculum to continue to offer pathways for our students into a spread of IT industries.

I do not recognise our ICT curriculum as being “boring” or “clearly inadequate” (Michael Gove, “What does it mean to be an educated person?” 09-05-2013) and neither have OFSTED who in their last two visits judged our ICT lessons “outstanding” as did our LA using the new framework in July.

At the Year 9 options evening in three weeks’ time, my presentation will explain again the skills that employers value.  I will then highlight the ones that my students develop the most – helping each other; being confident; being creative; being problem solvers; and being resilient in the face of difficulties. There’s a lot of this when you’re involved with technology. Ex-students have returned and told me that ICT skills, time management and learning to work independently have been crucial skills for higher education and employment.

For the last three years we have been developing students as Digital Leaders, supporting teachers and other students to improve learning with digital technologies in our school.  These opportunities and skills are outside the current examinable curriculum.

Therefore one of my Digital Leaders, James, and I travel to London with considerable anticipation to discuss the mismatch between the increasing demand for IT professionals and the number of students aiming for jobs in the industry (it has fallen by 50% since 2001).

With any group of intelligent people who have experience and care about the issues you are talking about, you can’t help but come away with a better understanding of the issues.  So here I offer my own ‘take’ on the proceedings with the hope that they have some resonance with colleagues in a similar position and thinking that they need a new curriculum for 2014.

I was asked to start the discussion, and I outlined my belief for a broad and balanced computing curriculum that meets the needs of all my students both now and for the future.  Notice that I use the word computing, and not computer science.  There is a tendency for the two terms to be used interchangeably at present and I believe that this is a mistake.  The computing curriculum in 2014 is defined as a combination of three elements: computer science, information technology and digital literacy.  This mix has been reflected in our KS3 curriculum for many years. For example, Year 7 students have had the enjoyment of using scratch (and incidentally learning about variables and sequencing) to tell stories since 2007.

I believe my students need all three elements, and it will be interesting to see how exam boards respond and that we still have choices.  You see, I may have total choice at KS3 to make our lessons interesting and challenging but I am reliant on a choice of exam courses at KS4 and KS5. We talk about a creative curriculum and the importance of problem solving, and for some people this means programming.  Laura Kirsop spoke about the importance of diversity and how Code Club has a membership of 40% girls. However, we have been providing opportunities for students to learn the skills mentioned earlier through project based ICT courses with a mix of multimedia, databases and spreadsheets.  It is the mix that is important and interesting for a broad range of students.  Why else would our school visit to a nearby University provoke interest because our Year 11 and Year 12 students comprised more than 50% girls…

Our students choose 50% of their courses at KS4 and 100% at KS5.  Soon our Year 9 students have their options evening. All of us including parents need clear explanations as to the pathways into ICT related jobs in the future.  If 4500 jobs on an ICT database have 3500 unique job titles then it is of course confusing.  As James asked at the end of the discussion, why don’t more people from the ICT industry come into schools to explain these things?  We need to make more use of websites such as www.bigambition.co.uk which has case studies of real people in real digital careers.  Note-to-self: I am going to try to research the number of jobs available in the different IT sectors both locally and nationally and use this as some justification for the broad and balanced choices I make for the curriculum for our students.

It was a privilege to be involved in such a discussion.  We need more opportunities for teachers to mix with industry colleagues; especially if we haven’t been in industry ourselves.  One of my teacher colleagues who worked previously at board level for a large supermarket chain suggest we should look at teacher work experience as well as student work experience.  With the opportunities we have to connect online, we should be looking to combine our personal learning networks.  A small amount of shared contact outside the school could be eked out a long way.

There was a broad consensus around the table.  We have many of the solutions and we need a balance to how we integrate ICT into the curriculum, both as computing and how it is used in other areas.  As Stephen Carrick-Davies reminded us, do we really want to remove communication and collaboration from the debate when social media is changing the world? And how do we help young people become confident and competent learners to work safely in such a world if we do not engage with it in school?  If the current situation were a classroom, a good teacher would mediate the debate and not end up with the ones shouting out being rewarded.

So, in the near future I have to accept that we have a very academic based curriculum with a limited examination methodology dictating what is and isn’t measured.  I will use part of my visit to BETT14 to find out about the exam courses from which I will have to choose.  And I will continue to develop young peoples’ skills through our Digital Leader programme.  Earlier today another of my Digital Leaders was the first to convert a Digital Leader’s badge into a Mozilla Open Badge. This is a measure of skills and competencies, linked to online evidence, which a Digital Leader can take with them wherever they go after leaving school.  In a fast moving world, with fluid skill sets and the needs of industry changing all the time, it should be possible to connect learners with open standards which have been co-authored by future employers.  Perhaps we won’t need examinations in quite the same way in the future…

Other articles with views of others around the table

IT employers called to strengthen links with schools – computerworlduk – 15 January 14

A balanced curriculum? – computerworlduk – 16 January 2014

Computing curriculum: Digital skills versus computer scienceDaily Telegraph – 21 Jan 2014