The National Curriculum and IT

Marshal Anderson forcasts what the future has in store

Micro User April '89

FOR some time now there have been committees up and down the country developing the national curriculum, a document that concerns all those with any interest in education. It will set out what is to be taught in schools in the foreseeable future. Many of the final consultative documents are now available, along with several interim reports, and this is a good time to look at where they are taking us.

When something as important as this appears all those concerned take up points of view and start to shout a lot. The government says it is a jolly good thing for there to be agreement nationally on what is taught and points out that our competitors all have national curricula - especially the Japanese, and that must be why they produce better toasters than us.

The teachers point out that there already is agreement and that any further straight-jacketing will stifle the creativity that our competitors envy and are presently trying to copy - especially the Japanese.

Some employers want a more well-rounded education for their future employees while others want schools to turn out a ready-trained work force. Parents don't really know what they want except that it ought to involve some standards and no one seems to be asking the pupils what they want - to be left alone, probably.

So how does all this affect Information Technology in schools? Let's look at the starting point. Primary schools made steady progress over the past eight years developing uses of IT, and most now have at least one micro. These are being used to support the curriculum through word processing, databases and so on, and have added to the curriculum investigations in Logo and control technology.

However, the average ratio of children to micros is above 100 to 1, which means they are of limited use to a developing curriculum in any school - if you can't guarantee availability of a micro to a child it is difficult to write it into his scheme of work.

Secondary education has had a different experience. At first IT meant computer studies, and was seen as the subject to take. Since then there has been considerable re-evaluation, and industry and further education no longer see examination success in computer studies as desperately important, if ever they did.

Schools still have difficulty recruiting qualified staff in computing. Apparently only 26 graduates applied for computer studies teaching courses in 1987, and there has been a drop from 120,764 computer studies exam entries in 1985 to 83,131 in 1988 - about 30 per cent.

While this decline in computer studies has been going on there has been an increase in the use of the micro across the curriculum as a tool rather than the object of study.

This is the starting point for the national curriculum terms of reference - computing is not a subject any more. The national curriculum sees computing, or more exactly, Information Technology, as something involved in most areas of the curriculum. However, those compiling the design and technology part of the curriculum have been asked to try to tie the whole thing together. Looking at the interim report released by this group, we can see what direction things are taking.

Their starting point is that The development of IT capability is an essential part of the education of every pupil. From here the main emphasis in the document is on appropriateness, that pupils should be introduced to uses of IT when they can both understand and make full use of them. For example, children may be able to learn the full range of facilities offered by a word processor but not have reached a stage in language development that makes those facilities relevant.

Through various activities students will develop basic computer skills in the context of worthwhile applications of IT. It does, however, seem to be leaving it to the individual schools to develop their own IT policy based around the specific attainment targets the national curriculum is setting.

At first this might be seen as a positive move, but there are resourcing implications for this sort of thing. It seems unlikely that very specific expectations can be laid down simply because IT is very expensive, both from the point of view of equipment and the possible extra payments needed to attract the staff to run all this.

The document outlines the sort of skills children will need. They should be able to communicate with the technology using keyboards, mice and so on, but are not expected to touch type.

They should be able to store, process and retrieve information and present it in a variety of ways. They should also be able to communicate information, possibly using viewdata or electronic mail.

They should be able to use a micro to set up simulations and models as well as monitoring and controlling things in the real world. They should also be aware that technology is not an end in itself, and problems should be solved with technology of an appropriate level.

As children progress they will meet different uses of technology, and be able to evaluate it. They will develop knowledge of the characteristics of IT and exploit tools, materials and techniques to design, develop and modify IT systems. They will also be able to make informed judgements about the social and economic effects of the applications of IT. It is encouraging to see this last reference, and the specific examples given regarding the invasion of privacy and effect on employment.

The sort of attainment targets the group expects to produce look like this:

  • At the age of about seven pupils will be expected to store, retrieve, modify and use information though that information may be of any type - perhaps pictures or short pieces of writing.
  • By 11 years a child should be able to make use of a database by adding information to it, spot unusual data in it and present findings appropriately.
  • An average 16-year-old might gather information and create a database to process it and a very able 16-year-old would be able to use IT to help gather that information and present results in several forms.

Other subject groups are further down the road to completion of their curricula, and it is interesting to see just how they apply the ideas and ideals of the design and technology group.

The Language 5-11 group have produced a guide in which IT barely fills a page. There is a paragraph on the perception of artificial intelligence and the way pupils relate to the machine as expert, but no attainment targets. They do say that the English classroom is a place where pupils learn to use IT to send messages, produce language work for different audiences and show critical understanding of the ways information may be manipulated.

There is an implicit enthusiasm for the way in which IT gets children's work to new audiences via electronic mail and desktop publishing, but no reference to the springboard the micro can provide for language, through the use of adventures or other creative software.

The Maths 5-16 document is similarly brief on the subject, but far more specific. It sees micros as having three uses: Helping teach specific concepts via computer assisted learning packages, as a tool for practising maths and for programming in maths. In this area there is much reference to Logo, though Basic is seen to have a place, but the most striking thing is the straightforward statement that until pupils have ready access to computers ... it is not appropriate to specify the use of the computer in the attainment targets themselves.

Science 5-16 has the most direct approach - IT is actually included in Attainment Target 11: Pupils should develop their knowledge and understanding of scientific aspects of information transfer and management and its use in control.

At specific levels AT 11 demands; Children's work in a wide variety of areas should incorporate the use of information technology... and ... children should have the opportunity to use information technology to monitor and gather data ... simulate physical/biological systems ... access and organise data ... control external electronic, electric or mechanical devices.

Throughout the document its writers make no bones about the fact that they see IT as a vital component and in no way optional, they are also as straight as they can be about the fact that all this is going to cost money.

In the end that is the bottom line. If the government wants to improve the education system it will cost money, and IT is an area that will cost more than most. We will be able to see just how committed the government is to this when the Bill is presented, but the different approaches of the different working groups tends to suggest that some are more confident than others of the support they will receive.