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More and better IT teachers needed, says Royal Society

Replace 'ICT' with digital literacy, computer science and information technology

A new report from the Royal Society has called for the UK government to boost the number of specialist computing teachers in order to improve the quality of IT education in schools.

It comes as education minister Michael Gove announced a consultation starting in September to radically overhaul the ICT curriculum, which has so far contributed to the continued decline in the number of students who pursue IT qualifications and careers.

Since 2003, the number of students achieving A-level computing has fallen by 60 percent, and there has also been a 34 percent decline at ICT A-Level and a 57 percent decline in ICT GCSE, according to the Royal Society report.

The report, 'Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools', is the result of an 18-month study that was prompted by research that the Royal Society carried out in August 2010. In this initial project, the organisation found that schoolchildren were passing on a career in computing because they found IT lessons boring.

Professor Steve Furber, fellow of the Royal Society and chair of the report, has welcomed Gove's proposals, but said that there were other problems that still need to be addressed.

He said: "The most significant factor affecting how well young people learn is the teacher in their classroom. The majority of teachers are specialists, but ICT is an exception to the rule.

"Our study found some fantastic examples of teaching, but the fact remains that the majority of teachers are not specialists and we heard from young people that they often knew more than the teacher giving the lesson."

Furber added: "Action is needed not only on the curriculum itself, but also to recruit and train many more inspiring teachers to reinvigorate pupils' enthusiasm for computing."

The Royal Society has found that just 35 percent of ICT teachers in England had a post-A-level qualification that the Department for Education (DfE) considered as relevant.

The number is significantly lower than for other subjects, in both the sciences and the arts. For example 69 percent of physics teachers, 73 percent of chemistry teachers, 74 percent of maths teachers, 80 percent of English teachers and 87 percent of music teachers have relevant qualifications for the subject they teach.

To address this, the report recommends that the government should set recruitment targets to increase the number of specialist computing teachers, and provide training bursaries to attract more suitably qualified graduates.

It also suggests providing a minimum level of continuing professional development (CPD) to ensure that computing teachers can keep the curriculum fresh and up-to-date.

Another key area the Royal Society report focused on is the definition of the ICT curriculum.

It called for the scrapping of the term 'ICT' and redefining it as three separate strands of teaching, namely digital literacy, information technology and computer science.

Under these new definitions, the Royal Society recommended digital literacy would be the basic skill taught to all students to the age of 14, after which the more advanced subjects of computer science and information would be available to students wishing to pursue how computers work and how they can use it to solve problems, respectively.

Companies that have backed the report include Google, IBM UK Trust and Microsoft Research.

Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, said: "The UK has an extraordinary computing heritage, but now risks falling behind.

"Most ICT teaching focuses on learning how to use software, rather than giving insight into how it's made. Too few UK students have the opportunity to study true computer science, resulting in a workforce that lacks key skills needed to help drive the UK's economic growth."


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