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Dr John Spencer began his teaching career in 1981 armed with a Sinclair ZX81, thereby demonstrating two things at once: Firstly he was in at the very start of ICT in the classroom and secondly he is a sucker for duff technology. Thereafter he taught joining a start-up open source company as their Head of Education in 2002. Now John is bringing his iconoclastic disposition and tendency to throw a spanner in the works to blogging.

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Google's grim verdict on UK school ICT

How can we get proper IT skills into the heart of education again?

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Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO made our National Press when he strongly criticised UK ICT education. His points were only too familiar citing the truths such as ‘students merely taught to use software not how it works’. He kindly did not mention that the UK’s youthful contributions to their Summer of Code are woefully low compared to other comparable countries.

Yeah Eric, we know, we know. And you know what? ... Nothing is going to change any time soon.

Edu-biz and a highly feminised educational system, where the achievement gap between girls (good) and boys (bad) at 16 ever increases, cares not a jot for IT; it would rather sell modular PE and Citizen courses and prevent children learning to cook just in case girls returned to the kitchen.

However there are signs that students are catching on.

2011 is seeing unprecedented applications for university education ahead of the fee increase due in 2012. This is not surprising as the ‘buy now pay later’ snake-oil pitch from HM Gov which makes it seem that £50k of debt over 30 years is but a trifle, singularly fails to convince the less well-off.

What is surprising is that the take up of ‘free’ education post 16 is in steep decline. At the college where I work the number of A2 (Second year of GCE A levels- Ist year produces AS Level) students has dropped very sharply ... quite simply many have headed for the job market equipped with AS levels rather than complete the university entrance exam that is the A level. ICT has been particularly affected.

Maybe this is not so surprising given not only the cost but the fact that a degree in some of the most popular subjects (e.g. psychology, media/film/TV, forensics) is almost a guarantee that you will join the one million in the NEET generation (not employed, or in education or training).

The flight from education is being repeated nationally to the extent that the BBC is carrying scary articles hand-wringing about the drop in post GCSE (16+) take up of education.

Young people are not stupid (though they can seem that way when carried along by naive collectivist behaviour), when the chips are down, in my experience, they will act very pragmatically indeed.

It follows from the above facts that youngsters regard what is currently on offer in schools does not meet their needs.

What are these needs? The same as yours and mine - money, security and a future. Today, bizarrely only one in five 16 year old students have the so-called five ‘core’ qualifications of maths, English, science, a language and a humanity (history or geography) and none have been taught how a computer or software works at all.

Unsurprisingly it is suddenly and increasingly difficult to persuade this generation (who have woken up to reality) that their GCSEs have prepared them for anything that someone is prepared to hand them money for.

Make no mistake all the above has the potential for a proper crisis, especially if you buy into the notion that a highly technically educated population is essential to survive in the 21st Century. If you do subscribe to this notion then like India or China you will probably put ICT and Computing somewhere at the heart of education.

Time to Change ... just a little?

Anyone who reads my posts (even sporadically) will know that I lament the use to which modern technology has been put in schools. Computing pre-16 does not exist and post 16 is so rare as to be insignificant. ICT (pre-16) consists of vocationally useful MS Office training but is so excruciatingly boring that ICT uptake post 16 is consequently unpopular. This is a shame because this later ICT is about business systems and has real use to the young budding manager.

The trick from now on to be pulled off with post-16 generally is to create courses that are perceived to be manifestly useful by students and employers alike, that are not so utilitarian as to be numbingly boring and have a little ‘magic pixie dust’ of respect sprinkled on them. Not much to ask.

A while ago I postulated an ‘MBA for the Facebook Generation’. Maybe its time is coming. Michael Gove the secretary of state for education last year created the GCSE (i.e. pre-16) English Baccalaureate or E-Bacc which comprised the core GCSEs that referred to early in this post.

The ‘Bacc’ is a convenient and well regarded basket to group together subjects, so once again how about a post 16 GCE AS level one year business orientated Bacc? Accounting, Business Studies, ICT, and either Law or a Modern Language ... how useful would that be?

Ok, Accounting is mind numbingly boring but at least those numeracy skills get a polish, Business Studies is perennially popular but the best bit of all, in my opinion, is that it would find proper home for declining ICT and Modern Languages ... any takers kids?

What about the dearth of computing skills referred to by Eric Schmidt at the start of this article?

Don’t hold your breath, there are so few teachers in the mainstream system who could deliver the knowledge he refers to that the prospect of its introduction is vanishingly small. Those luminous pioneers of British 20th Century computing deserve study ... unfortunately it will be GCE History that delivers it ... 'How did Alan Turing feel when he designed the Turing Test?' .... discuss.

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