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Technology (Primary Schools)

Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2012

I begin by apologising to the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), because they have had to listen twice in a week to my meanderings on the curriculum. I also apologise the people who have advised me on this debate and might be reading it in Hansard, because I have to confess that on this subject I am relatively untutored. However, I do speak with passion and enthusiasm, which might to some extent compensate for my lack of precise knowledge.

It is sometimes helpful to put things in an autobiographical context. I am the victim, as many people are, of the traditional British approach to design and technology. Like you, Dr McCrea, in primary school I did craft, the rationale for which was always slightly fuzzy, the practice somewhat varied, and the results certainly diverse. In my case, the only achievement of note that I can remember was a papier-mâché giraffe that my mother loyally put on the mantelpiece for a few years until, presumably, it toppled off. Then one went on to grammar school, and although some traditional craft skills were always put in one’s way in the early years, if one was considered to be relatively clever one went off and did Latin and Greek. Pupils continued with practical subjects only if, in some sense, they were not making the grade.

I was brought up in Kent, where there were three categories of school: grammar school for those people who passed the 11-plus; secondary modern schools for those who failed it; and technical schools for those who were somewhere in the middle. The theory was, essentially, that pupils did the hands-on, practical stuff if they were not academic, even if they were highly numerate. It was rather like the Confucian model of education that they had in China in centuries gone by, which had a disdain of things that had a technical aspect to them. Consequently, we ended up with the problem we are all familiar with, and about which I will not go into any depth, which is that we have a dearth of engineers in the country, a decline in manufacturing, and even a loss of some basic craftsmanship at many levels. That is not entirely due to the school system; it has something to do with how the workplace has reacted to apprenticeships and financial pressures. However, the school system certainly plays a part, and it differs markedly from the German one, in which there has been a better element of technical education for some time.

We have woken up to this mistake, but to some extent we still see technology as an escape route from serious academic study for the less able—something that is bolted on to or plugged into the curriculum as we get towards the school-leaving years. There are very adverse consequences of that line of thought. Fundamentally, we fail to recognise that human intelligence is very diverse, and that people have enormous undiscovered potential. Even people who have been academically very successful—those who, in the schools’ terms, are successes—have latent abilities that they have not had the chance to explore. We deprive children, including the academically able, of the challenge that technology presents, and to some extent we allow the academically able to consider it not a failure to be bad at technical matters. There are people, certainly of my acquaintance, who would be appalled at some minor slip of grammar, but who openly own up to not being able to put on a plug or do anything of practical utility at all.

More contentiously—this is the more difficult bit of what I want to say—we alienate some children, particularly some boys, from the education process, or if we do not alienate them we do not adequately engage them. I was reading recently the biography of Steve Jobs, who was a disruptive and singularly uninspired pupil in the early years of his education.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important matter. I want to make a point about aspiration, and about inspiring boys and girls. It comes down to the fact that the curriculum provides the opportunity under aspects of science for the creative teaching of design and technology. For example, Byron primary school in my constituency was the winner of the 2007 design and technology competition for schools. It built go-karts, with the help of BAE Systems, and raced them competitively—so there was competitiveness in there, and working with outside technology departments as well. It all came down to having excellent teachers and to using the curriculum to provide creativity. That is a clear example of how the curriculum can provide opportunities, if they are taken to a greater extent, to inspire people in technology. Byron school has excellent teachers, including the head, Jim Fernie.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention, because there is a need to pay tribute to the awful lot of very good practice in this area. I have been inundated with exemplars of schools that have done astounding things under the banner of design and technology.

The point I wanted to make with my reference to Steve Jobs was that technology can be a catalyst in a child’s education, in the early years. In pre-school education, that should be a fairly familiar concept to us, because we recognise that as well as introducing little children to books to encourage their development, there is also a need to introduce them to constructive toys and toys out of which they can make constructs. Technology, almost from the word go, plays an appreciable part in a child’s general cerebral and educational development.

A point that eluded me before I started looking further into the subject—a point that is not particularly well understood—is that technology is a catalyst. It not only gets people into technology, but gets them comfortable with areas of education with which they had previously not been comfortable—mathematics and literacy, for example—because the design elements of the design and technology curriculum have a real drive on presentational as well as constructive skills. Many additional gains, aside from pure technological ability, are driven by good design and technology education. There are many excellent examples of that, including those mentioned by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti).

It is not my supposition that every child will be technically gifted in the same technologies. There is a huge diversity of potential and of things to be good at, which is why we want the curriculum to be as varied and imaginative as possible. I do not think that that is disputed; there is wholesale agreement right across the board that that is a worthy ambition—one that I think the Minister would be perfectly happy to own and espouse.

The difficult thing is the technical question. Although we can all agree that fulfilling every child’s potential and stimulating their talents is a laudable ambition, there is an interesting debate about how to do that, and what the Government and the forthcoming curriculum review can do to encourage it. There is excellence in technical education, but it is fair to say that although there is a constant stream of improvement in both primary and secondary schools, there is also some patchy performance. Errors can be made. If we look at information and communications technology teaching, which the Secretary of State touched on today, we see that quite a few significant errors have been made in how ICT is used in the classroom. I will return to that in a minute or two.

We must also acknowledge that, however good design and technology might be, there are other equally good things, such as numeracy, literacy, imagination, music and all sorts of other things, that the Government wish to encourage and schools wish to incorporate in their curriculum. A further dimension to the problem is that even if we have the most laudable ambitions, we still need a work force who are trained to implement them effectively. Of course, the poor old primary school teacher is meant to be a jack of all trades and to be equally good at an astounding number of things, which is a tough call.

In passing, looking at the wider implications, some of the greatest successes in technical development often take place outside the school curriculum, rather than in the classroom. Reading about the development of the IT industry in California, we find that boys leaving school and going off to things such as the Homebrew Computer Club—Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were among them—made significant developments that ultimately had spin-offs for the whole culture of California. That was not necessarily in the curriculum, and it could not necessarily have been easily incorporated.

The design and technology sector has genuine fears of the educational world. The principal fear is that, in slimming down the curriculum, technology may suffer. In other words, if we reduce the demands of the national curriculum in total, which most people would support, technology may drop out or be put on the back burner. Some people argue that the absence of a standard assessment test or rigorous measurement will not do much to improve the overall quality of the subject. There are complementary and opposed fears that heavy-handed state intervention or diktat will have perverse effects, particularly if, as we all believe, design and technology is a blend of both technical skills and genuine creativity.

There are certain dilemmas involved in ensuring that present good practice is further built on and developed. Ofsted has recorded significant progress in recent years, but I worry that that might be lost in curriculum revisions simply because it is not fully assessed or seen to be assessed.

I turn to two other connected issues. One is the speech by the Secretary of State today on the state of the ICT curriculum. I entirely echo his sentiments. In a Guardian article I wrote after tabling an early-day motion, I said:

“we will end up with second-rate education for pupils, who will have no understanding about how IT is developed or is likely to progress. The future of IT in business in the UK is not going to be just about using PowerPoint presentations.”

Pupils must

“become innovators of software, rather than people who just punch data into keyboards.”

That article was published in 2007, so I like to think that I am five years ahead of my time.

The picture that my hon. Friend paints is an accurate and grim one. There are 100,000 IT vacancies in this country at the moment, and the people are not there to fill those posts, because the number of people taking computer science courses at university has halved since the year 2000, and the number of drop-outs has risen. That is because the basic science in schools is not being taught, which is why I think the Secretary of State’s speech today is timely, if not long overdue, as my hon. Friend would say.

I certainly subscribe to the general view that a crash-course in Boolean algebra is probably more useful to the future of IT in this country than learning how to use Word or any other Microsoft product, but the insistence that ICT and technology education are about using applications shows how sometimes, when the state or organisations associated with it weigh in, they can get things wrong.

A lot of what we have is in part, although not entirely, a consequence of distinctly poor procurement, encouraged by the defunct Becta—Bringing Educational Creativity to All—which the Secretary of State had the wisdom to abolish. There are lessons to be learned. I genuinely think that when we intervene to advise schools, we must accept that schools, from their own practice, might wish, for good reasons, to be diverse and different, rather than aligning themselves with some common curriculum idea that could perish as rapidly as it emerged.

The second issue is a little contentious as well. Part of what I wanted to say today and might not have expressed adequately involves gender. I suggest, tentatively, that boys in general might benefit a little more than girls from good technical education. That might play some part in addressing the problem of children leaving schools without any qualifications, a disproportionate number of whom are boys.

In saying that, I accept that girls are and can be excellent technologists, and that technology is much more varied than the sorts of thing that boys first fixate on. I accept that gender is a spectrum and that boys and girls are all different. I also accept that the Department for Education has invested in efforts to prove that I am speaking nonsense, and that what I say can be both challenged and refuted. I have studied the Department for Education’s website, which has some excellent documents, largely written by female members of staff, suggesting that much of what I will go on to say is mythology, and that in fact boys and girls approach the curriculum in broadly similar ways. The similarities are far more important and prevalent than the differences, but I am not convinced by the argument that there are no differences. Although some views can be challenged, they are not necessarily refuted.

It is a basic biological fact that male and female brains are structurally different—males and females are, obviously, hormonally different as well—and that, irrespective of social conditioning, the two behave quite differently. That can be evidenced not only by anecdote, but by the performance of girls at any linguistic task; their abilities are far in excess of the abilities of boys, both in the UK and elsewhere. We have to recognise that and ask ourselves whether technology, if properly construed, might do something to balance out the attainment levels of the sexes in that respect. I make that proposal in the knowledge that, to some extent, it is controversial, but I think that it would benefit from some examination.

The essential problem remains that if we want design and technology to be embodied adequately in the curriculum, as we do, and if we genuinely want to spread good practice as best we can, how will we do it within a narrowing curriculum, and in an environment where teachers face a variety of demands? Moreover, how will we do it at a stage at which it is immediately relevant to children? My supposition is that some children who attend primary school, and who are not naturally bookish or who do not come from bookish homes, may find it difficult at times to engage with what they are offered and therefore detach themselves from the curriculum. That will eventually lead to poor attainment and to them being transferred to secondary school as underperformers. Giving them a series of other activities simply because they are not very good at what the school has to offer is less likely to be successful than finding out at an early stage where their talents lie and giving them an opportunity to explore them through design and technology. I believe that that opportunity exists, and we have to capitalise on it.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response, particularly on how he sees D and T fitting into the curriculum and its revision, as planned.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate and on his interesting opening speech. He need not apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) or me for a second contribution on educational matters—these are important issues and it is always a pleasure to hear what he has to say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport is right to say—we need to reiterate this—that design and technology is absolutely not just an alternative for those young people who are not academically inclined; it is an important subject in its own right. Indeed, the expert panel that we appointed to look into evidence from around the world for our national curriculum review recommended in the report that we published before Christmas that design and technology should become a basic curriculum subject, with greater freedom for schools to teach what they want, free from the constrictions of a programme of study, to encourage innovation and an individual approach. The national curriculum review will consider that before providing final recommendations to the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend has strong views about the importance of technology in primary schools and schools in general, and has voiced his concerns about the risk that too rigid a policy on the provision of technology to schools can stifle the very innovation that we all seek. Of course, technology can never supplant good teaching, but the effective use of digital technology can support good teaching and help raise standards in schools. We need to support the effective and innovative use of technology in schools, with good practice being developed and shared between them. That means not only exposing children to technology and encouraging them to feel comfortable with it, but promoting technology as a useful tool in itself and as a means to help develop general teaching in schools.

We do not seek to micro-manage the application of technology. As we stressed in the schools White Paper, it is for individual schools to identify their own needs and to address them as they think best. We need to encourage and enable teachers to take better advantage of the great opportunities presented by the burgeoning range of digital technologies, and to use them to improve their teaching and efficiency.

As my hon. Friend has said, the Secretary of State emphasised the fact that technology is a priority in his speech to the Schools Network conference last month and at the BETT technology show this morning. Like me, he wants to encourage the innovative use of technology both within and beyond the classroom. We need to equip our pupils with the technical skills and the knowledge to meet the needs of the 21st-century workplace.

This country has an exemplary record on the use of technology in schools. There is on average one computer for every seven primary school pupils, and one for every three in secondary schools. Primary schools spend an average of £12,400 each year on information and communications technology, and an additional sum of almost £1,500 on software and content. No one should doubt the importance that we attach to the use of technology to support our teachers.

I recognise that some will fear that the passing of Becta, to which my hon. Friend referred, has left a gap in the provision to schools of specialist advice on technology. We are in a period of transition, but this should be seen as an opportunity for the commercial sector and professional organisations to adapt their services to fill that gap.

My hon. Friend has spoken about the curriculum. We are in the process of reviewing both the national curriculum and the suite of qualifications. I think that we all agree that the current ICT curriculum, to which he has referred, is in need of an overhaul. It is outdated and needs to be reformed. We see the teaching of technology-related knowledge and skills as an important part of a broad and balanced curriculum that schools offer their pupils, but it is also our belief that, in a fast-moving and continuously evolving area such as ICT and technology in general, central Government are not necessarily best placed to define the knowledge that pupils need to acquire. As my hon. Friend has said of the early career of Bill Gates, he did not learn the skills that he used to build the Microsoft empire from technology lessons at school. He had a general, good education and he used it to develop his own work in understanding computers and software.

I have been fortunate over the past few months to meet representatives of those who work in the industry, particularly the ICT industry, who are concerned about the lack of a rigorous foundation in programming and the consequences of that for the wider economy. They are persuasive advocates and their detailed submissions to the national curriculum review have been very welcome.

As my hon. Friend has mentioned, the Secretary of State addressed the BETT technology show and took the opportunity to announce that the Department for Education will shortly open a consultation on the withdrawal of the existing national curriculum programmes of study for ICT from September this year. This is an interim measure that is intended to give schools more flexibility to develop their own programmes of study to meet the needs of their pupils more effectively. This move may have come as a surprise to many people, and we recognise that we are taking a wholly new approach.

I will happily give way to my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education.

I am grateful to the Minister. I, too, have met, in recent months, representatives who have made an impressive case. Can he explain—because I do not know the answer—why, until last year, there was not a single computer science GCSE? All we had were programmes of study and qualifications in, as he has said, operating programmes. The actual educational material was not in the courses. Why was that? How did we get into that position, and how will we make sure that we will not allow such things to happen in future?

My hon. Friend is right and that situation undermines the status of ICT. We have seen that in the GCSE figures. In 2000-01, something like 95,200 people took the GCSE in ICT, and last year that figure went down to 31,800, so something has gone very wrong with the content of the specification in ICT GCSE and in the programmes of study that were in recent reviews and that have led to this problem. There is a widespread belief that the existing programmes of study for the subject lack ambition, and that they serve to inhibit schools from engaging with innovative and inspiring ICT initiatives. We have heard that from so many sources—from teachers and pupils, from industry and, indeed, from my hon. Friend just now.

Some of the biggest names in the computer-related industries have told us that, in its current form, ICT is turning pupils away. That, in turn, is hampering the development of more relevant ICT-related GCSEs, with a focus on the more rigorous disciplines of computer science programming. That has had disastrous consequences for our digital industries, which face ever-increasing competition from emerging economies all around the world.

Eben Upton, a computer science academic at Cambridge university, was reported in yesterday’s Guardian as saying of applicants for degree courses whom he was interviewing:

“None of them seemed to know enough about what a computer really was or how it worked…Children were learning about applications, which are pretty low-value skills. They weren’t being properly equipped to think about how computers are programmed…Computing wasn’t being seen as the exciting, vibrant subject it should be at school—it had become lack-lustre and even boring.”

Our proposed change to the ICT curriculum will offer a chance for the subject to be rejuvenated, freeing teachers to explore and innovate, and hopefully to inspire a new wave of pupils to pursue computing and ICT. We need highly-skilled programmers if we are going to continue to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s markets, which will be increasingly dependent on, and driven by, the new digital technologies.

That is why the Secretary of State made the announcement that he did this morning. Pending the outcome of the national curriculum review, ICT will remain compulsory at all key stages in schools and it will be taught at each stage of the curriculum. The existing programmes of study will no longer be compulsory, but they will still be readily available for reference purposes on the web, although no school in England will be required to follow them. Subject to the consultation, from September this year, all schools will be able to use whatever resources they choose to teach the subject, and there is a wide range of excellent materials to choose from. I know that industry and specialist organisations, such as the British Computer Society, e-skills UK and Naace are already working on an alternative ICT and computing curriculum.

The worry is that we will go from one phase of prescription to another phase of prescription. We will not get back the days when young men came in and programmed BBC Micros on BASIC and such things, and got very excited about it. Technology is changing enormously. Years ago, if someone in the computer industry was asked about the key skill required, they would have said, “Keyboard skills,” yet touch-screens and so on will make those very skills obsolete. The model that the Minister is suggesting, which involves not only advice from above but interaction from below, is probably the right way forward.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for the radical notion of removing the programme of studies. As the Secretary of State said this morning:

“Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum. Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11 year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch”—

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).