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Education (Amendment of the Curriculum Requirements) (England) Order 2013

Volume 747: debated on Monday 8 July 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Education (Amendment of the Curriculum Requirements) (England) Order 2013.

Relevant document: 4th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the Government’s proposals for replacing the national curriculum subject of information and communications technology with computing in schools in England.

As noble Lords will know, the study of information and communications technology—commonly referred to as ICT—is a compulsory national curriculum subject in maintained schools in England at key stages 1 to 4. In February, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education announced his intention to replace the national curriculum subject of ICT with computing. The report on the consultation on this proposal, published on 3 May, showed significant support for such a change, with the largest single group of respondents being in favour. I will outline the reasons why we think that this change to the name of the subject is necessary.

In spite of the revolution in how we use digital technology in society and in work, decreasing numbers of young people are obtaining computer science qualifications beyond age 16. Between 2003 and 2012, the number of students taking A-level computer studies fell by 60% and is now fewer than 3,500 entrants per year. Similarly, the number of entrants to undergraduate computer science degrees fell by 23% between 2002-03 and 2010-11, at a time when undergraduate enrolments grew in all other STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—areas.

This is a major problem, since the UK’s long-term economic prosperity depends on our ability to be world leaders in developing digital technologies and understanding how they can transform all sectors of the economy. It is estimated that, over the next seven years, around 2 million new jobs will come from sectors that rely on technology, mathematics and science.

We need to be at the forefront of innovation in the development of new digital technologies, drawing on an illustrious heritage that includes pioneers such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing and Tim Berners-Lee. However, we are facing a huge shortage in the number of people with the appropriate technology skills to fill these jobs and grow the high-tech, high-value industries in which the UK should—and must—be globally competitive. Clearly, something has to change. Two important recent reports—from the Royal Society on computing in schools, led by Professor Steve Furber, and from Alex Hope and Ian Livingstone on the computer games and visual effects industries—both conclude that the ICT curriculum in schools has been a major part of the problem.

The existing ICT curriculum, which was last updated in 2007 for secondary schools and 1999 for primary schools, has led us away from teaching pupils to program computers and develop a deep understanding of how computer technology actually works. For too long, and for too many pupils, ICT lessons have focused on basic IT user skills and avoided the more challenging aspects of the subject, such as control technology and statistical process control. Experts contend that the existing ICT curriculum fails to prepare pupils for higher-level study. As Alex Hope and Ian Livingstone argue, this is weakening the flow of talented and appropriately skilled employees into the computer games and visual effects industries in which the UK has, until recently, been a global leader.

However, the potential loss is much broader, since virtually all sectors of the economy make extensive use of digital systems, and high-level computing skills are required to develop and maintain the hardware and software on which so many businesses depend. Beyond the economic arguments for reforming the ICT curriculum, we are letting young people down if we do not provide them with knowledge of how digital devices actually work or enable them to create their own digital artefacts through programming.

We have tackled the crisis in technology education in schools head-on; first, by withdrawing, or “disapplying”, the existing ICT curriculum last September. Subsequently, we worked with leading subject experts, convened by the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, on an ambitious and challenging new curriculum that places computer science and practical programming at its centre. From key stage 1 onwards, the new curriculum aims to develop pupils’ understanding of the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science and to enable them to write computer programs in several languages. Pupils will continue to develop skills in using a range of digital tools to carry out tasks, becoming digitally literate. For the first time, they will also be taught in primary school how to stay safe on the internet, keep personal information private and use technology respectfully and securely.

As we are overhauling the content of the curriculum, we are changing the name of the subject, from ICT to computing. There are good reasons for this. As the Royal Society report contends, the very title “ICT” is part of the problem, as it carries negative connotations of a dated and unchallenging curriculum that does not serve the needs and ambitions of pupils. Renaming the subject will encourage schools and teachers to develop fresh approaches to teaching the new curriculum content. We agree with the Royal Society and others that “computing” is an appropriate broad umbrella term, which covers the three principal elements of the subject included in the new curriculum—computer science, digital skills and information technology—but without being too strongly associated with any one of them.

We know that our proposals are ambitious and that many schools and teachers will be teaching computer science and programming for the very first time. Fortunately, it has never been easier for schools and pupils to get started with programming, through using low-cost hardware such as the Raspberry Pi computer, which costs around £30, through free programming languages such as Scratch and through the support of grass-roots organisations such as Computing at School. Furthermore, we are taking steps to ensure that teachers have the skills needed to teach the new computer curriculum. Over the next two years, we are providing £2 million in funding for the British Computer Society’s Network of Teaching Excellence, which will enable our best computing teachers to train thousands more to teach computer science and programming to their pupils. We will also be signposting teachers to the best resources worldwide to use in teaching the new computer curriculum.

These proposals have wide support. They have been greeted positively by important organisations including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. In the consultation, a majority were in favour of the change. Also, many of those who disagreed with or were unsure of the change in title were actually concerned about the content and the challenges for schools in teaching the new curriculum and there were relatively few concerns that related directly to the name of the subject in itself. This was also the case for the responses to the more recent one-month consultation on the draft order. We are considering these concerns in the course of finalising the new computing programmes of study. Having considered the evidence from the public consultations, we remain certain that replacing “ICT” with “computing” will improve the status of the subject in schools and encourage schools to develop fresh approaches to the way in which they teach this vital part of the national curriculum.

As the Committee may have heard today, the statutory consultation of the draft orders for the new national curriculum commences today and will be complete on 8 August. The Government will therefore be considering any further feedback on the content of the programmes of study for computing as well as the other subjects of the national curriculum over the summer. We then intend to publish the final version of the new programmes of study for computing in the autumn, to be taught for the first time in September 2014. Subject to the will of Parliament, those programmes of study will be confirmed in the autumn. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the proposed name change; indeed, the order is narrow in its intent. On the whole, we welcome the change and the need to revitalise the ICT curriculum. We take on board the concerns that were raised by Ofsted, that the curriculum and teaching approaches had not kept pace with the rapid technological developments outside the school environment. While we share the concerns of many of the respondents that the term “computing”, which is now being adopted, suggests too narrow a focus, we also recognise the need to send a signal that the content has been substantially modernised.

We are also aware that, of all the subjects in the national curriculum, this one will continue to have challenges in keeping up with the pace of change. For example, it is easy to foresee that what we are now celebrating as a new computing course will appear in a few years’ time to be dumbed down and irrelevant to the demands of employers in the future. However, in the mean time, I have a few questions that I hope the Minister can address.

First, on professional development, the Minister made the point that some money was being made available for some of the professional development work. Does he feel that it will be sufficient? There is a serious issue about ongoing professional development throughout the system, starting at primary level, where updating computer skills will be part of a range of updated skills which all primary teachers will need to deliver the new curriculum. It is also an issue at secondary level, where it may not be easy but is possible to recruit specialist staff with up-to-date computing skills. However, if you are not careful, that knowledge and those skills can fall out of date very quickly.

Secondly, what more are the Government planning to do to attract new specialist computing staff to teach in schools? It is fairly obvious that there would be alternative, better paid jobs for high-class performers in computing. They may not necessarily rush into the teaching profession.

Thirdly, can the Minister confirm that the change in name does not represent a narrowing of the curriculum, and that pupils will be taught some of those broader skills such as internet use and safety, word processing and data processing, so that the subject will actually give people a range of knowledge and skills which the word “computing” does not necessarily encompass?

Fourthly, the teaching will be successful only if it is supported by sufficient funds to modernise IT facilities and to keep modernising them as technology changes. The noble Lord made reference to some low-cost initiatives in terms of facilities in schools. However, I have seen reference to 3D printers. That is fine, it is just one example, but 3D printers are very expensive. The fact is that, for children to have an up-to-date and relevant experience, you would need to keep providing not just low-cost but some quite expensive technological equipment in schools on an ongoing basis. Will sufficient funds be available to do that?

Finally, given that computing skills and the supporting equipment that would be needed are increasingly integral to the teaching of all subjects, not just computing, have the Government given sufficient thought to what computing skills should be taught within the confines of the computing curriculum and what computing skills need to be provided with all the other arts and science subjects that people will be studying, in all of which pupils will increasingly require computing skills to participate fully? Has that division of responsibilities been thought through? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the Committee to my interests in this area. I am a trustee of the e-Learning Foundation and have various other interests, including working with the Times Educational Supplement and with smart technologies. I am also a trustee of Apps for Good.

I, too, attended the Bett conference at the beginning of last year, when the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, who is now on his feet in the other place talking about these issues, announced the disapplication of the programme of study for ICT. I broadly welcomed that announcement. It goes back to my dissatisfaction when I was Schools Minister with the ICT curriculum, particularly at key stages 3 and 4, and to how unengaging my son found the experience of doing the European Computer Driving Licence. My attempt to change things was to get Jim Rose’s primary curriculum review to include ICT as a core subject alongside English and maths. It was a battle that I eventually won by subterfuge, and Jim’s review included ICT at its core. I wanted young people starting secondary school to be plug-and-play ready to use ICT across the whole curriculum in their learning.

I was also informed, as I think the Minister was, and as he mentioned in his opening comments, by the changing nature of the labour market, which is essentially hollowing out due to globalisation and technological change. The growth in high-skill, high-wage work is at the higher end of the market and is very much informed by technology and people who are confident with it. Not all of it requires programming skill. Therefore, my first question is: how will the Minister ensure that digital skills remain across the whole curriculum and inform the way in which young people learn in all subjects, not just in the subject called computing?

I cannot see any occupation where we will not require people to be confident in using the internet and technology, and to have a basic understanding of how it works. I am chair of the Online Centres Foundation, which just today was renamed the Tinder Foundation. We are very active in digital inclusion, and we see people referred to us from jobcentres so that they can not just process a claim but apply for jobs, because 70% of employers require you to apply online. These are fundamental skills for every child to learn in order to be confident leaving school.

The issue of digital skills across the curriculum raises an additional question. It is a perhaps unfashionable question about pedagogy. As a Minister, I was always slightly reluctant to get involved in pedagogy because I am not a trained teacher. However, I regret that, and I have looked at the amount of investment that has gone into technology in schools over time and have seen that some of it was not spent well, because not every teacher was taught to be confident in using it, and to shift their pedagogy in order to use it well.

I have that worry about 3D printers, and I am specifically interested in finding out from the Minister whether, as 3D printers land in schools, they are not going to be used to prop doors open or get dusty in cupboards. Last Friday I was talking to teachers from the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy down in Dorset following their being shortlisted for a TES Schools Award. Unfortunately the school did not manage to win an award, but it is worth noting that both the nominated projects involved 3D printers, so I can see that some fantastic pedagogy may emerge from this technology that encourages highly engaged teaching and learning.

I am not persuaded that we have in place a system for scaling teaching innovation around how we use technology. It is the mistake that has always been made with new technologies in learning: we have no system for scaling proper, high-quality continuing professional development to ensure that teachers can design really engaging learning experiences using new technologies. To me, that is essential. We no longer have the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. I understand the reasons for the Government’s decision to get rid of it three years ago, but we have only one official in the whole of Sanctuary Buildings—the whole department—on ICT. She is a great official who does a fantastic job, but it is only part of her role. That seems inadequate to ensure that every school is procuring efficiently when buying this technology and that we are continuing to strike really good deals with the likes of Microsoft, thus saving huge amounts of public money in respect of licensing. Are we able to provide any kind of lead on how we teach when using this technology? As the Government acknowledge in wanting to bring forward these changes, and as the Secretary of State acknowledged in his Bett speech in January 2012, technology is an important tool in educating children because it is a huge part of the world in which they are growing up. However, we have only one official in the department, which does not make any sense to me.

I have one or two other questions for the Minister. He is right to point to Raspberry Pi and I pay an unfashionable tribute to Google for funding its provision in a number of schools so that it is even cheaper than the Minister has said. However, it is not just about Raspberry Pi. Does the department have a view on personal, one-to-one computing in schools, about bringing in your own device and whether that is a way forward in terms of it being affordable? Does he have a view on the use of the pupil premium for children from poorer homes so that they are able to access personal devices for homework as well as when they are at school? If he has the answers to these questions, they will be listened to carefully and very warmly received by a large community out there.

Finally, I have a question that relates to teacher training, which has already been mentioned by my noble friend Lady Jones. As I understand it from the British Computer Society and CAS, there has been some discussion with higher education institutions about how they could be at the heart of a network to deliver some of this teacher training. That is commendable at the geekier end, but the mistake would be to think about computing as computer science, a name that was conjured up at one point, and forget the wider application of computers and computing. In terms of teacher training, is the Minister looking at peer-to-peer learning and how we could use the model created in the specialist leaders of education scheme, which has been so successful in driving school improvement at relatively low cost, in order to identify the teachers who are driving forward really good pedagogy and practice around the teaching of computing, as it will now be called following this order? Having done that, will we be able to scale that expertise in order to engage other people, and how can we motivate teachers to perform that good work for children in this country?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for their excellent speeches and their broad support for the name change and the need to revitalise the ICT curriculum. The noble Baroness asked the very important question of what steps the Government are taking to ensure that the professional development of teachers keeps pace with the curriculum change. In addition to the points I mentioned in my opening speech, and to provide more detail on one of them, the National College for Teaching and Leadership has established an expert group to signpost schools, teachers and trainees towards existing high quality curriculum resources. We will consider the group’s recommendations carefully as we prepare for the implementation of the new national curriculum from September 2014. The £2 million funding for the computer science CPD runs until 2015. By then, we will ensure that teachers in approximately 16,000 primary and secondary schools are capable of teaching computer science. We think that this number is very adequate.

Secondly, the noble Baroness asked what the Government are planning in order to ensure that we attract new specialist computer staff to teach in schools. We have made available bursaries of up to £9,000 for suitably qualified candidates to help ensure that computer science undergraduates consider teaching as a career option. Furthermore, there are up to 100 scholarships worth £20,000 each for exceptional applicants. Initial teacher training providers are also offering subject knowledge enhancement courses to graduates from non-computer science courses which have a significant technology component. These courses will provide candidates with the computer science knowledge they require to go on to study the computer science PGCE.

Thirdly, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked me to confirm that the change in name does not represent a narrowing of the curriculum and that pupils will be taught e-safety. I can confirm that the name change represents a rebalancing rather than a narrowing of the curriculum. The purpose of the study statement for the new computing curriculum states that pupils should become digitally literate—as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, stated was so important—through this particular curriculum subject. There is content on digital skills at key stages 1 to 3. Keeping our children and young people safe on the internet is a top priority for this Government and the noble Lords know that it is an area in which we are doing a great deal of work. This is why for the first time children will be taught in primary school how to stay safe on the internet, to keep personal information private and to use technology respectfully and securely. We have also strengthened the requirements around e-safety at key stages 3 and 4. Throughout their schooling, pupils will be taught to recognise inappropriate contact and conduct as well as to know each appropriate way to report concerns. We have been advised on this by leading e-safety experts, including the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the UK Safer Internet Centre, the NSPCC and Professor Sonia Livingstone.

Fourthly, the noble Baroness asked whether the teaching would be successful. It needs to be supported by sufficient funds to modernise ICT facilities and keep them current. Evidence from the British Educational Suppliers Association shows that school spending on digital technology, hardware, software and services is increasing annually. Schools are choosing to make this expenditure—there is no ring-fenced capital or revenue funding for digital technologies. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that if it were true that there was only one official focusing on this in the department, that would be too few. I understand that there is one leading official who is supported by the STEM team. However, I undertake to investigate the position further so that we can consider whether we have enough support.

We will work with the Design and Technology Association, the Royal Academy of Engineering and others on support for the new design and technology curriculum, including 3D printers. We are working with teachers to identify the resources that schools can use to teach computing and design and technology. I was delighted to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, recently visited the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy and thereby celebrated the success of the sponsored academy programme initiated by the previous Government. The noble Lord asked about the pupil premium and whether it can be used for purchasing personal devices. I know that some schools provide iPads and I am sure that it will become a growing trend. It is a scenario that I would be grateful to discus with him further because his expertise is clearly greater than mine and I would welcome the opportunity of doing so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked whether, given that computing skills and equipment are increasingly integral to the teaching of all subjects, the Government have given sufficient thought to what computing skills should be taught. As she knows, this Government are keen to trust teachers to use their own discretion. Together with the training that we will be providing, it is up to schools to determine where and how they teach computing skills in the context of other curriculum subjects, although clearly some areas of the curriculum have strong affinities with the content of the computing programmes of study, most notably maths and design and technology. The noble Baroness pointed out that this subject will need to be refreshed constantly. I hope that this is the start of that process so that in future all Governments keep it constantly under review, which is so important in such a fast-moving world.

In addition to the publication today of the new curriculum for computing, I look forward to the implementation of the new national curriculum in its entirety and, in particular, a return to its intended purpose: a minimum national entitlement organised around subject disciplines across core and foundation subjects. The new national curriculum will provide schools with a set of expectations that match those in the highest-performing education jurisdictions in the world and will challenge them to realise the potential of all their pupils in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Motion agreed.