Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where now?

Purbeck Way direction postphoto © 2008 Jim Champion | more info (via: Wylio)

This week's Education White paper - The Importance of Teaching - has given much food for thought and not much of it positive. A white paper on teaching in the 21st century which mentions blazers as many times as ICT ( and even then refers to ICT only in terms of sharing services ) does not bode well for equipping students to be ready to participate successfully in the Digital Age. Similarly the changes to the league tables so that school are measured on the number of students that get five good GCSEs in English, Maths, Science, a humanities subject and a modern foreign language gives no recognition of the need to be digitally literate. Placing these subjects as the key measures of school success will also squeeze out other subjects in the curriculum. ( In additional this narrow interpretation of success, harking back to a 1950s curriculum will condemn a large number of students, and their schools, to be labelled as failures ).

A final blow to ICT as a discrete subject is the indication in articles like this one from Toby Young - Cornucopia of Goodies - that vocational qualifications will no longer be included in school league tables. In many schools ICT has retained it's place on the KS4 curriculum as a result of being able to deliver up to four GCSEs to the league tables via qualifications such as GNVQ and more recently OCR Nationals. As these qualifications are coursework only and can be delivered in far less curriculum time than traditional GCSEs they have been seen as a cash cow for results, particularly for lower ability students. Removing them from the league tables will seriously threaten their place in the timetable. Most ICT departments are already starting to review the ICT GCSE options and will face a battle for curriculum time if they wish to continue to offer vocational courses.

So decisions need to be made. Through my involvement with #ictcurric I am aware that there is a lot of progress in developing the Key Stage 3 curriculum so that it is relevant and engaging. As I've previously blogged, however, all this seems to come to an end as soon as students enter Key Stage 4. I've taught a range of level 2 ICT courses and not been entirely satisfied with any of them. DiDA was on the right lines but I felt that it foundered on the assessment with students struggling to understand the mark criteria. I'm personally a fan of BTECs which I feel gives the opportunity to develop different strands such as hardware maintenance / upgrading as well as the applications route. However I'm having to have a bit of a rethink at the moment with regards to the new specification. For the extended certificate both Unit 1 and Unit 2 are mandatory. I've developed a combined scheme of work focusing on job hunting in the IT industry:-

The first assignment which involved students creating a blog went well but progress has been slower on the next two assignments - characteristics that employers are looking for and writing a CV and covering letter - which I'm now appreciating are very focused on literacy skills. I have four EAL students in the class and several lower ability students and it's just not engaging enough in it's current form. I need to have a rethink on how I could cover the criteria in a diferrent way or alternatively break up the unit by mixing it with a more practical unit.

I have inherited a situation whereby all year 9 and year 10 students complete the single award of OCR Nationals on one hour a week ( with no year 11 provision ). I was not a fan of OCR Nationals before I started to teach it and now I've had three months teaching it I am even less so. For the single award only one optional half unit can be covered together with the mandatory unit 1. For a number of reasons, a sizeable number of my year 10 students made very little progress last year and we are now still ploughing our way through such mind-numbingly boring tasks as creating a 3 slide presentation or taking screen shots of creating folders and shortcuts. If I was starting from scratch or had more curriculum time I'd be rewriting it to give it some sort wider context and make it more relevant and engaging. However faced with trying to get the entire cohort through by the end of the year I find myself at times delivering the course in the very manner criticised by last year's OFSTED report into ICT teaching

'Accreditation of the vocational qualifications is based mostly on the assessment of coursework... Consequently, they are often demonstrating what they can already do rather than being taught new and more difficult skills. Sometimes, teachers direct students’ work too much. In some of the lessons observed during the survey, teachers led their students through the steps necessary to demonstrate that their work met the accreditation criteria. Students were able to meet the criteria, whether or not they had understood what they had done.'(Page 31)

My only alternative, unless I can get additional time in year 11, is that half the cohort will fail. However I do not feel that I am developing any sort of digital literacy skills with these students or giving them the transferable IT skills they will need in the future. I am simply processing them through a qualification so that they can obtain a GCSE which will count towards their 5 A* to Cs. If excluding vocational courses from the league tables removes the pressure to deliver an ICT course in such a manner it may not be such a bad thing. The danger is that other, more worthwhile, vocational courses get thrown out with the OCR Nationals bathwater and it leave us with the dilemma of what to put in it's place. 

The obvious answer is GCSE ICT. But we need to ask why so many schools have abandoned this option in the past. Apart from the lure of multiple GCSEs in the same timescales, many felt that the GCSE syllabuses were outdated and not engaging for students. James Greenwood @jpgreenwood, having reviewed various options, is of the opinion that the new Edexcel ICT GCSE is 'the best of a bad lot'.  ICT departments also suffer from being seen as a choice for less able or less academic students and GCSEs may not be appropriate for many of them. Purists may be considering Computing GCSEs as a rigorous academic option which will prepare students for post 16 Computing and university courses. However in a school such as mine this would be appropriate for only a small number of students making the delivery not viable. 

James Greenwood in a recent twitter post had the following suggestion:-

'My solution is single award GCSE in 2yrs. Can cover syllabus, *and* deeper learning in that time'

I'm currently toying with a similar idea. Having previously criticised ICT Functional Skills I'm now starting to think about building a Key Stage 4 course around the functional skills qualification but combining it with the project qualification brought in as part of the diploma. This allows a student to investigate a subject of their choice in depth. As both qualifications are worth a half GCSE they would add a full GCSE to the regrettably all important league tables. Far more importantly however it could form the basis of a project-based learning qualification which allowed students to develop digital literacy skills in a context of their own choosing. Such a course would need to be carefully written to incorporate project management, research, analysis and presentation skills. With the new functional skills exams focusing more on presentation of information rather than data handling completing the project could cover most of what is needed to pass the exam. Functional skills and the project are both available at level 1 and level 2 giving a better provision than the level 2 only courses. This would give a good grounding in basic ICT / digital literacy skills as a core provision which could support study across the curriculum. Alongside this ideally I would like to run 2 options groups, one GCSE ( either ICT or Computing ) and one BTEC to offer a broad curriculum.

Early stages in the idea at the moment but any comments / suggestions welcome.


  1. Spot on Donna, you capture the difficulties of meaningful accreditation for IT completely. Since moving away from the front line of teaching, I have viewed the development of IT qualificationas from a distance, and think you are in a completely untenable position (helpful, I know!). It shouldn't be up to individuals in schools to shoehorn meaningful learning into courses such as the Project and Functional Skills. This seems to typify the problems that the education system has in recognising applied learning, which the Diploma qualification should have addressed, and in the case of IT failed totally.

    Good to see you still actively grappling with it all in the face of adversity!

    Tim Bareham (Cornwall)

  2. What about considering the Extended Project (AQA) on top of something like FS? Although I have a feeling the crappy FS will go also (good imo)

  3. Thanks Tim and good to hear from you. Amanda and I have had several 'despair of our subject' conversations but I'm not ready to give up on ICT yet. There is so much potential for meaningful learning - it's just the accreditation side we need to sort out.

  4. Nick - the project is the level 1/2 equivalent of the level 3 extended project - AQA offer the qualification - that is the board we went with at my last school. I think Functional Skills will stay even though the Diploma looks like it's on the way out.

  5. Interesting post, Donna. It would be great to share some ideas on how the Edexcel GCSE 2010 specification can be implemented to provide the kind of digital literacy skills and understanding that you describe. Re: FS, they are built into the GCSE, but are assessed and awarded separately as appropriate. This approach could lead on to the EPQ in year 11 for extension students, or provide the skills for those wanting to take it on along side A Levels.

  6. Thanks Pete. I would very much like to discuss this further with you. I will DM you my email address. I will also check out the Edexcel GCSE spec. You may also be interested by James Greenwood's post yesterday -ICT as the Muse's birdacage. There are a fair few of us at #ictcurric thinking along similar lines.