The problem with Key Stage 3

Sign saying "Dull unicorporated"

By AGlassDarkly, Flickr CC licence

Key Stage 3 is in the doldrums and it doesn’t look like it will be rescued any time soon. Not only is there the well-known “dip” in all areas on transfer from primary, but the ICT curriculum that young people face is staid, uninspiring and out of touch.

I am not a hard-line advocate of “relevance” as I think it is good to be exposed to things you have never met before and look at ideas from other people’s point of view. But KS3 ICT is dull, dull, dull.

Of course I am really referring to the National Strategies framework, not the actual ICT Programmes of Study. The latter is very open in what can be taught, let alone how. This was always the intention, as the authors knew that specific technologies would change. Sadly, the Strategies then took it and applied the lowest common denominator (in terms of available resources) and produced something which has determined (or strongly influenced) the experienced curriculum in nearly every school.

I have been reflecting on this for a while, but it has been brought much more sharply into focus by the recently launched National Curriculum consultation.

Somehow, 11-year-old students are expected to be excited about designing a logo for a mythical company or financial modelling for a hypothetical disco.

Gloomy hallway

By Marco Wessel, Flickr image, CC license

Is it any wonder that young people are uninspired and say they learn more ICT at home? Many good primary schools have probably taught the skills required by the end of Y4 or Y5. Yes, we must acknowledge that not all primaries do this and not all children are “Digital Natives”. Indeed some of the digital natives are are actually quite undiscerning consumers of information mediated through ICT – but teaching them “goal seek” on a spreadheet is hardly going to set them alight.

We live in a world swamped with ICT (used in the general sense). Go to a cash machine, pay for goods in a shop, drive your car, watch your TV, phone a friend – nearly everything you do will be mediated by ICT systems, often embedded where you cannot see them.

Our country is desperate for ICT-capable engineers, programmers, designers… but take-up of related A Level courses is dropping off alarmingly. (Take a look at any e-skills Labour Market bulletin or other report.)

To be fair, ICT was never intended to be about computing/IT, but was about ICT capability – understanding key principles and being able to use them across a range of subjects and in the wider world.

(We could enter into a sterile argument about the intended differences between ICT and IT, but we are way past that. UNESCO, the EU, e-skills and most employers in the UK now refer to ICT. Let’s just accept that the two are, de facto, synonymous.)

However, we have done young people a disservice by leaving them with the impression that ICT is about software skills and trivial applications. That says even more about some of the teaching at KS3 and – even moreso – about senior managers’ attitudes, which see ICT as a “service subject” for other parts of the curriculum. This doesn’t even reflect the aspirations of the ICT Strategy, which was supposed to engage learners with “higher level” skills.

The Strategy is now nearly ten years old. It is time we moved on and brought back some excitement to ICT.

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