Pete Bayley, a maths and IT teacher since the 70s and previous Director of Qualifications with BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, gives a personal view of the history and current state of IT and ICT courses in schools today.

I’ve seen it all before, several times over: initiatives, changes to rules and regulations, infighting between groups who ‘know what is best’ and lack of clarity about what IT (or ICT, computing and so on) should or not be taught to pupils before they leave school.

In the 70s I was fortunate to have been at a secondary school with a mathematics department interested in playing with computers. I was already a convert to the world of electronic computing, having studied Mathematics and Operational Research (whatever that was) at Bath University in the late 60s.

As part of my course I had a year working at the Dounreay nuclear reactor site on the north Scottish coast. I wrote programs in FORTRAN to simulate dropping Boron rods into a nuclear reactor to slow it down. The computer was near Manchester and we had a scanner to send the program listings there electronically but the results came back three days later by post!

It is a shame that the UK seems to have lost its way with nuclear power from those days when we led the world. We are now importing it all back from France via EDF - but that is another story.

At the school we did programming (called app writing now). We managed to get time on a machine, at the offices of an organisation called Plessey in Swindon. We linked to it via a modem unit that we slotted our normal telephone handset into (yes the big Bakelite one) and pupils got it to print 10 copies of their name or something equally inane. These were then posted back to us a couple of days later.

The sixth form maths students even managed to get the solutions to quadratic equations back from this piece of ‘magic’ attached to the phone line. Of course we had to do this after school had closed so that we could access the one and only phone line. That handful of students was fascinated by the control that was possible for them to have over an electronic machine in a different part of our town.

This same keen group were the ones that went with me to the offices of the Nationwide Building Society for several years to run, on the UNIVAC machine at their new offices in Swindon, a COBOL program (sorry app) to match staff and parents up for parents evening meetings. I doubt that I could get through today’s security there to ‘play with their line printers’ as we did then.

Then came the PC - I’d bought an Apple II with disc drives and colour monitor for my pupils to play with - it sat along side a motley assortment of Commodore Pets, Sinclair Z-somethings and an electronic calculator that did division by repeated subtraction and worked its way across the desk as it did so. Then a government initiative came along that said if you wanted a computer for your school all you had to do was apply for one, giving a reason for wanting it.

We got our first freebie (in fact I got two as the school next door decided no-one there knew how to use it). They were RM 380Zs in big black boxes attached to portable tape recorders and black and white monitors. How I wished I’d been able to get a couple more Apple IIs with colour monitors and disc drives! Beggars can’t be choosers, though, and someone in Whitehall clearly knew best.

The RM was pounced upon by my then ‘Independent Computer Club’ - ‘Independent’ because the one I was running for beginners was not advanced enough for them and they broke away to learn more for themselves. This served them well as many of them later set up their own IT-related companies or progressed within the larger organisations such as Intel, based in Swindon.

A couple of years later the BBC B came along - again not quite industry standard but British and brilliant for teaching what you could get computers to do, using a very accessible BBC Basic programming language.

Many of my by then really keen and ‘techy’ pupils took app writing to new heights and had model traffic lights and simulated skyscraper lifts attached to them as well as constructing mathematical displays of Sierpiński curves, Lissajous figures and fractals. (Worth a Google or Wikipedia if so inclined - other search engines are also available).

The school went through various initiatives with IT such as GCSE Mode 3 (it had to be a mode 3, written in-house, as no-one had by then yet invented Mode 1 in IT).

That did at least give the pupils the opportunity to do some ‘theory and history’ of computers (ably helped by a BBC ‘owl’ I recall) and an individual project that gave them the opportunity to show how good they were at programming (apping now?). Some of my really able GCSE ‘academics’ really benefited from having this in their list of qualifications, prior to starting their A-levels and applying to university.

In 1983 still in BBC B time I became Director of Mathematics and Business Studies at a newly opened sixth form college in the town.

The 80s were the time when IT really started to take off as a necessary business tool and the Wang, that we bought for an exorbitant amount of money, did allow us to create a Dbase II database of student records on 8” floppy discs and create mail-merges of letters to parents and automatic data transfers to exam bodies for the first time.

It was about then that IT moved from the maths and science departments to the secretarial and business studies ones - electric and electronic typewriters being replaced soon by more BBC Bs and Ataris. And there it has resided since, all be it mostly using standard PCs.

After a few years, students at the college found a new pass time - playing with Mavis Beacon (Google it if you are under 40) and trying to pass the mandatory CLAIT qualification in record time. That actually taught them how to use word processors and spreadsheets properly, even though it didn’t improve their dress sense or ability to spell.

When colleges moved from being managed by their local authority to independent ‘businesses’ they became funded by reference to the ‘Schedule 2’ list of acceptable qualifications via the Further Education Funding Council. Every student did CLAIT as you could get funding for it - brilliant from a college manager’s perspective.

That soon dried up as funding got tighter and new rules started to be applied, however a huge number of students gained valuable IT user experience, that I am sure is still with them to this day. Initiative followed initiative, NVQ being still with us in the form of ITQ, then GNVQ being one of the memorable ones that lasted a few years and I never really got to grips with the A-level Computer Studies.

It was very theoretical - lots of history and Boolean logic but no real opportunity to develop real practical use of IT in real workplace situations although students did know how to create impressive alphabetic sort routine algorithms but never went near the computer room.

Much of the current discussion about what pupils and students should know about computing - should it be IT user skills or computer programming skills - must stem from this time. I maintain and have always maintained that both are vital in today’s technological society and a better balance needs to be struck with more emphasis on how computers do things, especially the mathematics and statistics behind our everyday apps, as well as how to operate the ubiquitous software available on every office desktop.

I do hope, though, that the pendulum does not swing fully away from business use to technical use but rather the technical issues are offered to many more pupils alongside the necessary basics of office applications. This isn’t an ‘either / or’ argument.

At the age of 50 I ‘retired’ - basically FE was going through a bit of a financial bad patch. I was a bit too expensive and there was yet another national initiative to allow ‘older’ more expensive (and experienced) lecturers and college managers to retire early with a small inducement. I took it and settled down to the thoughts of 15 years leading to proper retirement with B&Q (The only organisation that seemed to think that anyone over 50 was still able to do anything).

What happened then led me to where I am now writing this. In 1997 I joined the British Computer Society to manage a new qualification called ECDL - The European Computer Driving Licence. Over the next 15 years this qualification has become one of the most important IT user qualifications in both this country and many other parts of the world.

Its aim is simple - using a series of short tests candidates have to prove competence using word processors, spreadsheets, databases, presentation packages, the internet and email as well as gaining knowledge of many of the terms used in computing in the workplace and how to sensibly set up directory structures to store and manage files.

Passing all seven tests gives a pupil, student or adult in the workplace a certificate showing they are competent to ‘drive their computer’. In fact ECDL gives them all the basic IT user skills, needed by everyone in a modern electro / industrial society.

These basic skills are still, in my view, vital for every school leaver to possess - I wonder how many do? Many will have a cursory understanding of them but do they use them efficiently and as well as they need to when facing work or a university course?

Unfortunately the mandarins have had an impact on this simple idea over the past few years and we have had to bend and buckle it so that it fits the ITQ framework (not to mention VRQs and the QCF) in order to allow English FE colleges to use it and again more recently so it fits the requirements of the National Curriculum and Performance Points list (so it can be used within maintained English schools).

It is interesting that without these manipulations ECDL is seen, in its original form, to be a valuable qualification in Scotland and also in much of the rest of the world in the form of ICDL. Then there was also the fiasco that was ILA - great idea but poorly managed by those in charge, leading to many millions of pounds lost to the UK economy that could have been much better spent on IT training for teachers, for example.

So what has all this to do with IT education in school today?

When I started in the 70s it was all new. Now IT and computer power are facts of life. Nothing seems to work unless there is a processor involved. I walk up to my car with the key in my pocket, open the door and press the start button and after performing numerous automatic checks to make sure the tyres are blown up, the oil is at the right level,

I have diesel in the tank and nothing is within a foot or so of the back end, off it goes. I wonder how many of our current school leavers could write the ‘apps’ for that lot? I am sure some of my 1980 sixth formers would have been able to have a stab at them, using the machine code they taught themselves.

I am typing this (now that hasn’t changed much!) on a laptop connected not to a modem with a telephone handset stuck into it, but via a radio LAN through a modem (still there but looking much less cumbersome) to the internet, where I shall store the finished article before sending it to others via email, rather than posting it to them. I may even Tweet that I have done it.

Alternatively I could add it to a BCS podcast, create a YouTube video performance of the key points and add it to the BCS Facebook page for comment by anyone interested in the subject. Many of these communication skills are used supremely well by most students and their all embracing phones. Are the underlying skills being taught in schools? - I think not.

As more and more apps are written to make communication and file downloading easier and cheaper it will be vital (it already is) to make sure in all classrooms that internet security, copyright, time-management and use of internet commerce is covered throughout a pupil’s time at school. It is not enough to cover it once. In five year’s time there will be new issues to address so it is crucial that IT courses in school are constantly refreshed and updated. Qualifications need also to reflect the times.

Some things change slowly - word processing and using spreadsheets have not really changed much since I was introduced to them 40 years ago - others crop up over a very short space of time and become ubiquitous like Facebook and mobile phone technology.

School curricula need to be geared up to cover both. Capabilities in security and legal issues need to be constantly updated yet the bedrock of office applications for those who will be users of systems need to be thoroughly mastered by all. In addition much more emphasis needs to be placed on the mathematics, logic, mechanics and applications needed to develop a much better technically able workforce in UK.

For example I wish that I’d been taught to type properly at school - I still only use two fingers and type at a speed less than half as quickly as my PA used to, with her full set of trained digits. I know that by now (if TV programmes of the 1980 and 90s are anything to go by) we should all be using voice recognition software and brain implants to get words into our PCs (do we still have things called PCs or are they all tablets and pads now?).

It is interesting that even though many of today’s devices that purport to be integrated PC / Laptop / camera / MP3 player / phone / modems still have miniscule QWERTY keypads or virtual QWERTY keypads on a touch sensitive screen. The keyboard is here for a while yet - particularly in an office situation where shouting at your iPod would not be sensible - so that is one thing that everyone should learn how to use as quickly and as early as possible.

Most people in University or work will have to write something bigger than a tx 4 u to rd on ur Fbk LoL, where an RSI-riddled thumb is all that is needed (wow! that upset the spellchecker).

Why do we not teach touch typing and ‘netiquette’ as skills equivalent to spelling, handwriting, mental arithmetic, and the inevitable list of ancient Greek and Roman gods, which seem to pervade my youngest grandson’s curriculum at present?

Then there is the inevitable project to undertake that will require any number of pieces of software to be mastered. My middle grandson, who unfortunately lacks a colour printer with any ink in it, regularly emails me (usually at 9 o’clock on Sunday night) a piece of work in MS Publisher for his homework which has to be in first thing Monday in glossy printed form.

He has only just scratched the surface on what his word-processing, spreadsheet, database and publisher software can actually do for him - how I wish someone at his school could show him what such programs are truly capable of before he has to join the world of work. These again are in my view basic skills requirements for today’s workplace.

I know some people insist that this is the ‘boring’ stuff and that all students should be learning to program games (sorry, create games apps), make video blogs, school magazines etc. I maintain that both the basic user skills and these more ‘appealing’ (no pun intended) are key ingredients of a pupil’s technological development and may be vital to their future job prospects.

Most pupils will need the basic skills of office applications. I am glad that the current thinking on league table points will allow the use of ECDL in schools.

Digitally literate students enjoy an enriched educational experience and will be better prepared for work, further learning and daily life in the information society. Students who use technology as part of the learning process perform better in school and are more motivated to learn.

As learning environments evolve, students increasingly need the skills to use technology to support them in their learning. The right skills facilitate access to information and resources, enabling students to access a more diverse pool of information. Expanding the student’s knowledge beyond the classroom gives it more meaning, fosters critical thinking and promotes a positive attitude to lifelong learning.

Research from e-skills UK, states that over three quarters (77 per cent) of the UK workforce use IT in their jobs. However, 1 in 10 businesses say there are gaps in the IT skills they need. Further research from e-skills UK also states that 92 per cent of jobs advertised require IT user skills.

These statistics clearly demonstrate the value attached to IT user skills and the contribution they make to UK PLC. The subject matter for these qualifications is therefore entirely appropriate for young people in terms of providing them with a significant core of transferable knowledge and skills.

Those who are to become the IT entrepreneurs that this country needs must have their enthusiasm engendered by knowledgeable teachers, who can work with them to discover what it is possible for computers to do. Experimentation like sticking a couple of wires connected to a light bulb into the serial port of a BBC B to make it light up on command seems to have been lost and needs to be regained (subject to all health and safety policies of course!).

There are some really innovative and exciting computer-related activities in the country’s schools and some exceptional teachers driving them. You only have to visit the BETT exhibition in January to see the potential. These however are not the norm and many schools are without teachers who are capable of managing such activities.

Sadly, in my view, not enough teachers have the required passion for computing (again that does not seem to have changed much since I started in the 70s). I would like to see, as a very minimum, every teacher in the country (as they do for example in Jordan) having ECDL or an equivalent qualification, before they are allowed in the classroom or as a mandatory part of their in-service training activity.

At least that way they won’t feel intimidated by their pupil’s abilities and will be able to encourage their students to go further. I know maths teachers who have never used a spreadsheet, geography teachers who don’t use the internet when teaching about weather and English teachers who cannot use a word processor properly. How are we to develop the post-technology society if many of our teachers are still in the pre-technology society?

In addition to IT user skills, I think teacher training on app writing, use of digital cameras, video editing and curriculum based software and statistical analysis tools should be mandatory for science teachers. GCSEs in computing, that concentrate on practical and mathematical real world application development rather than the history of the subject, need to be on offer to many more youngsters than is currently the case.

BCS as the Chartered Institute for IT needs to be taking a real lead in this, as it has with the development of programmes for computing specialists and ECDL / ITQ for IT users. I welcome the work being done by the BCS Academy and the Computing in Schools group currently raising these issues. 

Addressing the lack of high quality teachers of computing is a similar issue to that of attracting high quality teachers of mathematics to the profession. In fact they may be more closely linked than we imagine and have proved problematic for decades. We must not, however, in this search for more adequate computing education forget to teach and test all pupil’s basic user skills as well. As I said before this is not an either / or debate, we must have both.