It is a sad state of affairs when the numbers of students on some A level computing and ICT courses is raising questions about their viability. Neil McBride, principal lecturer in computing at De Montfort University, looks at the shortcomings of the syllabus and the impending IT professional shortage.

In 2007, the number of A level computing candidates dropped to 5,610 from a low-level of 6,233 in 2006. Additionally A level ICT candidate numbers dropped 6 per cent between 2006 and 2007. Computing represents 0.7 per cent of total A levels sat and ICT 1.7 per cent. Compare that with 10.6 per cent sitting English and 2.5 per cent sitting drama. More students sit Spanish than computing.

If such a loss of interest in a subject was being discussed in the case of Welsh or Celtic Studies, it would be a matter of concern. The loss of any subject leaves us culturally worse off. But we're talking about ICT which accounts for 5.3 per cent of EC gross domestic product. The IT industry continues to grow between 5 and 8 per cent faster than other sectors, it will need 150,000 new entrants each year. An ICT professional shortage of 300,000 is predicted in the EU by 2009.

Clearly we need more students engaging with ICT and computing at A level. It should not be a minority subject. Why are students shunning computing? What can teachers do about it? Where's the problem?

Is it the teaching? ICT teachers have a hard job. They try hard to interest students who are spending hours on computers at home, even if only on playing games or social sites and may not be interested in exploring the underlying technology at school as well. They struggle with a changing technology. New hardware, software and applications appear on TV every week.

They struggle to stay ahead of their students who may spend hours at home programming while the teacher keeps up with marking and lesson planning. Teachers have to stick to the curricula, students can go where they like.

Do history students spend hours at home poring over original medieval sources? I doubt it. Do biology students spend hours at home dissecting xenopus toads and extracting DNA? I doubt it. Do geography students rush off outside school hours to examine coastal structures?  I doubt it. Do ICT student rush home to create application, write games, run open source applications. Quite likely. 

So ICT teachers are likely to struggle with such a rapidly changing subject area whose advances are often more accessible to the students at home than at school.

In the end, the ICT teachers are snookered by the curricula, by computing and ICT syllabi that are boring, irrelevant and pedestrian. The popularity of a subject must to some extent depend on the curricula. Boring curricula will result in frustrated teachers and bored students.

Recently, the major boards have revised their specifications for 2008 onwards to align with an A level model of four units. One might expect that this would be an opportunity to renew the syllabus and to develop in exciting new directions. Instead we get a rearrangement of the same old material resulting in syllabus specification which would be more at home in the museum of computing than 21st century schools and colleges.

Take a look at the computing and ICT specifications for the three main boards. Both OCR and AQA offer new syllabi in computing and ICT based on the four unit model. Edexcel's Applied ICT dates from 2005. Computing has been abandoned (although circus skills remain part of Edexcel’s A level portfolio). Reading the A level specifications for OCR and AQA is somewhat shocking. We are offered a nostalgic trip into the past.

OCR's A level computing involves units in computer fundamentals (hardware and software), programming and computer architecture which leads to a programming project. Social issues are mentioned, HCI is touched on upon. Object-oriented programming and UML get a mention, but no more than reverse Polish notation. AQA computing is not much different.

These 'new' syllabi read like a throwback to the 1970s: AQA still supports Pascal. Like ICT syllabuses, they are wedded to the systems development life cycle view of computing practice, somewhat of a rarity in an industry where rapid development methods, agile methods, evolutionary development and systems integration are more common practices.

These extraordinary syllabuses are neither new, relevant nor interesting. They read like a biology syllabus that went no further than taxonomy, a chemistry syllabus obsessed with the periodic table or a history syllabus that is a catalogue of dates. Even from the point of view of a focus on the technology, the plethora of interesting technologies that are about in computer science get little mention. They seem to be designed to discourage even the most dedicated student.

The AQA syllabus states that computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes and then presents a syllabus whose astronomical equivalent would involve lesson after lesson about glass grinding. These syllabuses are a disaster for ICT education and an inhibitor for developing a strong ICT profession.

In an industrial ICT world where complex systems can be generated from components - as is done in Ruby on Rails, where systems development is more a process like jazz improvisation or film production, such syllabi are somewhat jaded and tired.

In an education world, where children right from primary school can generate complex programs using Scratch or Starlogo and 10 year olds are taught to develop Excel macros and dynamic Powerpoint presentations which are beyond the skills of most university lecturers, a course which starts with programming 'Hello World' in Java  or involves more Excel macros is hardly a mouth-watering prospect for anybody. ICT teachers are left struggling to inject creativity and interest.

A level ICT fares a little better than computing. While OCR's Applied ICT loses the plot and retreats to the traditional world of programming and classical systems development, using visual basic presumably to differentiate it from computing, AQA’s ICT A level engages with industry and explore subjects and areas you would actually find in an IT department.

The unit, 'The Use of ICT in a Digital World' explores topics and techniques such as the implementation of large scale systems, backup, recovery and availability management, which are all areas of great concern in IT departments where the focus is on services and the range of skills and processes required are defined in ITIL® 3.

It is not as if industry is failing to provide clues on what the skills and study base should be for A level. The Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) defines the range of skills needed to run a modern IT department and to use IT effectively in an organisation. Some 53 skills cover strategy, support, identifying and managing the benefits of ICT, training, implementation and integration of systems. Of those 53 skills, only one involves programming. And yet programming constitutes the majority of computing and the predominating theme of ICT.

EdExcel's ICT syllabus make reference to SFIA but fails to deliver, still focusing on programming and website development. It lacks context. It misses areas such as IT service, commodity ICT and entertainment. It still has large amounts of programming, spreadsheets and databases. You are left with a syllabus which one student described to me as pointless and lacking in real-world application.

Here we have a set of specifications for A levels which neither engage with industry requirements nor draw in students by connecting with their everyday interests and technological experience. They sit in a sterile academic desert, entered with trepidation by teachers and students alike.

It is at the level of curricula that the drastic failure of computing and ICT education lies. Rearranging the tired topics of computing and to a lesser extent ICT into four units does not constitute a new syllabus. Nothing less than a complete renewal, revision, re-branding and renaming is required.

School geography, which at GCSE was branded by Ofsted as boring and lacking relevance to young people, is receiving a makeover. Issues of sustainability, globalisation and development are being introduced to GSCE geography along with studies of the impact of retail giants. We must interest and excite the students, connecting with their understanding and experience. We must connect with industry, its changing requirements and the real-life problems it faces. And we should provide intellectual edge and depth.

This is all missing in A level computing and ICT syllabi. The very best actor cannot perform without an excellent script. The most talented and enthusiastic ICT teacher will be brought crashing to the ground by inadequate curricula. And the computing and ICT curricula are worse than inadequate.

Until the curriculum developers grasp the nettle and reform ICT and computing syllabuses, the downward spiral of student numbers and interest in these economically vital subjects will continue.

Neil McBride is a principal lecturer in computing at De Montfort University and course director of the BSc ICT.