Education, education, education

Person writing on a chalk boardA little more inspiration - a little more action please, particularly in the schools environment. That was the message from the latest BCS Thought Leadership debate.

The BCS Education Forum held the event on 9 October, with the theme 'Feeding the Pipeline: What can we do in schools?' Christina Preston, representing Naace, and Robin Mellors-Bourne from CRAC opened proceedings and a debate followed.


It's tough out there, particularly for a lot of teachers as far as IT is concerned because they need a lot of support. The large majority have had very little contextualised professional development. Although there are IT courses for teachers, most of the people who go on them already know how to use computers. The only reason they go on the course is to ‘tick boxes' and prove their skills.

The rest of the teachers, who do not know as much, want motivational courses that have relevance to their work. Many say that the reason they go on the courses is through a sense of professionalism and because they want to pass on methods of independent learning to their pupils. However, only when teachers are confident can they pass on what they know.

The kinds of courses that educational computer advisers now advocate are based on action research strategies not basic skills. Tutors help the teachers to design a project using computers that will make changes in their institutional or classroom practice.

The teachers learn how to reflect on their findings to decide with their senior managers which strategies work best in raising achievement. When teachers on courses share these experiences they get to feel part of a professional community.

This sense of membership is important in endorsing the implementation of change. In this active learning context, the core question is not what needs to learnt, but what is it that will help teachers to make changes in their practice?

And, what about the way that careers is taught in schools? How can IT be made more appealing to school-age children?

Careers education is partly about learning what working life is like and partly learning about yourself and, just as when you want to make a careers choice later in life, you seek guidance when you have a choice to make. But is careers advice in schools in the right place?

Unfortunately the reality is that most careers staff within schools are former teachers, mostly of humanities subjects, who have never worked outside a school. This can mean that young people receive poor or poorly informed advice. In fact the majority of children who stay on in school tend to get very little in the way of careers advice anyway.

When it comes to the IT industry as a whole, the careers advice provided is not likely to be very clear, especially when it comes to how and why you might want a career in IT and where to start. By contrast scientific industries have many different initiatives designed to get children interested in science and working with science, some of which are targeted towards careers advisers too.

In order to provide better careers advice the IT industry should link up with existing government-supported initiatives aiming to encourage children to consider further study and subsequent entry into the profession.

The computer clubs for girls initiative is a very good idea, but does it include any career message or context? With IT at the moment there is very little context for what a career in IT means. It is noteworthy that television programmes, such as CSI and Silent Witness, have dramatically increased interest in and applications to forensic science courses.

There need to be more personal messages from people within IT, as advocates for IT. The IT sector also needs to put across a simpler message and careers advisors need to know and understand this message too.

The debate

When it comes to teachers learning new skills it was thought that a good way to do this would be to create online communities. This is because a large number of teachers use technologies such as the internet, often in their own time, but not for work.

One of the biggest issues for teachers, which can hold them back, is that the software and systems they have in schools often aren't as new as what the pupils have at home. Added to this the students are often more used to the software than the teachers. Unfortunately, because many people have computers at home, this is a unique issue for IT teachers.

In terms of continuing professional development (CPD), teachers should not be taken out of the classroom for this, and, if they do attend courses they shouldn't go on their own. Schools should send two teachers on the same course so that they can support each other and then bring back what they learn to their school.

Teachers need to have personalised, contextualised support that is integrated into their daily teaching and learning. It also needs to be applied in context and is about changing their own environment, such as action research. It's not necessarily what needs to be learnt but more about getting and attracting teachers to learn in the first place.

According to some, what is considered as traditional teachers' CPD (teachers come out of classroom) is doomed. It has very little impact and the cost is too high. Teachers learn best when they become a researcher.

Perhaps what is needed is a special magazine for careers staff and IT teachers filled with fellow practitioner stories in the classroom. Perhaps this is something the BCS could do?

Just as pupils thrive when they have inspirational teachers, so teachers also need to be inspired by their peers. They need role models who can show that IT can be inspirational. Perhaps to achieve this teachers should have the opportunity to go out in to other industries and see how things are done in other environments.

When it comes to careers education in schools, the IT industry isn't putting over a clear message about what a career in IT entails and how people get into it.

The BCS should get involved with schools along the lines of what the Institute of Physics has done and continues to develop to get children interested. Currently all the BCS is doing is dipping a toe in and not really getting involved. It should have an education office. Branches should also go into schools.

In addition to this the BCS should also work with the government to look at the examinations pupils take. Maybe there needs to be different A-levels and GCSEs? In examinations project work team building is not encouraged. For example, A-level projects in computing are each done by a single person and this is not how it works in the working world. When teaching IT, communication and best practice skills also need to be included as these are very important in business.

School and university curricula need to join up with the workplace and it would also help if they were filled with stories about being an IT professional. That way students would have more of an idea of the sort of job they might go into.

Added to this, curriculum activities, such as games and competitions, need to looked into and added as they can be very effective ways for students to learn.

Getting back to the issue of role models, the IT industry needs young people who have just started their careers to show others what it can be like and what options are open to students.

The area of education is something that the BCS needs to be involved with much more and perhaps it should expand the education office to cover schools as well as universities. It should also be more involved with the curricula for IT GCSEs and A-levels.

In terms of 'Feeding the Pipeline' there is a need for the BCS to fund development in this area, either by employing more staff within the education department (as the Institute of Physics has done to combat the same problem in physics) or to increase the number of external consultants on a short-term basis. There is a considerable emphasis, from the government, to encourage young people to study and then work in industries such as ours, and an acknowledgement that currently careers advice to young people is poor is long overdue.

November 2007