Lack of specialist ICT teachers must be addressed by Department for Education

13 January 2012

Just 35% of ICT teachers are specialists, compared with, for example, 74% of maths, 76% of history, 80% of English, and 88% of biology, according to a new report from the Royal Society published today.  The new report, Shut down or Restart? The way forward for Computing in UK schools, analyses recent declines in numbers of young people studying computing at schools and the reasons for the declines.

Professor Steve Furber, Fellow of the Royal Society and Chair of the report, said: “Although we were heartened to hear that Michael Gove intends to radically overhaul the National Curriculum programme, we remain concerned that other problems still need to be addressed.  The most significant factor affecting how well young people learn is the teacher in their classroom.  The majority of teachers are specialists, but ICT is an exception to the rule.  Our study found some fantastic examples of teaching, but the fact remains that the majority of teachers are not specialists and we heard from young people that they often knew more than the teacher giving the lesson.  Action is needed not only on the curriculum itself, but also to recruit and train many more inspiring teachers to reinvigorate pupils’ enthusiasm for Computing.”

Analysis in the Royal Society report showed marked trends in the numbers of students achieving ICT or Computing qualifications, including a 60% decline in the numbers achieving A level Computing since 2003, a 34% decline at ICT A Level over the same period, and a 57% decline in ICT GCSE.   The report identified a number of problems with current Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in schools that have led to these declines, particularly a chronic lack of specialist teachers who can teach beyond basic digital literacy and the breadth of interpretation of the current national curriculum which allows the subject to be taught at its lowest level.  

The report found that just 35% of ICT teachers in England had a qualification considered by the Department for Education to be relevant.  This compares to 74% of maths teachers, 69% of physics teachers, 73% of chemistry teachers and 88% of biology teachers.  Similar figures are found when “Arts” subjects are examined, for example 80% of English teachers, 76% of history teachers and 87% of music teachers all have a relevant post A-level qualification.  The report suggests that the apparently high proportion of non-specialist teachers of ICT may help to explain the recurrent finding that students’ ICT capability often outstrips the teachers’ subject knowledge.    The report recommends that targets are set for the numbers of Computer Science and Information Technology specialist teachers and that training bursaries are provided to attract more suitably qualified graduates.  Teachers’ skills should be developed with a specified minimum level of continuing professional development (CPD) in order to ensure that schools can deliver a rigorous curriculum and engaging learning environment.

The report comes at the launch of the Department of Education’s consultation on plans to remove the statutory programme of study in ICT, whilst keeping ICT a mandatory part of the National Curriculum at all levels.  The Royal Society’s report recommends radically overhauling ICT in the English National Curriculum, replacing it with a programme of digital literacy3 for all from age 5 to 14, alongside opportunities for all pupils to experience the creative side of Computer Science from primary school age onwards. From the age of 14 students should have an entitlement to study a pair of GCSEs, similar in structure to English Language and English Literature in which Computer Science is the language element (how computers work) and Information Technology is the application element (how we use them).

The case is made for the need to increase numbers of specialist teachers and to make the changes to the National Curriculum, both in terms of the economic benefits to the UK of a more digitally literate population (it is currently estimated that 15% of the population are digitally excluded) and of a workforce with more sophisticated Computer Science and Information Technology skills, and in terms of the more intrinsic, educational benefits of these skills, such as wider and safer participation in a modern society that is increasingly online and opportunities to be a creator of technology rather than just a user of it.

Professor Furber continued: “Thirty years ago I helped to design the BBC Micro, the first computer created to educate and inspire children of the potential of Computer Science, yet today, when computers have become integral to every part of our lives, we see young people turned off by computing in schools.  We need a new generation of teachers to take up the challenge of enthusing future generations of young people.”

In support of the report, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google, said: "The UK has an extraordinary computing heritage, but now risks falling behind.  The state of computing in schools lies at the heart of the problem.  Most ICT teaching focuses on learning how to use software, rather than giving insight into how it's made.  Too few UK students have the opportunity to study true computer science, resulting in a workforce that lacks key skills needed to help drive the UK's economic growth."

The report is the result of an 18 month study, led by the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, involving the education, higher education and industry sectors, learned societies and professional bodies.  The study was undertaken with support from 24 organisations, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, BCS, CPHC (The Council of Professors and Heads of Computing), Google, Microsoft Research and several of the UK’s leading universities.

Professor Furber added: “This report provides a comprehensive analysis of the evidence and recommendations for the way forward.  We look forward to working with the Department for Education over the coming months.”

Download the Royal Society report.