13 January 2012
Engineering a new computing curriculum in schools
The Royal Academy of Engineering welcomes the Shut Down or Restart? report published by the Royal Society today. Given the Education Secretary's announcement of the withdrawal of the ICT programme of study from September 2012, this report is timely in getting under the skin of the ICT taught in schools, making important distinctions between 'digital literacy', the skillset essential for any of us to fully participate in a modern democracy, and much deeper aspects of computing.
The report makes it clear that the current ICT curriculum in English schools results in a pedestrian approach to digital literacy that overemphasizes mundane learning about IT tools such as word processors, and does not promote the acquisition of the broader computing knowledge and rigorous engineering skills that would keep Britain at the forefront of a global digital economy.
Dr Martyn Thomas CBE FREng, Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering and renowned software engineer, said:
"Britain's invention of the modern computer in 1948 changed the world forever but there is much more to come. Britain's next generation needs the best possible education in computing if we are to compete and win in the world that we ourselves created."
Philip Greenish CBE, Chief Executive of The Royal Academy of Engineering, said:
"Despite the efforts of many hard-working school teachers, ICT is currently boring young people with the most basic approach to digital literacy at a time when success in life calls for much more. Britain can only regain a leading advantage in the next wave of wealth generation by developing our youth to engineer digital technologies, not just use them."
The next few years are critical
The global economy is already dominated by pervasive computing. As the Royal Society report shows, computational thinking, computer science and engineering have been at the heart of groundbreaking advances from the Human Genome project through climate change prediction to epidemiology. Massive engineering projects such as the Large Hadron Collider, the Airbus A380, the Range Rover and the Euro-fighter have all depended on successful software engineering - as have revolutionary consumer products such as the iPod. Computing is also central to the service industries, financial services, retail, hospitality, healthcare and education.
But we are only just at the beginning of the digital revolution. Future wealth creation will be dominated by those who are able to engineer scalable and reliable solutions to an exciting range of complex challenges including genetic engineering, smart grid, telemedicine, robotics, advanced manufacturing, nanotechnology and cyber-security. Cutting across all of these is the explosion of the mobile internet, which will not only reach every human on the planet, but will surround us with an expected 50 billion wireless-enabled embedded computing devices within a few years.
The UK's economic future therefore fundamentally depends on high added-value, high-technology, sustainable product engineering, with computation, software and hardware, at its heart.
Dr Martyn Thomas FREng said:
"The next generation will have to compete for the best jobs in a fast-moving global market. These jobs will no longer be created by simply exploiting Moore's Law to get more applications and features onto smaller and faster devices, but will depend on engineering complex digital systems that really work. Our young people must not put off laying foundations for those skills until they leave school as that will be too late."
Philip Greenish said:
"Computing underpins all aspects of the UK economy and is vital to innovative start-up activity in, for example, Silicon Roundabout, and to the film and games industry. So when it is so pervasive in society, and so vital to our future, why has the teaching of real computing been so scarce in schools?"
What does this mean for the education of our young people?
We believe that every young person should have the opportunity to experience and learn real computing from ages 5 to 19 in the same way that they experience mathematics or science. Computing is that important. We don't underestimate the scale of this challenge. We must attract and train many more teachers in order to make this happen, but the criticality of the next 10 years for Britain's economy means we have to start making a difference now.
That is why the Shut Down or Restart? Report and the Education Secretary's announcement are so important.
From September 2012, the computing experienced at school should be a sensible and affordable balance of appropriate formal curriculum, qualifications and extra-curricular activities such as after-school clubs. We recognise that teachers and schools will require ongoing support as the nation moves away from the current model of ICT in schools, and not all schools can move at the same speed. Over time more young people will need and choose to specialise in computing, and a computing pathway will be required for this including a range of GCSEs, A levels, vocational courses and university degrees. New technology, including creative use of online videos and podcasting, can be used to ease demands on critical human resources.
We believe that more must to be done to incentivise more schools to offer a challenging computing experience for young people, and to make it clear to headteachers, teachers, parents and children themselves how exciting and rewarding software engineering can be.
Philip Greenish said:
"Government initiatives such as the English Baccalaureate are not enough to ensure worthwhile subjects such as computing thrive, so further incentives must be found. We need qualifications that are recognised by universities and valued by employers. More teachers of computing have to be trained and more volunteers found to support computer clubs in schools. Above all, the nation must wake up to the danger that we are getting left behind in the global digital race that, as Martyn Thomas says, we ourselves started."
Going beyond Shut Down or Restart
We welcome the recommendations made in the report, especially where they affect employment prospects for young people and economic competitiveness. Engineering employers and universities can make a difference. Hundreds of schools could benefit almost immediately if their computing courses, after-school clubs or teacher networks received the backing of people who are ready and able to inspire excellence.
Notes for editors
Moore's Law was adopted after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore wrote in a 1965 article that the number of transistors on a chip would double every 24 months. Chips that can work faster and faster have driven the technological and digital revolution so far (source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/)
The Royal Academy of Engineering
Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship - comprising the UK's most eminent engineers - provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain's engineering community.
For more information please contact:
Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton