Schools: Computer Science

Northern Ireland Assembly – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 13th March 2012.

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Photo of Judith Cochrane Judith Cochrane Alliance 2:30 pm, 13th March 2012

2. asked the Minister of Education whether his Department will introduce a separate computer science GCSE subject to address the skills shortage in this sector. (AQO 1549/11-15)

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I noted with interest the Secretary of State’s decision in England to disapply the national curriculum programmes of study and the associated attainment targets and assessment arrangements for ICT from September 2012. Should that decision lead to changes in ICT-related qualifications, including GCSEs, I will, of course, want to consider the implications for pupils in the North. Indeed, I have asked the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to consider the developments in England and provide formal advice on whether similar GCSE and GCE specifications should be developed for use here.

My Department is also a member of the ICT working group that was established by the Department for Employment and Learning in response to the ICT sector’s concerns about skills shortages and mismatches here. Computer science is a specialised field, and the flexibility already in place within the revised curriculum enables schools to teach the subject at any key stage, if they feel it appropriate. At Key Stage 4, GCSE, some awarding bodies offer computing in addition to ICT. The revised curriculum has been designed to provide flexibility for schools to develop experiences that suit the needs of their pupils. The revised curriculum embeds mandatory cross-curricular skills and keeps prescribed content to a minimum, allowing schools to choose the most appropriate approach to take to ensure that pupils are engaged and challenged to reach their full potential.

Photo of Judith Cochrane Judith Cochrane Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answer and for the progress that is being made. Given that the school viability audits use the percentage of pupils attaining grades A to C at GCSE as an indicator of a quality educational experience, and that it is generally recognised that ICT would give a better chance of pupils achieving a higher grade than other subjects such as computer science, does the Minister agree that schools are unlikely to choose to offer the more challenging option, unless they are actively encouraged to do so?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No, I do not think that is the case. The measure across the five GCSEs is a basic measure of skills. Many young people display a great interest in ICT. We have to focus now on whether the coursework and provision are adequate and meet the sector’s needs. I, too, have been approached by pupils and teachers — you have been in regular correspondence with me, as has the sector — to say that the skills base that is laid down at schools may not meet the needs of the ICT sector. The establishment of a task force by the Minister for Employment and Learning is a valuable step forward. I and my Department are happy to engage fully with that working group. I am happy to work on and move along any of its findings, which will be evidence and research based, to ensure that we have the skills base required to build the ICT sector.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is important that the education system has the responsibility to provide the skills base for the economy, moving forward, which was debated by Members earlier today. As it beds in over the next number of years, how will the entitlement framework help schools develop a curricular offering that is relevant to a modern economy?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The core principle of the entitlement framework, and the counterbalance to the revised curriculum at Key Stage 4, is to guarantee equality of access for all pupils, from Key Stage 4 to a broad and balanced, more economically relevant curriculum, with clear progression pathways.

I also want to ensure that, at schools level and in my Department, we build up a working relationship with industry and business; that we have a close working relationship with DEL as regards that matter; and that we constantly review and reassure ourselves that the curriculum and the courses delivered by our schools and further and higher education are relevant to the economy now and in the future. The revised curriculum gives us a basis to do that, but we must also constantly challenge ourselves to ensure that it is relevant to a modern economy.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I appreciate the Minister’s responses so far. Does the Minister appreciate that computer science, as opposed to ICT, is a vital subject that needs to be taught at GCSE level so that pupils may progress to further education and A levels in order to provide those skills for the workforce? Will he assure us that he will work on that sooner rather than later?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

As I said in response to previous questions from Members, we are involved with the Department for Employment and Learning’s working group as regards that matter. I recognise that computer science is distinct from ICT. Indeed, when I talk to the ICT sector and to the industry, they emphasise that point time and again. We need young people who can build a computer from the computer chip right through to all its working mechanisms, not simply work the software programmes in the computer. We want a generation of young people who are not only building new computers and ideas in computer science but moving beyond where we are now. So, yes, I recognise that wholeheartedly.

I have a keen interest in the matter because it has been raised with me, as I said, by parents, pupils, teachers and the sector. I think that we can get it right, and the Employment and Learning Minister’s programme of work will allow us to do that. However, let us move forward on the evidence base that will come out of the working group. As I said, I am happy to move forward with any proposals coming from that group that are based on evidence and research.