Computers in the Curriculum

Back in 1989, when the National Curriculum was created, the “Personal Computer” (as opposed to industrial main-frames) was only nine years old - the PC having been launched by IBM in 1980.

However, it was already clear that computers were going to be significant in the modern world and tht they must be included in the new National Curriculum.

Unlike Science, where a massive body of knowledge was already in place, IT technology was very new and its curriculum was being created from scratch.

Is it a new subject or part of an old one?
The first problem was where to put computers in the curriculum? Was this a new subject or did it fit inside something else? You’ll realise just how new it all was when you see that the whole IT curriculum was placed inside the subject Design and Technology! It wasn’t even a subject in its own right - it was Attainment Target 5 of Design and Technology. (The other four covered planning, designing, making and evaluating in a range of materials for a range of purposes). Computers were added on at the end . . .
“Attainment Target 5: The Use of Information Technology”.

Years later, when IT had become ICT and had increased massively in importance, it was still, legally, 'Attainment Target 5 of Design and Technology’ because it would have taken an Act of Parliament to change it.

Skills and Knowledge
Most people thought the new subject would be called Computers or Computing but it wasn’t. It was called Information Technology. This was a recognition that the new technologies were not so much about the machines themselves but about what they could do.

Despite this, most people thought that the new subject, Information Technology or IT for short, would require children to know how to switch computers on, load programs and possibly do some word processing. I say possibly because, in 1989, primary schools (5 to 11 years) were lucky to have more than a couple of computers and may or may not have owned a printer, Secondary schools (11 to 18 years) mostly confined their computers to Maths or Science departments.

In the event, the new subject was a brilliant piece of work.

  • It didn’t say “Learn to Word-process”,
    it said “Learn to Communicate”.
  • It didn’t say “Learn how to use a database”,
    it said “Learn how to handle data”.
  • It didn’t say “Learn how to use a spreadsheet”,
    it said “Learn computer modelling”.
  • It didn’t say “Learn a computer language”,
    it said “Learn how to use computers to control and monitor devices”.

These four areas became known as “Strands” and included a fifth: “Compare your use of computers in school with those you see in the outside world”. This rooted children’s experience in the real world.

No mouse or windows
Think about this. At the time most computers did not have a mouse with its on-screen pointer and icons. Choices were made from menus using the up and down arrow keys. Microsoft’s Windows 95 was still six years away and although Acorn and RM had recently introduced machines with a mouse and windows, most computers still started up at the command line interface and it was very difficult, if not impossible, to even add a picture to your wrinting.

Versatile and Future-proof
Taking just the first strand, the wording said “Learn to Communicate”. It was an amazing piece of foresight. It’s still as relevant today as the day it was written. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing a blog, posting on Facebook, creating your own YouTube channel, or Skyping with a class of children in another country, you are using computers to communicate.

Given that none of these things had been invented - nor could they have been foreseen by the writers of the National Curriculum - it is amazing that their wording never went out of date. “Learn to communicate” covers communication in all its forms - words, pictures, sounds, on paper or electronically, locally or globally. In ways we could never have imagined, we now use computers to communicate - to entertain, to persuade, to share.

Milestones since 1989:-

  • Printers and the ability to add pictures to your writing made Desktop Publishing (DTP) possible. Children made posters, leaflets and newsletters by the million.
  • Music and graphics programs appeared. Children began to create, share and modify information in forms other than words.
  • Faster processors made it possible to add sound to your words and pictures and multimedia became the Big Thing.
  • Email arrived and children began to communicate internationally without a printer.
  • The World Wide Web allowed encyclopaedic volumes of colourful pages to be published to an eager world.
  • Full-motion, full-screen video arrived and children were able to create movies.
  • Web 2.0 emerged and children became active contributors to both the web and the global exchange of ideas.

ICT in the National Curriculum was a brilliant piece of work. Each of the four practical strands was generic in its nature and so, as the technology evolved and new opportunities emerged, the wording remained relevant.

There have been several revisions of the National Curriculum in the intervening years and ICT now stands alongside Maths, English and Science as the four most important subjects. The letter C was added to IT and the topics were renamed but the actual content remained unaltered. 

However, eventually the changing world demanded a different emphasis and in September 2014 the ICT curriculum was replaced by Computing. All the communication, data handling and modelling of ICT are still there, though less clearly worded, but there is now a massive emphasis on that fourth strand, “Measurement and Control”. It always contained computer programming and coding but was the least well taught of all the strands so needed to be beefed up.

Now, every child must be taught how to program computers, from a basic grasp of what an algorithm is all the way to advanced coding in HTML, CSS, Javascript and beyond.

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© Brian Smith 2015