From education to employment

Grammar, digital literacy and standards – a month of change

Just over a month into the New Year and we’ve already seen fierce debate on a number of issues which touch upon education and skills.

First, ‘Waterstones’ used to be ‘Waterstone’s’. According to the book seller, ‘Waterstones without an apostrophe is, in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling.’ And in a way I can’t blame them – after all, learndirect is spelled with a lowercase “l” to denote its presence in a URL rather than primarily in the bricks and mortar world.

It is clear attitudes towards grammar are changing. At the same time views are also shifting on digital literacy and overall teaching standards. The government has finally realised just like Waterstones’ attitude to the apostrophe has changed, so have learners’ attitudes to ICT and how it is used for learning.

This is exemplified by Michael Gove’s announcement on the overhaul of the school ICT curriculum. ‘Harmful’ ICT lessons are being replaced with computer science and a focus on programming in particular. In addition, Ofsted’s new chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has taken a tough line on ‘coasting’ schools by labelling those which were once ‘satisfactory’ as requiring improvement and subject to more regular inspections.

In my view, it’s about time! For too long, the vital role played by technology in the way we live has not been reflected in the way we teach – or the way in which teaching is regulated. More and more people go about their every-day business using technology and the education sector should recognise and build on this, whilst still supporting those who don’t have access to IT at home.

But whilst it’s right to move away from ICT lessons, I believe Gove is missing the bigger issue. It’s my view technology should be threaded through all forms of learning which seems to be singularly missing in the debate about the future of ICT teaching. Even the Royal Society, which has made recommendations about the best way to teach ICT, goes only so far. The organisation is calling for computer science to be taught in a similar way to mathematics and physics – as a ‘rigorous subject’ – with digital literacy being taught separately. But technology is not just about teaching discrete skills such as programming because it can help in every classroom and in any subject – whether for children or adults, in formal or informal settings. It shouldn’t just be about teaching technology, but teaching through technology and harnessing the way it can deliver all content.

For example, technology is already being used in a variety of ways to help people learn: online videos and collaboration tools, using keypads in the classroom for pupils to give feedback to teachers or providing full courses on iPads to university undergraduates. For schools and other learning providers it can also ensure efficient and effective assessment via e-assessment tools. This is vital if we are to cut costs.

It’s also arguable that through these very changes, Ofsted will see improvement in schools throughout the country. Technology has been shown to improve attainment and learning. It engages children and parents while making hard-to-teach subjects accessible and interesting. According to Government-backed research, having a computer at home has been shown to have a positive link with Key Stage 4 test scores. This amounts to around 14 GCSE points (equivalent to two GCSE grades). Having one at school too, reinforces this improvement.

As the year progresses, the use of technology across the FE sector will become more important too. From October apprenticeships providers will need to ensure their learners all have functional skills. If they don’t, funding will be withheld. Apprenticeships providers may not have the resources or expertise to deliver these effectively in traditional class-room settings. Delivery of these skills through technologies and programmes tailored to teaching functional skills may be part of the solution.

When all these elements come together, it will provide people leaving education with the skills needed to progress into the workplace. From a simple change in the use of an apostrophe, to wide reaching evolvement in the teaching of ICT, it’s vital the sector continues to build on developments to really make the most of what we have available to us.

Sarah Jones is chief executive of learndirect, the nationwide e-teaching organisation

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