Government details industry-backed IT GCSE pilot

The government has tipped plans to introduce new IT qualifications, running a pilot scheme for a project that could see a subject many deride as being Microsoft Office focused and meaning merely 'I Can Type' turned into a more career-friendly true computing qualification.

Part of the E-Skills council's 'Behind the Screen' programme, the pilot scheme sees around a hundred students from twenty schools across the country volunteering to trial an industry involvement programme which could lead to a new GCSE with a much larger focus on key computing skills, and comes with the support of the IT industry.

As well as additional extra-curricular activities like IT Clubs and informal extra sessions with teachers passionate about the subject, the new programme will see industry experts visiting schools to help instil in the students the key skills necessary for a job in modern computing.

Companies involved in the project include IBM, the BBC, Capgemini, Cisco, Deloitte, Hewlett Packard, John Lewis, Microsoft, the National Grid, and Procter & Gamble, giving kids access to experts from almost all corners of the computing industry.

"Basically, it's a pilot programme," the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesperson Oliver Fry explained to thinq_ in a telephone interview, "whereby firms go into schools and talk to kids and teachers about the skills that they need, to give them the opportunity to just learn more about business-compatible IT skills.

"As part of that work, that will be assessed with a view to developing a new GCSE to be launched in the future. There is no GCSE now, and we don't have a name for it or anything like that, but essentially we're announcing these pilots."

Fry denied that the announcement had anything to do with recent criticisms of the state of computing education in the UK from industry giants including Google's Eric Schmidt, who spoke at the MacTaggart Lecture to claim that Britain is "throwing away [its] great computing heritage" by teaching little more than Microsoft Office skills in schools.

"It's just another example of employers working with schools, in this case under the auspices of E-Skills, the sector skills council for the IT industry, to continue to develop relevant qualifications that are going to deliver the skills people need to get jobs in growth sectors like IT," Fry explained.

"It's not being introduced because we feel that there are weaknesses, it's being introduced because it's natural in the warp and weft in the development of qualifications that they evolve and new ones are developed to meet modern-day needs."

The as-yet unnamed new GCSE would, Fry explained, be joined by a new A Level subject, both of which would have a focus on true computing skills including computational principles, systemic thinking, software development and logic, with coursework concentrating on the development of analytical and critical thinking skills. While the pilot programme doesn't start until November, it's already getting some positive feedback.

Jason Gorman, founder of Codemanship UK and the man behind a similar project to get industry experts to work closer with teachers to educate the next generation of software developers, welcomed the news. "The announcement about the new IT GCSE is very encouraging," he told thinq_ earlier today.

"Computing careers are one of the UK's best-kept secrets, and many young people leave school with no inkling of what a 'software developer' does, or how rewarding - professionally and financially - writing software can be," Gorman lamented. "This new GCSE will eventually give thousands of kids a chance to try their hand at programming and learn about real computing."