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Starting them young …

A recent local news story caught my eye, “Almost Half of GCSE students missed A*-C grade in ICT”. Disappointing, especially as the percentage of students achieving grades A*-C was lower than in England, where the results for GCSE ICT were also poor. 


The IoM Dep’t of Education, Sport and Culture kindly sent me a long email about the topic, confirming that they too are disappointed but observing that  “results in ICT in A level have consistently been above 70% A*-C for 2014, 15, 16 and 17” (which is OK). 



It’s not for me to criticise how ICT is taught in our schools, or across - I’m not a teacher and I don’t have first hand experience of observing GCSE tuition in ICT. The superior A-level results could simply be self-selection, with only those students who excelled in ICT at GCSE choosing to pursue the subject further. I have worked with A-level students as a mentor for Junior Achievement and consequently I’m very confident that the problem does not lie with the students, meaning that something on the educational side needs improving, but I’ve no insight into what. 


It could be a boring curriculum, or inexpert or uninspiring teachers, or a parental culture that ICT is less important than some other academic subjects - perhaps GCSE ICT is seen as the modern equivalent of “Home Economics / Domestic Science”, a practical skill-set of lesser importance to the pursuit of a place at Uni and a high-flying career.


Whatever, it needs further investigation. A 42% failure rate is not acceptable, it speaks to me of disillusioned youngsters who will not pursue further involvement in ICT or Computer Science. Optimistically the Department reported to me that the failure rate is not “all students”, because only c. 40% of Year 11 pupils were entered for the ICT GCSE - which in effect means that approximately 25% of students actually passed the GCSE in ICT, and the other 75% either did not take the GCSE  ICT exam or failed to get an A*-C grade (happily around 13% of pupils studied the more challenging Computer Science instead of ICT, with a 65% A*-C pass rate).


This is a major issue - not so much for the educators, but for the future of the Isle of Man economy. It is already the case that most professional, management and administrative employments - whether in Finance, or Engineering or Medicine or Government or wherever, require an amount of ICT skill. Those of us who were already employed before desktop computers became ubiquitous in business have learned our skills on the job, but for the past two decades it has been a necessity and an expectation that most school-leavers entering the workforce have at least a basic competence in using ICT - and the degree of competence needed to be productive and competitive keeps on rising.


Commercial and industrial competitiveness is now substantially determined by our ability to exploit Information and Communication Technologies. If, as a nation, we can use technology better than our competitors - more imaginatively, more creatively, more efficiently and more cheaply - then we can surpass them in the quality and cost of the services and products we offer. This was the basis of the British rise to economic dominance through the “Industrial Revolution” in the Georgian and Victorian eras, and the subsequent economic successes of America, Japan, South Korea and (currently) China. Cheap labour helps, but ultimately technological sophistication almost always wins in the long haul.


Recent economic success of the Isle of Man has been largely based upon our agility in creating regulatory and tax advantages to cream off a disproportionately large share of global finance business for ourselves - but as we all know global public sentiment is rebelling against us, and other small nations like us, which enable wealthy people and companies to exploit the advantages we have created for them. Regulatory and tax advantages are not, in the long haul, a sustainable business model for a small nation because other states can undermine them - as President Trump has recently demonstrated by cutting the top rate of US Corporation Tax to 21% and making it much less attractive for rich US corporations to keep their cash-piles abroad in the Isle of Man and other low-tax jurisdictions. I don’t know what further erosions to our national economic competitiveness will emerge over the next few years, but I’m speculating that Brexit will bring a few nasty surprises as the UK Treasury redesigns its economic model to exploit the additional latitude it will gain on leaving the EU, and further erodes the attractiveness of the Isle of Man’s offering.


We need to ask ourselves how we will achieve new competitiveness in the Information Age. Pretty much all basic office-based employments require basic competence in using ICT, as do many jobs in engineering, manufacturing, transport, construction and agriculture. Arguably more jobs today need basic ICT skills than those needing arithmetic / mathematical skills. Move up the employment ladder a little and a large proportion of middle-ranking jobs need data handling and manipulation skills including the ability to devise methods to group or filter data, and algorithmically summarise it to produce information. These are not computing / IT jobs, just everyday folk doing everyday business admin such as a Credit Controller sorting data to determine which debts have been unpaid longest, or which customers owe most money to the company.


As soon as we climb the greasy pole as far as a team leadership or management position we become responsible for the business processes executed by our teams - many of which are data driven - and we have to devise process improvements or new processes based upon the data and information available to us. Finance, marketing, production control and most other “white collar” jobs are utterly dependent upon the more advanced ICT skills of understanding and interpreting data, and devising data-driven processes - again without stepping into the realms of computing / IT jobs. 


In the UK, in 2016, launching an initiative to provide free ICT training to adults, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Karen Bradley said: “In today’s digital economy, being able to use modern technology and navigate the internet should be considered as important as English and Maths.”. Which is probably a fair statement; learning to utilise ICT is a core skill, relevant to at least three-quarters of all employments - and therefore much more important to the future of our economy than learning Geography or History. ICT is also complementary - one simply cannot excel at science or mathematics without good ICT skills.


So where do we go from here? Personally I think our Dep’t of Education etc. needs to make the study of ICT or Computing a compulsory core subject in the Key Stage 4 (GCSE) curriculum. We will produce better scientists, engineers, finance workers, administrators, marketeers etc. etc. if we, as a nation, are brave and do this. Yes, we’ll also develop more candidates willing to go on into Computer Science and the IT profession - which would be good because IT is a relatively well-paid employment.


The UK hasn’t had the courage to go this far yet, but we should. Some of the pupils forced to study ICT at GCSE will be rubbish at it, inevitably, but nevertheless better than if they had not studied it. Some will be inspired to learn more and do ICT or Computing A levels and degrees. Some will develop better understanding of data and how to create valuable information to support better decision making and more efficient / cost-competitive business processes etc. All will be better equipped to contribute to Manx competitiveness in what has been called “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”.


So, whilst I’m disappointed by the Isle of Man’s poor A*-C pass rate in GCSE ICT this year, and so is the Department for Education, Sport and Culture, I’m far more concerned that around half of our Year 11 pupils didn’t study GCSE ICT to exam level. We would not dream of dropping English or Mathematics from our GCSE core curriculum - every pupil needs to study these subjects - but similarly I would argue that every pupil needs to study ICT to GCSE level if we are to retain a first-world economy in the face of the global challenges to our current business model.

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