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Should we have more mandatory IT in our classrooms?

With the Economy Minister calling on IT to be treated as a key subject alongside maths, English and science at GCSE level in a bid to boost our skills and prepare for the future of the workforce here, John Mulgrew speaks to our educators, ministers and politicians about whether it could become a reality


Economy Minister Gordon Lyons

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons

Mel Higgins, principal and chief executive of Northern Regional College

Mel Higgins, principal and chief executive of Northern Regional College


Economy Minister Gordon Lyons

Business interviews with politicians tend to centre around areas like economic development, corporation tax, job creation, oh, and all things Brexit.

But a chat with Economy Minister Gordon Lyons for November’s Ulster Business brought forward a fresh line, and something somewhat unexpected.

“It’s the first time I have said this publicly, but I want to look at making sure that we all have the opportunity to have ICT in our schools, and to make it compulsory,” he told me.

“I think a GCSE, making that compulsory, would be a good thing because we are going to need these skills. Why do we tell our young people that they need English? Because it’s core. It’s the same for science and maths. We have to understand that this is central to the skills which we are going to need in the future.”

Technically, those core subjects aren’t ‘compulsory’ but are deemed essential as part of a GCSE or Key Stage 4 level.

And while IT has been taught as a key skill for decades, it still doesn’t form part of the key curriculum for most students as a stand-alone GCSE subject. But should it?

You only have to cast your eye over job vacancies – especially well-paid roles – online to see the plethora of IT, or IT-related roles available across Northern Ireland.

While it’s just one avenue in the wider STEM portfolio, competition for so-called ‘talent’ among our tech firms has never been higher. Young, talented graduates are essentially able to pick where they want to work.

Mel Higgins is principal and chief executive of Northern Regional College. And he believes there is strong merit in the minister’s proposal and says any scheme which supports “invaluable skills” in IT should be welcomed.

“The use of IT and computer-driven technologies such as automation and AI is only going to become more and more critical in driving full productivity in the workplace in the coming years – in turn, supporting long-term and sustainable economic growth,” he said.

“It is absolutely critical, therefore, that our young people have every opportunity to understand the principles and practices of computing, and its place in the modern world of work, right from the very earliest stages and throughout their education.

“Any initiative that supports and encourages young people in developing invaluable skills in IT, software development, digital and technology should be widely encouraged, so I think there is a lot of merit in the minister’s suggestion.

“There is no doubt that a compulsory qualification in IT at GCSE level could certainly give students an advantage when entering College, regardless of the course they choose to study.”

I asked Education Minister Michelle McIlveen whether the prospect is currently being actively pursued by her department and whether she would consider it.

“ICT is one of the three statutory cross-curricular skills at the heart of the Northern Ireland curriculum,” a spokesman for the Department of Education told Ulster Business.

“Schools should ensure that pupils develop the three cross-curricular skills of communication, Using mathematics and Using ICT throughout their time in compulsory education. Using ICT aims to develop pupils’ digital skills and encourages them to handle and communicate information, solve problems, pose questions and be creative in using digital technology.”

“We need to ensure young people develop the skills they need to succeed in the future economy and the Department of Education is committed to promoting the development of digital skills and uptake of qualifications in digital technology.

“The department recently collaborated with the Department for the Economy, Civica and a wide range of businesses to support the delivery NI Digital Awareness Week for schools. This innovative event was designed to showcase the many varied jobs and opportunities in the IT sector.

“CCEA has worked closely with industry to develop modern, fit for purpose qualifications. CCEA currently offers GCSE and GCE digital technology along with GCE software systems development qualifications. Over 70% of post-primary schools offer a GCSE in digital technology.

“No qualification is currently compulsory at Key Stage 4 rather schools must offer all pupils access to a minimum of 21 courses. This aims to provide access for pupils to a broad and balanced curriculum to enable them to reach their full potential no matter which school they attend or where they live.

“To support effective delivery of the curriculum, CCEA has developed a using ICT/digital skills progression pathway which illustrates the opportunities for digital skills development that the Northern Ireland curriculum offers. It suggests potential progression pathways through learning from foundation Stage, through the primary key stages, to post-primary and qualifications.”

The SDLP’s education spokesman, Daniel McCrossan, said while he saw the benefit and need for digital skills, any adoption of an essential GCSE would need “careful crafting” to ensure the requisite areas are covered.

“While I recognise the need to bolster digital skills across the north, any GCSE that would be made essential for students would need careful crafting to ensure it covered all the digital skill bases and was totally relevant to needs,” he said.

“It would also have to be subject to regular and thorough review so it doesn’t become quickly outdated as the digital world is changing so rapidly.”

And Mel Higgins of Northern Regional College said: “The six further education colleges in Northern Ireland are firmly focused on equipping our students with the most up-to-date and relevant employability skills. This means continually refining, expanding and enhancing our course offering to ensure that it aligns with the modern-day workplace in a world that is being driven and transformed more and more by computers and technology.

”The further education colleges are well placed to respond to changing employer demands and this has seen us expand our offering to include new courses such as Microsoft Office Specialist and the Adobe qualifications for our computer and creative media specialist courses.”