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ICT dawdlers teach schools a lesson

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The UK government has eased the pressure on children to learn IT skills and considered using them as an example for other subjects, including Maths and English.

A pilot, running since 2002 to trial the online testing of children in ICT, looked like it was knocked back yesterday when schools minister Jim Knight said it would no longer be a statutory requirement for schools to test children's ICT skills at the end of key stage 3 (14 years-old).

ICT tests will now only be used as a "progressional" aid - that is, children will take the tests when they are ready and not on a fixed date. The idea is to give advanced learners a chance to move on, and those at risk of being left behind a chance to catch up.

Schools minister Jim Knight said in a speech on Tuesday: "Teachers should be able to use this test at any point when pupils are ready, as a resource which can indicate student’s strengths and weaknesses, propelling them to further success".

If this approach is taken, what is the point of having statutory tests at the end of the key stage, he said.

Knight's vague mention of these plans was taken by some as a sign that the online ICT test would be ditched. The BBC reported that the ICT testing tool would only be used until 2013 - long enough to justify the investment made in it so far. But some sources at schools say the tools are proprietary and difficult to use.

Part of the problem, according to the DfES, is that technology has moved so fast that the tests where redundant even as they were established. This view apparently followed advice form the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which subsequently disowned this line of argument. The fast pace of technological change, the QCA told The Register did not negate the need for basic skills such as programming and design.

Furthermore, £21m has been spent setting up the ICT test since 2002. About half of all secondary schools took part in the pilot last year. The QCA expects 90 per cent of schools to join the pilot this year.

And the same method might be used to test maths and English, said Alan Johnson, education and skills secretary, when he announced a similar pilot for those schemes on Monday.

The difference between the two pilots was that maths and English were still tested on paper. Johnson expressed a vague need for a means to help schools and parents to assess children as they progressed in these subjects.

The tools have already been developed, the QCA told The Register - the ICT test tool is a platform on which other subjects could be carried.

Whether or not this tool is used to assess students in other key stage subject, it is clear which way subject assessments are heading.

The jargon used by Knight on Tuesday illustrated which direction that was. He spoke about personalised learning, open doors, blurred boundaries, collaboration, monitoring and assessment, disadvantaged, traveller and excluded pupils. He stopped just short of using the word egalitarian, but we all know that this is exactly the future IT will bring us, right?

The signs are that statutory tests at the end of key stages in maths and English might also be scrapped as soon as the technology can host them.

It's early days, though: only one in five schools are using ICT in the brave new manner. More than 800,000 children still have no computer access at home.

And just 44 per cent of children reached the levels expected of them at age 14 using the new approach in ICT, according to the results of the 2006 pilot. Maybe ICT education in Britain is useless, as it is often claimed. Or maybe the QCA is right when it says teachers will take a while to get used to this new way of doing things. ®

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