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7/8/2013
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U.K. Debates New Tech Education Standards

Education reform aims to ramp up British students' mastery of programming, mathematical modeling and other skills that industry says are in short supply.

Robotics Rumble: Teens Fight For Tech Glory
Robotics Rumble: Teens Fight For Tech Glory
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
British 5-year-old students might soon be learning programming, as the government considers radical new proposals for a revamped curriculum of what should be taught to the country's youngsters.

At the other end of the scale, the government has announced a new set of pre-college exams to compete with the more academic "A Levels" -- called "Tech Levels'' -- will be available to 16-year-old students beginning in 2014.

That idea has been welcomed by British CIO group the Corporate IT Forum, whose Skills Commission -- formed explicitly to foster wider debate on how to plug the nation's growing IT skills gap -- says the move is "a huge step forward." For Joanna Poplawska, co-founder of that Commission, the idea of involving business in helping design the Tech exams is a definite positive.

Quite how CIOs and other IT professionals will regard the rest of Education minister Michael Gove's plans to reshape the National Curriculum remain to be seen, however. The new ideas center on a fundamental recasting of British education to bring more "rigor" back to teaching, he claimed.

[ Tech firms are looking for new ways to help prepare the future workforce. See Should All High School Students Learn Programming? ]

Some headline writers have focused on aspects of the revamped curriculum such as fractions in first-grade math, algebra in grade 10 (not 11, as today) or reversing an alleged "politically correct emphasis" in the history curriculum away from listing British kings and queens and "the island story." However, in terms of tech, Gove has some equally distinctive proposals.

"Perhaps the most significant change of all is the replacement of ICT with computing. Instead of just learning to use programs created by others, it is vital that children learn to create their own programs," said Gove.

Thus, in what is commonly called ICT (information and communications technology), pupils will be taught Internet safety at a much younger age, including how to keep personal details private, and from age 5 they will be taught how to create digital information and content, how to write and test simple programs, and how to organize and store data.

In their design and technology session, meanwhile, British kids may end up working with high-tech devices such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, robots and microprocessors -- and 7-year-olds will get introduced to computer-aided design techniques.

Gove said, "This curriculum is a foundation for learning the vital advanced skills that universities and businesses desperately need -- skills such as essay writing, problem solving, mathematical modeling and computer programming." Gove believes the new curriculum combines the best elements of the world's most successful education systems, specified as "Hong Kong, Massachusetts, Singapore and Finland."

Speaking on TV Monday, the Minister said, "I want my children, who are in primary school at the moment, to have the sort of curriculum that children in other countries have, which are doing better than our own." That's because, he added, "when my son and daughter graduate from school and then either go on to university or into the workplace, they're competing for college places and jobs with folk from across the globe. And I want my children to receive an education as rigorous as any country's."

At least one luminary of British business applauded the plans, which could start to be implemented in classrooms as soon as September 2014: designer and inventor Sir James Dyson said, "Michael Gove has listened to industry and teachers, and created a curriculum that will develop the skills required for the inventive jobs of the future."

Teacher's groups have already attacked the ideas as unrealistic -- and it must also be noted they are still officially only drafts.

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