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Information Technology in the National Curriculum

During the 1980s the concept of a national curriculum was promoted and eventually led to the 1988 Education Act which established a statutory framework for a National Curriculum of ten subjects with Information Technology as a strand of Design and Technology.

Political Advocacy

margaret thatcher

Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister

It was a Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan who started the Great Debate, but it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher who brought the debate to a conclusion. Mrs Thatcher was famously an advocate for a simple 'Science, Maths and English' curriculum (Baker, 2009) but in a speech in 1981 she also laid out the impact of microelectronics on the curriculum and the need for understanding about computers and their applications in the curriculum.

quoteOur future prosperity depends in large part on the quality of education today. That quality requires not only that children should learn the familiar basic subjects but that they should also be able to understand computers and how they can be used and applied." Mrs. Thatcher 1981

She went on to spell out the fact that children's futures would be significantly diferent and the importance of technology, and technology education to the country's economic prosperity:

" We must remember that today's school children will still be working in the year 2030. The things we can buy and how they are produced will have changed and changed again in that period.

Those now at school will need to adapt to each new technological advance if we are to remain an industrial power and to create new products and jobs in the service-based industries. A nation that can achieve as many engineering triumphs or produce as many Nobel prize-winners as we do should be able to become a spectacular industrial and commercial success.
My generation has perhaps been too cautious about accepting new technology in micros. Microelectronics and its widespread application is something from which we have profited without seeking to apply it sufficiently. This is certainly not true. Younger people are quick to use new things and have an aptitude for them. Schoolchildren now take for granted electronic games and toys and the ubiquitous calculator. They find buttons and television screens an exciting way of playing and learning. This familiarity with keyboards and TV screens will help them to take in their stride the new technologies on the shop floor, in the office and in the home.
" (Thatcher, 1981).

With strong advocacy also coming from Kenneth Baker as Minister for Information Technology at the DTI and TVEI promoted by David Young at the Department for Employment the inclusion of computers and information technology into the curriculum had strong external political support.

Departmental Framework

After its initial "Framework for the School Curriculum" in 1980 the DES published 'The School Curriculum' in 1981 setting out for schools and LEAs the Department's thinking about what should be taught and why. It advocated a core set of subjects: Maths, English, Science, Modern Langauges and interestingly at secondary level Microelectronics and CDT. The section on microelectronics reflected, as you might expect the views put forward by Mrs Thatcher.

quoteIn an increasingly competitive world economy, and with the prospect of ever more rapid changes arising from technological developments, especially in computer science and information technology, the quality of school education will become even more important than it already is. (DES, 1981a, p.6)

The use of computers and other microelectronics-based devices in schools is of growing importance not only in computer studies but also in mathematics, science and other areas of the curriculum. Many aspects of adult life and work are likely to be transformed by developments in computer science and in information and control technology. The Secretaries of State consider it important that pupils should become familiar with the use and application of computers, particularly through direct experience in the course of their studies. The government is supporting the use and application of microelectronics in secondary schools through a programme of curriculum development and in-service training (DES, 1981a, p.17)

Importantly the DES also issued Circular 6/81 to LEAs which required them, in the light of what was said in The School Curriculum to review their policy for the school curriculum and review the extent to which current provision in the schools is consistent with that policy; and plan future developments accordingly, within the resources available (DES, 1981b).

HMI Curriculum Matters

HMI's Curriculum Matters

From 1984 Her Majesty's Inspectorate, who not only carried out school inspections but also provided expert and intelligent advice and support to government and the education system as a whole, published a number of Curriculum Matters papers designed to stimulate discussion about the curriculum as a whole and its component parts.

quoteInformation technology, which is having a profound effect on pupils whose adult lives will be in the 21st century, should find a place in all subjects which are able to take advantage of the facility to store and process information and to generate further information. (HMI Curriculum Matters 2)

Interestingly Curriculum Matters 2, which set out the overall curricular framework moved away from the narrow subject based approach to advocate 9 broad areas of learning and experience (aesthetic and creative, human and social, linguistic and literary, mathematical, moral, physical, scientific, spiritual and technological). Fothergill (1987, p.32) reported that this booklet was published against opposition, presumably from within the Department. It also clearly specified the place for information technology as a cross-curricular issue which need to be mediated through other subjects. (HMI, 1985, p.13).

"Information technology from 5 to 16" (HMI 1989) was the fifteenth in the series and was published after the IT National Curriculum was set out as a subject within the Design and Technology orders. It was published to help schools devise a coherent strategy for making effective use of IT, both in the enrichment of existing subjects and in learning about the technology itself.

A Statutory National Curriculum

In 1987 the Department of Education and Science, now under Kenneth Baker, issued a consultation document that set out the rationale for a national curriculum. This document essentially identified four broad purposes: introducing an entitlement for pupils to a broad and balanced curriculum; setting standards for pupil attainment and to support school accountability; improving continuity and coherence within the curriculum, and aiding public understanding of the work of schools.

D&T National Curriculum proposals

Following the consultation, Parliament passed the 1988 Education Reform Act, which established the framework for the National Curriculum. It set out a framework of three core subjects: Maths, English, Science and seven foundation subjects: History, Geography, Technology, Art ,Music, Modern Languages (secondary). Information Technology wasn't mentioned.

Development of the National Curriculum was overseen by two new advisory bodies, the National Curriculum Council and the School Examination and Assessment Council. Formulation of the original Programmes of Study was handed to subject-based working groups, comprising experts from a wide variety of educational backgrounds and which drew on evidence and expertise from throughout the education system.

However the education reform act did not mention IT specifically - so where to put it, the HMI cross-curricular approach seemed too woolly and vague for a subject based curriculum. The approach taken was to build itinto the National Curriculum in three distinct ways:

1) to ask the Working Group for Design and Technology to build it in as a profile component and attainment target of with an associated programme of study,

2) to ask other subject working groups to build it in to some parts of the Statements of Attainment and Programmes of Study where appropriate,

3) to use it for illustrative examples, in which a particular application of IT enables or improve aspects of learning.

This was what happened although the second and third ways above were relatively sparse across the curriculum as a whole.

The Design and Technology Working Party

Lady Margaret Parkes

The Design and Technology Working Party was chaired by Lady Parkes later to become Chairman of NCET. Its report led to the final design of the subject which was not without controversy. Kenneth Baker set it up and also gave it the task of advising on attainment targets and programmes of study for information technology. He asked for interim advice by 31 October 1988 and final advice by 30 April 1989 (Hansard, 1988).

In its terms of reference (DES, 1988, p.88) the Department set out what it should consider regarding information technology:

"The use of computer and information technology and other advance technologies in control, simulation and data storage and retrieval is becoming increasingly important 1n our society. This fact should be reflected in the use of computer and information technology across the school curriculum. Each subject group as it is set up is being asked to consider the scope for using computer and information technology in its subject and to frame appropriate attainment targets.

However, the design and technology group is asked to provide within the national curriculum a focus for the development of computer and IT awareness, and skills such as keyboard skills and basic programming, by recommending appropriate attainment targets at the four key stages together with a supporting programme of study related to IT and basic computer skills and to awareness of the uses of advanced technology."

In the interim report it was recognized that existing subjects - Art and Design, Business Studies, CDT, Home Economics and IT would form the basis of Design and Technology but within a single structure and approach based on the process of designing, making and appraising artefacts, systems and environments, with a wide variety of materials within a wide variety of contexts.

D&T interim report

D&T interim report

The Interim report also set out the notion of 'IT Capability' (DES, 1988, p.67):

"By the end of the fourth key stage pupils' IT capability should include the ability to recognise situations in which the use of IT is sensible, the facility to use IT appropriately in such situations, the ability to influence or at least to evaluate the effect on themselves of IT being used by others, and an understanding of the range and scope of IT applications and of their social and economic effects."

The report sets out the knowledge, skills, understanding and values which
make up IT capability as including:

  1. familiarity with IT and facility in the use of standard methods of communication between people and IT,
  2. familiarity with and facility in applications of IT: storage and retrieval of information, the creation and presentation of information (e.g. word processing, using spreadsheets etc), the communication of information (e.g. viewdata systems, electronic mail) and simulation, modelling, monitoring and control,
  3. a working understanding of the common principles of the application of IT,
  4. the ability to identify needs or opportunities where the use of IT is appropriate and the ability, individually or as a member of a group, to design and develop appropriate and effective solutions.
  5. a general understanding of the range and scope of IT applications and of their social and economic effects on individuals at home, at work and in the community.

quoteBecause IT will continue to develop rapidly, IT capability must be based on an understanding of the principles and must avoid a clutter of detail which will soon become obsolete; skills in the use of current IT systems are valuable but without this broader understanding pupils will be less able to adapt to developments in IT and to exploit new opportunities as they arise. (Design and Technology Working Group Interim Report)

The report did not specifically mention computer programming as a skill, partly because it was concerned about not putting anything specific in which would quickly become outdated.

These interim recommendations continued to be worked upon and a final report published. This formed the basis for the National Curriculum Council's proposals and in his covering letter to them the Chief Executive of the National Curriculum Council, Duncan Graham (Coghlan 1989) said they provided state schools with "their most important challenge ever" because they "take our system of education away from the academic and towards the practical".

The foreword by Margaret Parkes set out the aim:

The aim of our proposals for design and technology is to prepare pupils to meet the needs of the 21st Century: to stimulate originality, enterprise, practical capability in designing and making and the adaptability needed to cope with a rapidly changing society.

design and technology nc orders

Design and Technology proposals

including IT

Finally published as 'Design and Technology 5 to 16' (DES 1989) this was almost completely new area of the curriculum and its attainment targets and programmes of study for the first year of key stages 1, 2 and 3 were introduced in 1990 and for key stage 4 in 1993. Importantly it made Information Technology part of the statutory curriculum.

Information Technology

There were five attainment targets in the report, four for Design and Technology and a separate one for IT, which in effect established IT as a separate subject. The name given to the relevant Profile Component was 'IT Capability', with its own attainment target.

'Pupils should be able to use IT appropriately and effectively to communicate and handle information in a variety of forms and for a variety of purposes and to design, develop and evaluate appropriate models of real or imaginary

The programme of study had five elements:
(1) Developing ideas and communicating information
(2) Information handling
(3) Modelling
(4) Measurement and control
(5) Applications and effects'

IT was also seen as a tool to be employed in all subject areas, including the rest of Design and Technology. This led to each subject working party being asked to include IT in their work.

The report emphasised the need for pupils to have access to computers and teachers would need support in delivering this work, and this was picked up by the National Curriculum Council. In his covering letter to John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Education and Science, Duncan Graham said:

'The council has been advised . . . that its (revised) recommendations are in every sense practical and realistic. At the same time, the Council urged that the government should strengthen the Education Support Grant for information technology to meet the demands of the national curriculum. (Coghlan 1989)



Baker, M. (2009) 'Was Mrs Thatcher right about the curriculum?' 14 Apr 2009 BBC News Online, BBC [online]

Coghlan, A.1989 "Schools face challenge of technology", New Scientist 18th November 1989

DES 1981a The School Curriculum, HMSO, London [online]

DES 1981b Circular 6/81, HMSO, London [online]

DES (1988) National Curriculum: Design and Technology Working Group. Interim Report, Department for Education and Science. London

DES (1989) Design and Technology for ages 5 to 16: Proposals of the Secretary of State for Education and
Science and the Secretary of State for Wales
. London: HMSO

Fothergill, R. (1988) Implications of New Technology for the School Curriculum Kogan Page, London

HMI, 1989, Information Technology from 5 to 16: Curriculum Matters 15. An HMI series, HMSO 1989
ISBN 0 11 2706873 5.

Hansard (1988) [online]

Thatcher, M.(1981) Speech on Microcomputers in Schools April 6 1981 Margaret Thatcher Foundation [online]