Ofsted and Open Source

Written for Open Source Schools

Ofsted’s report on The Importance of ICT was published over a month ago, and was met with perhaps a degree of surprise at some of its criticisms about aspects of ICT provision in schools, most notably for higher attaining and older pupils. There’s much in the report to strengthen the case for greater use, and indeed development, of open source software in schools.

The report acknowledges that, particularly in the primary phase, good use is being made of ICT across the curriculum, and also notes the opportunities that the use of modern technology provides for pupils creativity and collaboration (p8), whilst admitting that it was only in the outstanding schools that use was made of peer assessment and critical reflection (p12): the process of peer review is one familiar to both academics and open source developers, and certainly something which schools’ learning platforms ought to support (well at least Moodle does), even if such facilities aren’t always used.

A criticism found in several places throughout the report is that the present state of IT teaching in schools tends to focus too much on training children to use a particular OS and set of applications, “running expensive commercial operating systems and standard ‘office’ suites of software” (p33), something which, in Ofsted’s view, “taught them the idiosyncrasies of just one platform which would quickly become out of date” (p14) and which “may actually be hindering the development of their skills” (p34), whereas students in schools that had deployed a mix of operating systems and a greater variety of software were seen as being “better equipped to cope with rapidly changing technologies” (ibid), as well as having an awareness of different platforms’ strengths and weaknesses” (p19). Ofsted see ICT education as being more about a development of learners’ capabilities and generic and transferable skills (p5, p21).

Another recurrent criticism concerns the lack of challenge which such a limited interpretation of ICT affords, with progress slowing down as early as the upper years of Key Stage 2 (p8), but being particularly problematic in Key Stage 4, where many students don’t appear to have any ICT lessons at all (p19), and many others follow vocational qualifications worth the equivalent of 4 GCSE and yet include tasks not much beyond the Key Stage 3 curriculum: “much of the work in ICT at Key Stage 4, particularly for the higher attainers, often involved consolidating skills that students had already gained proficiency in and therefore the rate at which new skills were learnt was relatively slow.” (ibid). This, I suspect, is related to the lack of balance which Ofsted perceive in the delivery of the curriculum, where far greater emphasis is placed on presentation and communication skills than analysis, data handling, control and programming (p4, p8):

“Coverage of control, sensors and databases was limited in many of the schools, as was the provision for students to learn the logical thinking necessary to program, write scripts or macros, which was cursory and superficial.” (p23)

It’s nearly 30 years since Papert wrote Mindstorms, with its vision of children learning for themselves through programming computers, and almost as long since many of today’s developers cut their teeth on BBC Micros, Sinclair Spectrums and Commodore 64s. A rediscovery of programming as an essential part of the ICT curriculum, not just for the higher attaining pupils who Ofsted see as insufficiently challenged (p5) seems long overdue. The good news is that there are plenty of open source platforms available for children to take their first steps towards taking control of technology, such as Scratch and Etoys (both, significantly, part of the standard install on the OLPC’s Sugar operating system), as well as great, not-too-tricky interpreted languages like Python and PHP with which web-based applications can be developed.

Scratch is, I think, what Ofsted are referring to with a great case study of a primary school that was providing opportunities for programming:

“An urban primary school had good provision for developing pupils’ programming skills. Two Year 6 pupils attending provision for gifted and talented pupils at their local secondary school were introduced to a freeware application which enabled them to design and program a two- dimensional computer game. Their enthusiasm prompted their class teacher to download the software and to introduce a new unit of work for the whole class based around it.
Pupils were asked to design the graphics, layout and functionality of their own computer game and to write the program to implement their ideas for its design. Over a series of lessons, pupils used a ‘paint’ application to design their game backgrounds and sprites. Having completed the graphical elements, pupils wrote scripts to control movement and interaction in their games. This required them to learn to use sophisticated programming constructs such as ‘repeat… until’ and ‘if… then’ in capturing keyboard input, managing variables and testing whether particular conditions had been met.
The choice of task and software motivated pupils who were therefore able to make good progress. Most were able to write a series of executable instructions to implement the features of their game design. One autistic pupil excelled at this task and made better progress than his peers. He made outstanding use of loops, conditional jumps and incremental counters in his program. His skills exceeded those of his teacher, to whom he had to explain the principles of what he had done. “ (p9)

More opportunity for students to experiment with programming earlier on might also afford opportunities for independent learning and creative thinking (p21) and lead to an increase in students studying computing at GCE (p17), and beyond. Alas, there are, I suspect, too few teachers with the technical skills to teach programming well (p6). A little CPD might be in order (p7), perhaps in line with that cited for staff at a specialist media college, who were “expected to research, experiment and keep their skills up to date” (p35). Anyhow, that shouldn’t stop children learning to program, given the right opportunities, and perhaps a little encouragement from technical staff and open source developers acting as mentors, such as we see for college students engaged in Google’s Summer of Code programme, and such learning should at least be recognised by the school (p30).

Ofsted seem very critical of the poor value for money represented by much ICT spending (p6, p27), and particularly the failure of schools to apply principles of best value, such as comparing performance with others, challenging how services are provided or consulting stakeholders (p32-33), conditions that have to be met for delegated funding. They make a strong case for schools considering open source:

“open source operating systems and software are now a reliable and cost-effective solution, enabling the few schools that choose this route to achieve excellent value for money.” (p33)

This would appear to apply particularly to VLE procurement. I suspect it’s Moodle that they refer to when they state that “A few schools have used open source software for establishing a virtual learning environment, enabling them to obtain several years’ worth of development with no licensing costs.” (p34). An earlier Ofsted report had explored VLE usage in some detail, and the present report reports very limited use in a small number of schools (p15, p24), rarely going beyond the resource presentation mode that forms a very small subset of Moodle’s functionality. The slow pace and high cost of learning platform rollout comes in for some criticism:

“By the time all schools have established virtual learning environments, the technology may well have moved on, making them an expensive irrelevance. Further consideration should be given to the value for money provided by this national initiative.” (p35)

Mobile technology, much of it powered by open source platforms such as Android phones, Nokia internet tablets or Linux netbooks, is regarded more positively: “ICT has the greatest impact on learning when there is a greater availability of resources, particularly laptops and hand-held computers. “ (p14 qv p36)

Good, on-site, technical support does really seem to make a difference to teachers’ and pupils’ willingness to experiment with ICT; something which, it is to be hoped, BSF Managed Service Providers will take on board, although one school’s example of using able 8-11 year olds as tech support (p14) might provide an alternative for schools assimilated into the BSF hegemony.