Education: Hi-tech jobs but low salaries

The need for IT teachers is soaring, but graduates can earn more in industry.
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The Independent Online
THE SKILLS shortage in information technology is all too real. According to research carried out for Microsoft, 73 per cent of people in the information technology (IT) industry believe that there is a shortage of qualified staff.

More and more businesses rely on computers, while the Internet, the "millennium bug" and preparations for the single European currency mean that the need for people with computer skills is higher than ever.

Meeting that need means teaching more information technology skills, especially in schools. So schools need qualified IT specialists who can keep abreast of developments in computing. Leaving IT to the maths teacher is no longer enough.

Dr John Chatterton, ITC co-ordinator and PGCE admissions tutor at Sheffield Hallam University, says: "Some headteachers still believe they can employ, say, a maths or business studies teacher, who will be able to take on IT as a secondary task. Recent changes in the school curriculum are making this less tenable."

Some teachers argue that the need for IT specialists is temporary. Once computer technology is part of mainstream teaching in other national curriculum subjects, there will be little need for subject specialists other than to teach programming - especially at post-16 level. Few, though, would deny the current shortage.

"There are plenty of jobs for IT teachers," explains Michelle Selinger, chair of the Association for Information Technology in Teacher Education (ITTE). "There are some people who say they will not be needed in the future, because everyone will be using IT. My philosophy is to teach them to make themselves redundant, but they never will because IT keeps changing."

Only a minority of new computer science graduates consider teaching; the financial rewards are much greater in industry, particularly at present. However, universities that run PGCE courses in information technology report a high level of applications from mature students. Often, they have worked in computing or a related industry, and they may have developed a taste for teaching while training staff in IT skills.

"The combination of low pay and low esteem would seem to be a significant factor in discouraging young graduates from entering the profession," says Dr Chatterton. "Paradoxically, it is less of a discouragement to mature candidates with good working experience of IT. They often enter teaching because they want to `give something back'. They see their industrial experience as a valuable asset."

Nor is teacher-training for IT restricted to graduates with pure computing degrees. The standard requirement is for graduates whose courses are at least 50 per cent computing. Sometimes, training colleges can waive this requirement, especially for entrants who have substantial experience of working with computers. Colleges also recruit recent graduates from other disciplines with substantial computing elements, including engineering and psychology. Combined degrees in computing and business studies are also popular.

Some teach another subject as well as IT in schools, and several PGCE courses, such as the tertiary PGCE at Bolton Institute, give students the option of studying teaching in two subjects. For some students, IT and their second subject are natural counterparts; for others, training in IT is a way to bolster their career prospects.

IT teaching has more than one career path and, because of their expertise, IT teachers may find they take on support or management roles more quickly than teachers of other subjects. This is often the case in primary schools, where there are few dedicated IT technicians.

Students at the University of East London can take IT as a specialist subject on the primary PGCE course. They train as classroom generalists, but their knowledge enables them to work as IT co-ordinators within schools and provide support to other teaching staff. The UEL course takes its entrants from the university's own information and computing undergraduate degree.

"They are not so much computer scientists, as people who want to work in education but recognise the importance of IT," explains Jim Graham, head of education and community studies. "They are not techies. They are more `people' people."

In secondary schools, IT teachers will still be involved in managing the computer network, but formal IT teaching takes on a more significant role. The current GCSE in IT is based mainly around general computer programs, with less time spent on computing theory than has been the case in the past. The emphasis is on working with information rather than designing computer systems or writing programs. Most schools use standard word-processing, spreadsheet, database and Internet applications to do this, and they may not need a specialist teacher.

Specialists come into their own teaching the more theoretical parts of the course and, in particular, A-level and vocational courses.

"Up to now, computing has been taught by people who have gone in from personal interest rather than professional training," says Steve Kennewell, a lecturer who specialises in IT at the University of Wales, Swansea. "The perception of teaching IT is changing because people are coming in who see a more structured approach as the way forward."

Most universities report a shortage of applicants for PGCE courses in computing, although some are making up the gap by recruiting applicants who may not have the background of a computer science graduate, but who do have a desire to teach. Often, they are very good at it.

"A lot of people coming in are not obviously right from their qualifications, but they not only prove to have the required understanding of computers, but can communicate it, because they are committed to teaching," says Mr Kennewell.