I’ve just finished a 1200 word feature on the sorry state of ICT education in the UK for the Telegraph’s education section. Many thanks to Mark Surman, executive director of Mozilla, and Iain Livingstone, president of Eidos, for their help.
Young Rewired State, Code Club and Apps for Good do fantastic work, and since the article went live a lot of others have contacted me about their own outreach projects, including the London Borough of Havering which is encouraging its year 2s to download the visual programming language Scratch at home.
Full text of the article is on the Telegraph’s website here, or after the fold.
Computer programming: who is teaching our children to code?
Talk of a ‘tech boom’ is enticing to politicians and jobseekers alike. But who is actually teaching our children how to code? Cal Flyn meets the industry experts trying to fill the gaps left by schools’ ICT classes.
By Cal Flyn
9:17AM BST 11 Oct 2012, The Daily Telegraph
This year’s school-leavers, born 1994, have no memory of a world without the web.
Although it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when the internet moved from oddity to ubiquity, more than a quarter of UK households had access to the internet at home by the time this cohort reached primary school, and by high school both MySpace and Facebook were firmly established in social consciousness.
They are the digital natives.
And so, intuitively, this generation should have computer skills in abundance. Yet companies in the technology industry say they are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit computer science graduates and programmers with the right skills. The problem is in our school system.
By relying on a curriculum that centres on word processing programs, and shrinks from hard skills like coding, we are entrusting the future of the British tech industry to the teenagers who teach themselves these skills at home in their spare time, experts say.
Earlier this year, the Education Secretary himself warned that the curriculum was not fit for purpose – leaving children “bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers”.
Ian Livingstone, president of Eidos and author of the government’s NextGen IT Skills report, agrees. He said: “ICT education is the main problem… For too long ICT has been simply learning [Microsoft Office], teaching children how to use technology but giving them no insight into how it is created.
“We teach our children how to read but not how to write. Against all odds, we have turned them off learning about creating content for the devices they love and run their lives by!”
The result is falling numbers of students taking related GCSEs and A-levels – with IT now representing only 0.4 per cent of all A-levels sat in the UK despite providing more than five per cent of jobs – and dwindling numbers of those opting to study Computer Science at degree level.
This could not happen at a worse time. E-Skills, the sector skills council, expects employment in IT to grow 1.62 per cent a year until 2020, nearly twice the predicted average employment growth in the UK. 129,000 new entrants are required each year to keep up with growth and an ageing workforce.
Some action is being taken. In January it was announced that the current ICT curriculum would be scrapped from September, but as yet no replacement has been announced. Until then, the subject is in freefall.
It has fallen to the industry itself to step into the breach, and provide support for those keen to qualify for a career in IT.
Technology giant Dell supports the British initiative Apps for Good, which sends volunteers to schools to help secondary-age pupils develop their own smartphone apps that solve everyday problems. Last year, 1,200 students from 40 schools went through the programme.
Apps for Good CEO Iris Lapinski explained: “Our courses are very hands-on. We expect our pupils to develop their own ideas and then build a simple prototype.”
Some of the resulting apps are now available to purchase for BlackBerry or iPhone, including a program for teachers to use at parents’ evening that translates common phrases into Bengali, and an app which calculates travel fares and notifies the user when his Oyster card needs topping up.
Lapinski added: “Initially we planned to work with the young unemployed, but there was a lot of demand from schools and teachers. 41 per cent of our attendees are female – that’s compared to only 17 per cent in the tech workforce.”
Clare Sutcliffe – a UX designer – has left her job in digital advertising to start Code Club, a network of after school clubs run by professional designers and developers. She said: “We are aimed at 9-11 year-olds, and the aim is to give every child in the UK the chance to learn to code.
“The idea is that everything should be fun – we never say ‘this is a variable’, instead we make games and toys that happen to need variables to work, so they learn that way. Most teacher’s wouldn’t know how to do this themselves.
“We started in April, but now have 266 clubs across the country, and many are oversubscribed.”
Code Clubs use a simple visual programming language called ‘Scratch’, developed by American university MIT for children aged 6 and over. Similarly, Mozilla, the non-profit group behind the Firefox web browser, has pumped $10m (£6.2m) into ‘Webmaker’, a selection of free online tools and projects with the aim of improving web literacy.
Executive director Mark Surman told the Telegraph: “I think about this a lot. There’s no question that children are missing out because they are not doing this in school.
“Our idea is to put the tools in people’s hands of how to learn the basics of coding on the web, so they can pick it up on their own.”
But for those who do take the initiative to start teaching themselves, it can be a lonely road. That is why Emma Mulqueeny, founder of Young Rewired State, formed a network for developers aged 18 and under.
She said: “These kids are not like gamers. There aren’t conventions and meet ups. A lot of the kids that come to my events didn’t realise there were others into the same thing.”
Mulqueeny, former head of digital at the Home Office, set up the project in 2009 when she noticed that the attendees of her government ‘hack days’ (where developers are invited to work together and experiment with new ideas for using public data) were all in their 30s or older.
She said: “I thought, if I’m doing this, then we need to get young people involved – I started phoning schools, but they said that they don’t teach programming: nowhere does. ‘It’s too difficult.’
“In the end, I scrabbled together 50 kids, basically picking them out of their bedrooms in quite a painstaking way. And we had an amazing weekend.
“The next year we had 100 kids. This year, 600, in 42 centres across the UK. They come, figure out what stage they are at and where they want to be, and then they stay in touch with others who can help them: peer-to-peer learning.
“We are trying to find every kid who is sitting alone in his bedroom trying to do this alone.”
Want to learn how to code? Here are six useful websites:
A visual programming language for children age 6 and up, developed at MIT. Allows users to create and share interactive games.
In-browser ‘x-ray goggles’ which allow you to see the HTML elements that make up every webpage – and lets you edit them yourself.
Code ‘spellchecker’ and preview window which makes web editing simple. Create your own functional page in minutes and host it online.
Learn the Ruby programming language from scratch with this free downloadable software.