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Coding at School

As our lives become increasingly computer based and driven, we face a problem. This problem has been summed up by the Education Secretary himself, who has said that ’the inadequate grounding in computing offered by the current curriculum was in danger of damaging Britain’s economic prospects’. This follows Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt assessment last year that the UK was throwing away its “great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming in schools.

Do they have a point? Mr Livingstone, co-author of last year’s Next Gen report which looked into the teaching of computing in UK schools, certainly believes so. He is quoted as saying  ”The current lessons are essentially irrelevant to today’s generation of children who can learn PowerPoint in a week. Children are being forced to learn how to use applications, rather than to make them. They are becoming slaves to the user interface and are totally bored by it,”

The statistics on the numbers going to university to study computing make sobering reading and certainly support Mr Livingstone’s concerns. In 2003 around 16,500 students applied to UCAS for places on computer science courses. By 2007 that had fallen to just 10,600, and although it’s recovered a little to 13,600 last year, that’s at a time in major growth in overall applications, so the percentage of students looking to study the subject has fallen from 5% to 3%.

Microsoft’s director of education, Steve Beswick agree’s with the points raised in the debate. A survey from Microsoft found 82% of 16 to 18 year olds in education use the Facebook website every day. However, Microsoft argued that despite the fact that many teenagers are immersed in technology at home they are failing to translate this into learning technology skills at school with 71% of teenagers believing that they learn more about information technology outside of school than in formal ICT lessons.

Such a skills gap is a “major concern” for employers, says Mr Beswick. He warns that pupils need to be able to leave school with “appropriate skills” in information technology that will be needed for the jobs market.

The answer, according to the firms and organisations calling for change, is to put proper computer science in the form of coding on the curriculum. The Next Gen report called for coding to be ‘the new Latin’. The idea is that, instead of dull lessons in handling office productivity software, a new generation would be taught to get their hands dirty with programming – “teach our kids to code” is the slogan of a growing movement calling for change.

The authors of the Next Gen report believe that during a time of such economic uncertainty that the combination of hi-tech and the creative industries is Britain’s best hope for growth. David Cameron seems to agree and has admitted “we’re not doing enough to teach the next generation of programmers”.

If David Cameron were looking for ideas to encourage the next generation of programmes he could look across to the pond at the success of CodeYear, a campaign to encourage more people to learn programming. Participants in the course receive an interactive lesson each week, via email. The campaign promises that participants will be “building apps and websites before you know it”. The campaign has proven to be real success. with more than six million lessons being completed within the first month of the site going live.

Closer to home in the UK, volunteers have kicked off a project to set up after-school clubs that teach young children how to programme computers. Called Code Clubs, the sessions will aim to instil the basics of computer programming into children aged 10-11. The clubs will be built around practical hands-on tasks that will include children making games and eventually controlling robots. It aims to have 25% of the UK’s primary schools running a Code Club by 2014.

Although in its early days, Code Club has about 100 volunteers signed up ready to help and has begun work on writing notes to guide what the clubs will teach.The club sessions would be based around Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Scratch tool which lets children try their hand at programming by dragging and dropping code elements instead of typing them. Scratch is already used in many schools as an aid to computer lessons for children aged 12 and above.

So where do we go from here? Emma Mulqueeny, behind Young Rewired State, which scours schools across the country for students with an appetite for coding, and brings them together for an annual hack day, sums up the events well.  On her blog she recognises that the Government are trying to take steps forward, however she realises that this is just the beginning. Big questions remain about funding, training and organisation.One thing is for sure, this issue isn’t going to go away and whether campaigners can get the backing from the Government that they need to make coding ‘the new Latin’ remains to be seen.