Last week, (Tuesday 4th February) the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Education Secretary announced a new £500,000 fund to train teachers software coding, with the aim of inspiring the next generation of technology entrepreneurs.
This is part of the government’s Year of Code, a campaign which will run throughout 2014 to get young people excited about the power and potential of computer science.
Funding to train teachers will also be matched by industry and business, allowing new and existing teachers to be trained by the experts. This will equip schools to teach the new computing curriculum introduced this September and designed with input from the Royal Society of Engineering, and industry leaders such as Google and Microsoft.
Some identify learning to read code as equivalent to the 3Rs and the hope is that learning coding skills from an early age will help tackle the skills shortage we face.
One major stumbling block is the ability to create qualified teachers to deliver this new curriculum. The British Computer Society is to be provided with more than £2 million to set up a network of 400 ‘Master Teachers’ to train teachers in schools and provide resources for use in the classroom however, with the amount of training they will receive it’s doubtful they’ll understand the ins-and-outs of the system, and be able to fully and confidently explain the coding concepts to their pupils. Instead, it may be more useful for outsiders, those who currently work in the industry, to come into schools to provide the mentoring students need.
Furthermore, the Year of Code and its director, Lottie Dexter, has come under scrutiny this week. In an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight she claimed that she can’t code. It seems inappropriate for someone to head a campaign which they have no knowledge of. She claims that anyone can learn to code in a day, a statement I think is highly unlikely, and if it were the case, why are the government spending so much time and money teaching students from primary school? Furthermore, you would have thought that before entering the hot-seat of Newsnight she would have at least tried to start a programming course. She, therefore, comes across more as a PR professional than someone inherently interested in coding and the skills they will bring to British children. I understand why the Year of Code may not want a completely geeky representative, and perhaps more accessible and friendly, however a former Communications Manager of the Centre for Social Justice is not it.
Additionally, of the rest of the advisory board, only 3 of the 23-members have a programming or technical background. It’s useful to have backgrounds in journalism, business, entrepreneurship, policy and media, however it does seem strange that an organisation whose purpose is to bring coding to schoolchildren does not have more coders on its board. Furthermore, there are no members from the public or voluntary sector, teachers or university admissions tutors, perhaps, or from any academic discipline from the sciences and humanities through to the visual arts, or anyone from an industry that might employ programmers such as architects or engineers.
It, therefore, looks like a rather quickly thought out programme, with little research into the implementation in classrooms and the inherent aims needed by the wider community.
Personally, looking through comments on British news websites such as the BBC and The Guardian, I think it’s surprising that there are plenty who are against the idea; that it won’t teach pupils anything useful in the real world, they won’t need the skills, coding is a language that is best used by those in other countries. Paxman’s argument on Newsnight was similar to this; he stated that it was not really essential to know how to code, however this is completely missing the point.
There are plenty of things we learn at school that we’ll never need to use in life - long division, how electricity works, how to test for carbon dioxide, the fact that Henry VIII had six wives and lived at Hampton Court. It’s about having a basis for how the world works and how we interact with this world.
My belief is that programming is even more useful than much of what is currently taught in schools. With a good teacher students can complete a task and receive a grade in much the same way as they would in any other lesson, for example, creating a website given a number of parameters might be equal in translating a passage from French to English. However, as students have the ability to literally see their achievements, they can experiment, improve, improvise, design, and create - doing well in the subject can come from the pride they feel in achieving their initial goals, rather than achieving an A grade. The internet has plenty of information with which students can find out more for themselves and with a certain level of mastery, they can understand the subject as more of an art than a vocational subject. It might also help with students’ stamina and ability to concentrate - if they are determined to create an effect on, e.g. their website, they might spend as much time as it takes in creating it.
The current ICT is a waste of time. Pupils learn how to use Word and Excel, however, my belief is that with the increase in technology in everyday teaching, pupils will have to submit their homework using these programmes and will pick them up naturally. ICT should most certainly be scrapped for programming.
One critic, a proper one, a very young looking Communications Strategist from Decoded, has noted that programming should not necessarily be taught as a language with an HTML grammar, as that would be too boring, abstract and irrelevant. Instead, it needs to be grounded in problems in everyday life that pupils will be able to solve.
The Year of Code campaign will see a series of events take place over the next 12 months to promote computing. It will include a week-long programme in March encouraging all schools to teach every pupil at least one hour of coding in that week.
For more information see their, not very useful or informative, website.