Coding - the new Latin


"The tool of the 21st century is the computer", says Alex Hope, co-author of Livingstone Hope Review

The campaign to boost the teaching of computer skills - particularly coding - in schools is gathering force.

Today the likes of Google, Microsoft and other leading technology names will lend their support to the case made to the government earlier this year in a report called Next Gen. It argued that the UK could be a global hub for the video games and special effects industries - but only if its education system got its act together.

The statistics on the numbers going to university to study computing make sobering reading. 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%. What's more, computing science's reputation as a geeky male subject has been reinforced, with the percentage of male applicants rising over the period from 84% to 87%.

But the problem, according to those campaigning for change, begins at school with ICT - a subject seen by its detractors as teaching clerical skills rather than any real understanding of computing.

And it seems school children are getting that message too because the numbers studying the subject are on the decline. 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.

And it looks like they've found what could be a great slogan for their campaign. "Coding is the new Latin," says Alex Hope, co-author of that Next Gen report which kicked things off. "We need to give kids a proper understanding of computers if they're to compete for all kinds of jobs."

Mr Hope is a fervent believer that a combination of hi-tech and the creative industries is Britain's best hope for growth - and he should know.

His visual effects company Double Negative is a great success story, with credits on films ranging from Harry Potter to Batman to Inception, for which it won an Oscar. From a standing start in 1998, its workforce now numbers nearly a thousand.

Alex Hope says his company needs a rich mix of talents: "We're looking for polymaths - people with computer science, maths, physics or fine arts can all thrive." He describes how working out how to make the CGI River Thames look real in a Harry Potter film involves complex maths and physics.

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But he's finding it a struggle to recruit people with the hard science background. 'We're just not producing enough graduates with computer science or maths skills."

Like so many banging the drum for a different kind of computing education, Alex Hope harks back to the 1980s when he learned to program using the BBC Micro. Today he'll be joined by Google's lead engineer in the UK and Microsoft's UK education head in calling for a new approach. They say what's at stake is the potential for growth and jobs in a vital part of the economy.

"The government is looking for opportunities for growth," says Alex Hope. "Therefore they need to train the programmers that the creative and other hi-tech firms need to build their businesses."

And it seems the government is receptive to that message. A couple of weeks ago I asked the Prime Minister about the issue of computer education. David Cameron admitted "we're not doing enough to teach the next generation of programmers", and said there would be action on that.

Later today we'll find out what kind of action, as the government publishes its response to that Next Gen report written by Alex Hope and Ian Livingstone. It's expected to be largely positive, although there is unlikely to be any definite commitment to put computer science on the curriculum.

But what may be more important is changing the image of the subject. And while "coding is the new Latin" may be a good message to send to parents and politicians, something a little sexier will be needed to convince school students that computer science is cool.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Problem is, the best coders teach themselves, & just get frustrated at the glacial pace of a teaching system designed to include those with minimal aptitude. And I'm talking about University here, so the problem will be far worse in schools.
    You really need a two-tier system, so you can keep the interest of the talented ones, while teaching the need for code that others can understand and maintain

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    ICT has always been a toy subject. We're living in an exciting time when someone with a hot business idea, Javascript coding skills, and a free Amazon cloud account can get an internet application up and running in a weekend - and put out iOS and Android apps almost as quickly. That kind of freedom should be the kind of thing that appeals to kids looking for their "ticket out of the ghetto".

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I am one if the fortunate few who actually get to teach computer science alongside ICT in a school and the subjects really are worlds apart. For any students who are actually interested in computers and how they work, Computer Science is streets ahead of ICT which has become a Mickey Mouse subject requiring no real knowledge to pass with a good grade and that is why very few schools now teach it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    It is very true that to much teaching is focused on office use of computers. In the early days (with BBC computers in schools in the 80s) the focus was on technology and programming. It was exciting and inspiring. Today due to the staff taken on and the fact that successive governments have focused on 'services', schools and colleges have been 'anti-innovation' and focus on the mundane.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I fear that going into the windows programming environment may end up adding to schools budgets for little gain, where if they were able to use open source environments most languages are available for free. I dont see that happening due to lack of support for anything other than microsoft in schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    ICT is still in the mind set of when it was a novelty taught by staff who struggled to use a calculator. It could easily be replaced by a software use diploma. Coding cant be taught unless there are the staff who are capable of teaching it and who is going to quit the industry to teach? Coding as a subject would slot nicely in alongside statistics/further maths at GCSE and as an A level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Get kids creating mobile Apps - they live & die on their mobiles, surely that's the way to engage kids & get them interested in coding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Many sensible coders will just go straight into a job at 16 rather than wasting time and tuition fees at University, three years extra experience can easily wipe out any average wage differences...

    I don't think there's much of a 'brain drain', there's just a lot more code to be written in the 21st C, and any kid with a compiler is writing apps, not the 'diminishing returns' of games or CGI.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Teach science and maths, not computer science.

    Too many early computer science courses focus on individual languages and techniques to "program" a computer. More important is analytical thinking, and application of that to problem solving.

    Computer languages evolve rapidly. Analytical thinking lasts a lifetime

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I agree that the level of computer education at school is very poor. For example, many journalists don't even know the difference between 'programme' and 'program'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The poor state of computer education is not restricted to secondary schools; many universities went down the route of teaching business skills, media studies and web-site design. We are paying the price for this. At my current university where there is no requirement of a maths A level, many students are quite innumerate and a large proportion graduate without any ability to program.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    As an IT director with two sons who are currently studying GCSE ICT, I have long despaired of the curriculum contents. It is entirely focussd on how to drive word processors and spreadsheets rather than on what makes a computer tick, how to programme one, how networks operate ... etc. Strikes me everything is dumbed down and not really tuned to providing real computing skills just office clerks ..

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Sue Denim has made a very important point... I too see some very questionable code produced nearly everyday by so called 'programmers'. The kids will not get any help at all going through school as the vast majority who teach ICT at schools are only able to demonstrate the use of spreadsheets or applications to write letters... it seems that they have no knowledge about how to write 'code'...

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I graduated from a CS course at a Russell Group uni in '09 and was lucky enough to find work. Many of those who were on my course are now either unemployed or working in unrelated areas (lots of TEFL etc).

    ICT in schools is a joke, really just Microsoft Office 101. Even at university too much time was spent on fluff - nobody in the real world draws 27 diagrams to make a decision! Too busy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It is ironic that it has taken this long to get coding back onto the curriculum, given that several new companies have launched systems where coding, in the traditional sense, is no longer necessary.

    I went through education in the 80's when computers were in schools for the first time and we were really encouraged to learn to code. Now it is coming back into favour, just in time to be obsolete.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Whilst I applaud the spirit, I fear the application. Let me guess....the government buying hundreds of thousands of PCs at £4,000 each, and buying the required software at double what it would cost from even PC World. The government has a very poor record at getting value for money when it comes to tech.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I totally agree with DibbySpot. We are teaching kids skills that they don't necessarily need to the detriment of skills that really are needed. As we move forward with computer technology, the demand for skilled programmers is going to increase. As a programmer myself, I have seen some very poor, amateur code written by people taken on with no formal training. It is a nightmare to maintain!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    If Government is going to micro manage the curriculum it needs to reflect the demands of society. ICT is a good example where changes are needed. The way you teach a 5yr old to write is not - but actually what is happening.

    As a society we now focus on things that do not matter to the detriment of those that do.


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