Has Google's boss harmed computer teaching?

Eric Schmidt Google boss Eric Schmidt thinks computing education needs "rebooting"

"The last time I spoke in the UK," said Google's chairman Eric Schmidt, "it went better than I ever imagined." Mr Schmidt was referring to his speech at Edinburgh's Television Festival last year in which he called - among other things - for a revolution in the way computer science is taught in schools.

And he's right - his few sentences seemed to have an extraordinary effect. The computer and games industries renewed their calls for ICT teaching in schools to be revamped, the movement to promote the teaching of coding took heart, and eventually the Education Secretary Michael Gove, quoting the Google boss's remarks, announced that he was scrapping the ICT curriculum in English schools.

Last night, in a speech at the Science Museum, Eric Schmidt returned to this theme. He told an audience which contained many of those battling to change computing education that it still needed "rebooting". Computing represented less than half of one per cent of A-Levels taken in the UK, just 4,000 students a year.

He told us that only 2% of Google's engineers said they had not been exposed to computer science at school, and while the kind of stuff taught in ICT lessons - spreadsheets, online safety - still had a role, it was vital for our country's economic future that we taught computing as a proper academic discipline.

The speech, entitled Why Science Matters, was also a battle cry for scientific values to be more widely understood and honoured in society, and it was no surprise that it was very warmly received by last night's audience. But is there a danger that the revolution unleashed by Mr Schmidt is actually causing damage to the cause of computing education?

Start Quote

Not everybody is going to need to learn to code, but everyone does need office skills”

End Quote Teacher on ICT classes

Earlier yesterday I was at a conference on e-learning, where teachers came to share ideas about transforming education with the use of technology. There were some inspiring case studies, with children from one school helping to demonstrate the use of tablet computers in the classroom.

But afterwards one teacher approached me with a disturbing story. He was a head of ICT and said after Michael Gove's decision to scrap the curriculum, he and his colleagues had been summoned to a meeting with the school's leadership team. They were told that they would have to think about finding new roles or taking redundancy. And he said the number of students taking any kind of computing qualification at the school was now dropping sharply.

Another teacher defended the much-derided ICT: "Not everybody is going to need to learn to code, but everyone does need office skills."

Even in the community of teachers committed to change in the way computing is taught, I'm sensing a rising level of anxiety. Their fear is that schools are simply going to use the excuse to move resources to other subjects, and that the training needed to provide a new generation of computing teachers will never be forthcoming.

Eric Schmidt seemed to recognise that danger last night, unveiling a plan to invest in computer science teachers via the Teach First charity, and provide them with equipment such as the Raspberry Pi or Arduino kits.

But funding 100 teachers is not going to make a huge difference. What the teaching community fears - pardon my tortuous metaphor - is that the computing science baby risks being thrown out with the ICT bathwater. They will hope that the government pays as much attention to the Google boss this time as it did before. He says pulling the plug from the wall was a good first step - but powering up again is even more important.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Whilst league tables exist, schools will do what it takes to compete. ICT is not an EBacc subject, and Gove's position makes Computing an unattractive proposition for schools without Computer Science specialists. Don't forget, Computing (not ICT) became unpopular in schools for a reason - poor results leading to low take-up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    "Not everybody is going to need to learn to code, but everyone does need office skills."
    Maybe so, but everyone would benefit from it. Why wait until someone releases an app to do what you want, just write it yourself, suddenly you are more productive in your job, no matter what that is. It's the same argument for not learning maths. CS is just maths and it should be treated with the same rigour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Surely the best approach is a balanced one. Saying that computers should be used solely to learn programming, or solely to learn to use office applications, is as misguided as saying that a blackboard should be used solely to teach maths, or solely to teach history. Aim for breadth at up to GCSE and then more depth at A level and beyond, when pupils have found where their aptitudes lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Hold on... ICT teachers teach "office skills"? Isn't that a bit like getting physics teachers to teach how to boil an egg? Anyone can teach kids how to use word-processing and email: why waste proper computing skills on such basic needs? Or don't ICT teachers have "proper" computing skills? Sounds like a shake-up is definitely needed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It is promising that Computing is finally being taken seriously in this country. Yes, not everyone will go on to be a programmer but computational thinking has skills applicable beyond programming.
    It is also the case that pupils with a good grounding in Computing will likely be better users of software commonly taught under ICT. (For example a spreadsheet is essentially a form of programming.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    If McDonalds paid for canteen staff and "Home Ec" teachers and provided burgers for the kids' meals there would be outrage. If MS supplied Office and Windows and paid for teachers to teach those products there'd be outrage.

    Boy, don't you folks just love Google.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Just interested parties defending the status quo. The ICT syllabus always felt like a misguided attempt to teach my elderly Mum how to use computers, rather than inspire a new generation of designers and developers. Dull, patronising, off-putting. A striking example of aiming low and missing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I agree there is a need for office skills or basic IT but we do need to provide children the opportunity and support in schools to learn software engineering and computer science. These two school disciplines need to embrace IT like our universities do.
    Finally more focus on Software engineering is needed in this country as I find computer science less like the majority of IT work done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    @Ahem.. re: ICT teachers should decamp to office skills courses

    When were you last in a school? There are no office skills courses! I'm with the teachers on this... most people never need to know how to program, especially at ten years old!. However improved computer courses for those who do show aptitude would be good... A level computer science would be a good place to start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    In fairness, the course at GCSE and A-Level is usually titled 'Applied ICT'. Why can we not offer computer science as a stand alone qualification in addition to what's already on offer? If the government truly cared this is the ideal solution IMHO.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Sorry but this is just a lazy story. Let's interview those who feel threatened, and let's elevate their unsurprising reaction that they are concerned about babies and bathwater to the level of noteworthy insight, treat coding as you would a language. ICT teachers should decamp to office skills courses and the BBC technology correspondent should be a technologist first and correspondent second.


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