Year of Code - PR fiasco or vital mission?

George Osbourne with two schoolgirls looking at a small computer

It seems like something that everybody would support - a campaign to help transform computing education in our schools. But since its launch last week, the Year Of Code has turned into something of a PR disaster.

Its director has admitted she doesn't know how to code, and there's been derision and confusion from some in the IT industry and from many teachers about the mission and its objectives. I've talked to two people with two contrasting views of the Year of Code (full disclosure - the BBC is one of the partners in the Year of Code).

Emma Mulqueeny, who's been out there spreading the gospel of coding for years with her Young Rewired State organisation and its Festival Of Code, was invited rather late in the day to get involved in the campaign.

She very swiftly decided that it was a bad idea - as she made clear in a delightfully intemperate blogpost titled "7 reasons why the Year of Code is just AM Dram." And when I got in touch with her she hadn't really calmed down.

"It doesn't know what it's doing, it's not focused, it hasn't looked at all the research that people have done," she explained. "The thing that really tipped me over the edge was when I found that they hadn't even bothered to contact Computing at Schools, which has spent six years working on this..."

She snorted at the idea that a video of George Osborne on the campaign's website might encourage people to code, and was critical of the decision to make Lottie Dexter - the young PR woman who admitted she had never coded - the spokeswoman for the campaign.

Though sympathetic to the situation in which Ms Dexter found herself, Emma Mulqueeny says that "the amount of damage she has done to the cause of programming is frightening". Having campaigned hard for years to get girls to see themselves as coders, her frustration about a woman with no track record in this area floundering on live television was palpable.

Much of the direction and the financing of the Year of Code has come from the venture capital firm Index Ventures, where the former Downing Street adviser Rohan Silva is now Entrepreneur in Residence. Mr Silva, who'd been in touch with me before the launch encouraging me to cover it and to interview "the brilliant head of the campaign Lottie Dexter", is the chairman of the Year of Code.

But it's Saul Klein, the energetic entrepreneur with a background at companies like Lovefilm and Skype, and now a partner at Index, who seems to be the moving spirit behind this campaign. He has also put money behind Kano, which aims to make the Raspberry Pi easier to use, and the code teaching business Codecademy.

And when we talked, he mounted a passionate defence of the Year of Code, while conceding that the campaign had hit some "broken glass" and "speed bumps". Throughout our conversation three figures kept cropping up - 90% of the country didn't know how to code, 70% of adults didn't know that coding would be in the curriculum come September, and 100% of teenagers thought it would be vital for their future job prospects.

He defended Lottie Dexter, maintaining that if 90% of people were not coders then using a person without those skills would help raise awareness. "If you're launching a campaign to reach the mainstream, Lottie is a brilliant person."

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A glance at the comments under a YouTube video of Lottie Dexter's Newsnight interview reveals a murky world of misogyny and coding snobbery”

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I asked whether this was a government or an Index Partners initiative and came away little the wiser - but Saul Klein was unapologetic: "We live in a world where the intersection of public policy and commerce is often needed to drive an important social agenda."

He said that the UK government's policy on coding was being seen as groundbreaking around the world and we ought to celebrate that - but there was now an urgent need to give the teachers the tools they would need by September. "I am totally unapologetic that I'm trying to do something that is good for everyone - and that anyone can be part of it."

Now it's fair to point out that some of the criticism is mean spirited. There is a minority of older experienced programmers who see themselves and their craft as an exclusive band of brethren and will always be hostile to an initiative like this. A glance at the comments under a YouTube video of Lottie Dexter's Newsnight interview reveals a murky world of misogyny and coding snobbery.

But there is also a lot of goodwill out there, particularly amongst those IT teachers who have been campaigning for years for a more stretching and creative approach to computing education. If the Year of Code can take a breath, sit back and work out what it wants to achieve, then maybe it can regain some of its lost credibility.

What would it take, I asked Emma Mulqueeny, to persuade her to come back to the Year of Code? "They need to turn it off, have a long hard look and then turn it on again, then maybe."

The trouble is, Saul Klein doesn't think there is time for a reboot. With 30 weeks to go before teachers have to get to grips with the new curriculum, he believes the time to raise awareness about coding is right now.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    What people don't understand is that while learning how to code is all well and good, there's more to IT and Tech than just code. There's hardware, software(not coding it),media and more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    This and many initiatives are good but there is one major 'fly in the ointment'
    The standard of teacher is poor in our country
    Too many are more interested in social engineering than education
    Too many in lala land whilst industry and business has to clear up the mess and salvage what they can from their failures
    About time educators pulled their fingers out and entered the real world
    Que, excuses

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    The state is a blundering leviathan, of course it does not get anything perfectly right.However it would seem to have been nudged into a better direction in that some attention is going to computing. Almost all children will have no use for it at all, just like most other subjects.The key to real education is closing all schools and get on with educating individuals. Fitting aptitude and interest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Coding isn't for everyone and it's certainly not for people who do not have a basic grasp of English or Maths.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Easy - ask if Ms Lottie Dexter would want to learn to code and get her to blog it.
    No hypocrisy, and actually setting an example?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    If Gove is at all involved in this initiative, that would explain the fiasco.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    "Programming is a cause now?"

    As an older experienced programmer I feel constrained to point out that I'm hostile because "code" is the enemy. Software should be clean and legible, not opaque and cryptic, producing it is hard boring graft (and 90% quality assurance), and it should be taught by people who don't think "code" is "cool".

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Call it "software engineering" rather than "computer science" or "coding" and you'll have a better image of its place and its value. Mechanical engineering was a prestigious profession in Victorian times, and software engineering ought to be now. I foresee some big investments soon in climate change and hydrological modelling, flood risk assessments ..

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Is she a 'brilliant person' to head the campaign because of her expertise or because she's blonde and skinny? There are women who know how to code, I'm one of them, but we're underrepresented massively because of the assumption that our brains aren't wired right for it and we should be standing up front looking pretty instead. I've been mistaken for the receptionist before, never happens to men.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    One the biggest issues with coding being taught in high schools is that it has been sprung on teachers that suddenly they need to teach a certain number of programming languages. This means learning those languages themselves to a good enough degree to teach it in a negative space of time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Top down never works. Dunno when government are gonna realise this. They should listen to the people who JfDI, like Emma.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    focus on coding when we have students leaving SCHOOLS WITHOUT BASIC MATHS AND READING SKILLS SEEMS STUPID

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @Appeos, I'm glad there are "consultants" that think they can implement "solutions" without coding. I have have coded from machine code -> what ever the flavour is now. I make a great living on the fact that "consultants" cannot code. Today even microsoft is abstarcting "coders" from the machine. Which makes my living even more lucrative as I have to fill the gaps in knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Why would the director need to know how to code? Managers don't know how to do 99% of the stuff us techies do, that's why they're managers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    It's computational thinking that should be the heart, and driver of what we teach our children. I'm a Manchester CoderDojo volunteer, a CodeClub leader, and ran a Young Rewired State centre last year. Here's my take on why I think we should be teaching kids to code: "Our Computational Future"

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I've recently been teaching PGCE students who want to teach computer science (can't bring myself to use caps there) subject knowledge enhancement classes, and it's been a struggle. Even given that they all have computing degrees of one sort or another, they have struggled with easy programming tasks.

    Do you know what, like mathematics beyond arithmetic, it isn't actually that easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I haven't coded for over 20 years (wasn't much good at it), but I still draw on that experience to understand why software behaves the way it does, what software is capable of (and what it isn't), and why lazy coding can make life difficult for users.

    It's not just a matter of learning coding to become a coder. Increasingly, our world is made of code. We need to understand it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Lottie Dexter should have done a 10 hour course in Scratch, just as I am teaching to year 5. She would have been able to articulate the fun and value of learning different types of loops, controlling motion, conditional logic, balancing randomness and skill to make fun games. Coding isn't hard, has huge educational value and is fun. If she can't articulate that, then they need someone who can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I am a coder. I work as a consultant implementing open source software for businesses. I think education has been failing for some time, computing in schools turned into ICT which was basically Microsoft Office training - not teaching. I now run an after school club each week, organised by codeclub, teaching the foundational skills I need in future employees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'm not a "coder" either, but work in the industry. I think reducing the role of a developer/programmer down to the title of coder, belittles the actual realities of doing that job. Who's going to address the fact that "coding" isn't a catch-all for understanding design, scoping business requirements, server architectures, and requires constant personal motivation to keep up with new tech?


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