The Year of Code may have got off to a bumpy start but the new focus on computer skills is both very welcome and essential

February 14, 2014

In September this year, the UK will become the first major G20 economy to implement mandatory coding lessons for 5-16 year olds on a national level. As part of this, the government launched the Year of Code – a campaign “to encourage people across the country to get coding for the first time in 2014”, which will:

  • signpost national and community tech events
  • crowdsource funding to help parents, pupils and educational organisations
  • commission detailed polling and analysis on “how we can take coding far and wide”

Considering the level of time investment needed to ensure teachers are properly trained and have the right support to deliver the course, it is perhaps strange that this initiative is being launched less than seven months before the new school year. However, this blog post doesn’t aim to unpick the success and failures of the campaign. That’s been done a lot over the last week or so. What I will say is that regardless of whether or not it is necessary for the director of Year of Code to know how to code, it should at least be required that they be able to articulate the benefits of learning computer programing.

Alongside the Year of Code, the government announced £500,000 of funding to help train teachers to deliver the new course. Investment is to be welcomed, but this latest money is matched-funding, and available only to expert computing organisations willing to provide 50 per cent of funding for projects to train teachers. While it is clearly in industry’s interest to promote the scheme, it will be interesting to see just how many are prepared to step forward and actually provide funds. The technology news site Techcrunch added that £500,000 sounded like a relatively small amount of money, but a government spokesperson emphasised that the funding ought to be seen in the context of existing commitments:

  • £2 million for the British Computer Society (BCS)  to set up a network of 400 ‘Master Teachers’ to train teachers in other schools and provide classroom resources
  • £1.1 million for the ‘Computing at School’ project to help train primary teachers
  • Scholarships of £25,000 (backed by Microsoft, Google, IBM and Facebook) for those  who want to become computer science teachers
  • Plus the good work of places like Code Club, Young Rewired State, Codeacademy and many more.

Funding aside, a key challenge for the new curriculum will be keeping up with the pace of technological change so that students’ skills are aligned to those demanded in the workplace. The ever-changing labour market requires flexibility and a wide skills portfolio. We need a nation of people who can combine technical expertise with analytical thinking; digital skills with creative pursuits; and technology start-up entrepreneurs who are also great communicators. David Willetts put it well in a speech to Policy Exchange discussing his publication Eight Great Technologies, when he said “We have world class scientific institutes and research intensive universities. This includes humanities and social sciences. It is not just STEM it is STEAM – Science Technology Engineering Arts and Maths.” We completely endorse that view.

Also important to remember is that the new curriculum and digital literacy aren’t just about programming, algorithms, and troubleshooting. There are important social and behavioural aspects of computing education too, such as raising awareness of cyberbullying and protecting young people from inappropriate content (such as websites about self-harm) and predatory behaviour online. When filters fail to block all undesirable material (or overblock), education has an important role to play. It is good to see these elements being included in the course.

However bumpy a start the course receives in September it is worth reiterating that these reforms are very much welcomed. Computing skills are desperately needed both in schools and for the long-term success of the UK economy. Key to its success is that teachers receive long-term, ongoing support and resources to make it happen.

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