Let’s get our kids coding

There is a skill gap in the UK. That much appears clear. The Times ran an editorial this week lamenting the failure of our education system to have produced anything in the way of technical colleges. The Independent on Sunday produced something similar complaining that while graduates have invested siginificantly in their educations, the skills they gain from it don’t necessarily transfer into graduate level jobs.

There is now a general discussion going on about the extent to which universities should be providing vocational courses and the extent to which they should be providing academic courses. But within all this I suspect we are missing a trick.

I did a quick trip to all the schools around me recently to see what they were offering their students. I asked all of them about their IT curriculum. None really had one. They did a lot of research on computers. The smarter ones used iPads. But none taught any coding or anything that might give any insight into how computer software comes into being.

When it came to languages, they all said they focused on French. There is a new design and technology curriculum but it appears to focus on cookery and gardening at the expense of actual technology (electronics or perhaps computer-aided design). We do no better as our children get older: under 3,500 computer science A-levels were completed last year – that is a 70% decline since the late 1990s, says the Telegraph. 

Does it matter? I think so. Remember the stunning news a few weeks ago that UK teenager Nick d’Aloisio had sold his app, Summly, to Yahoo! for £20m? The most stunning thing about it, as Jonnie Goodwin points out in the Telegraph, was that d’Aloisio taught himself to code. He might have been learning French at school, but the world’s most important language – the one underlying the technology that rules our work and leisure time – he learnt at home.

Google chief Eric Schmidt agrees. In 2011, he accused the UK of throwing away “our great computer heritage”. So does the Chartered Institute for IT. It says that we have “manifestly neglected” computer science. The shame, says Goodwin, is that the UK is actually developing a hugely successful tech industry.

Some 35% of commercial property demand in London is from tech companies and in 2011 at least, there were 110,000 tech vacancies in the country. There is, it seems, a huge disconnect between what we are teaching our children and what we need to teach them – and worse, says Goodwin, one that doesn’t exist in the likes of Asia.

There is hope. The Guardian is very taken with CoderDojo in Camden which “hosts monthly sessions teaching children computer skills including coding” and Goodwin is involved in ‘code clubs’ which find volunteers skilled in coding to set up clubs to teach in primary schools, the idea being “to spark a passion that will last later into pupils’ education.”

It seems odd however that the teaching of this utterly vital skill should be left to volunteers rather than being set in stone as a core part of our children’s curriculum from primary up. Something to point out to your children’s teachers at the next parents’ evening.

• Can anyone explain the British obsession with French to me? All schools teach it from primary level, yet it isn’t a particularly useful language. If we want everyone to speak a European language, why not Spanish? Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world (332 million native speakers). French is the tenth most widely spoken language in the world (72 million native speakers).