Coding - the new Latin
- 28 November 2011
- From the section Technology
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.
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.