Coding - the new Latin


"The tool of the 21st century is the computer", says Alex Hope, co-author of Livingstone Hope Review

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.

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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.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 618.

    As ICT teachers we KNOW what to teach and programming is one of many areas but the Goverment tells us otherwise!! If your child is not getting this it is because of lack of funding for resources and no brainer meddlers. Did you know that the tories have shutdown IT teacher training? Schools are shutting down ICT and no longer recuiting. ICT has been indirectly wiped from the curriculum!

  • rate this

    Comment number 617.

    @MicroCosm How ironic that you also seem to be one of the ones that has forgotten what BASIC stands for. Just to clarify, its Beginner's All-purpose *Symbolic* Instruction Code.

  • rate this

    Comment number 616.

    I went to school back in the BC days (Before Computing) but still became a COBOL programmer. My 13yr old is being taught ICT and finds it boring, however there is very little he can't do with a PC (both Windows and Linux). He would benefit from some proper modern Computer Science training at school. Equally, the knowledge of how to program should be of benefit to most school children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 615.

    I agree totally with the comments regarding the lack of depth taught in ICT, but just as important is the lack of acknowledgement of any other software then microsoft. For parents on a budget, shelling out for MS office is a substantial amount of money, Open Office provides a good replacement which is free.
    But to get to grips with how computers really work we should be teaching with Linux.

  • rate this

    Comment number 614.

    We need 2 essentials
    1) Touch Typing - its an essential productivity skill, good for the rest of your life.

    2) Coding - not proprietary - yes get them to write apps for mobiles.

    Children are very adaptable and will love it. Its the teachers who struggle.

    Python would be ideal, easy to learn, clear to read, portable, expandable to do almost anything - the new improved BASIC


Comments 5 of 618


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