Have private schools helped teen app makers to thrive?
- 10 April 2013
- From the section Technology
Teenager Nick D'Aloisio hit the headlines last month when an app he had developed was bought by Yahoo for millions of pounds.
I interviewed Nick 13 months ago at his home in Wimbledon in south London and it was obvious he came from a successful, wealthy family who had opted to give him a private education.
A day after Nick started counting his millions, an email dropped in my inbox about another teenaged developer.
Schoolboy Tom Humphrey has launched an app designed to help language learning by combining dictionary definitions with digital translation tools. He also happens to go to Eton College.
Meanwhile teenager Nina Dewani, who was interviewed by the BBC last month after designing a password-prompting app, attends a private school in St Albans.
It could be a coincidence, but these young people join a long line of tech entrepreneurs who attended private schools and found fame for their creations.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee went to an independent school, as did Bill Gates (although he later dropped out of Harvard to set up a software company), while child prodigy Mark Zuckerberg had a tutor who helped him start writing software.
It is from public schools such as Eton that the current prime minister and many leaders of industry have emerged so it should perhaps come as no great surprise that the entrepreneurs of the future are also learning there.
Tom thinks his winning app design was down to him as an individual rather than the famous school he goes to but he acknowledged that it played a part.
"The school didn't push me to enter the competition but once I had entered they helped me. There are brilliant facilities here," he said.
"If you show interest in something, there are people that are going to help you. The school gave me the freedom to develop the app," he added.
Mark McGinn, who organised the O2 Think Big AppSkool competition that Tom won, thinks the 17-year-old succeeded on his own merits but recognises that school can play an important role.
"There is no doubt that private schools offer the opportunity to touch success and inspire a certain mindset and a willingness to take risks," he said.
"The horizon at these schools is just bigger. If you are fortunate enough to be in a classroom where some of the parents are heads of industry you are going to be inspired," he added.
It is an issue that Dr Tony Sewell, founder of Generating Genius, is determined to tackle.
He set up the charity with the specific intention of getting children from disadvantaged backgrounds into universities to study the Stem subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
"Public schoolboys dominate sports, arts and the technology section," Dr Sewell told the BBC.
"Private schools have a culture of independent thinking, they give students a sense that they are knowledgeable and confident. In comprehensives it is the reverse - to be ignorant is to be the star," he added.
The fact that few children from disadvantaged backgrounds take up Stem subjects at university is something that needs urgent focus.
"It is something that state schools need to address. We are losing talent."
Partly the issue is a cultural one, he thinks.
While a child perceived as a "geek" at a state comprehensive may be bullied, he says, in a private school that child is more likely to be nurtured and encouraged.
"The culture of competition is at the heart of the public school as are clubs and societies," said Dr Sewell.
"At 15:30 when the bell goes in a state school, the kids are out of the door. Very few are staying behind doing innovative things," he says.
At a recent competition for schools to come up with clever uses for the Raspberry Pi - the ultra-cheap micro-controller - there was a dearth of entries from state schools.
It was something that worried the judges, including the BBC's own technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones.
"One theory offered as to why was that the constraints of the curriculum meant teachers were too cautious about committing to time-consuming projects which might not contribute directly to exam results," he said.
Prof Stephen Heppell, an education expert determined to transform the curriculum, agrees.
"Schools need to get away from half-hour lesson blocks especially with computer science," he said.
"No sooner have you got started than it is time to stop. To write a good program you need a good block of time, half a day at least."
He is convinced there is no shortage of talent in the state sector and, if most of the app developers making the headlines at the moment come from fee-paying schools, it might just be down to their parents.
"They may have the money to spend on getting the app to market or getting marketing for it," he said.
The nature of entrepreneurship is such that someone with a good idea and enough determination can become successful whatever their background.
And with tools such as the Raspberry Pi available to all, technology is certainly not the preserve of schools such as Eton.
Programming too has become easier, meaning the teenage app developer is here to stay, says Prof Heppell.
"What is scarce now isn't so much programming skills but good ideas and kids are awash with good ideas."
And he says some of the best are likely to come from children at state schools: "They have better ideas because they have a better sense of what the world needs."