Technology

Are teachers ready for the coding revolution?

  • 23 January 2014
  • From the section Technology
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There's a revolution coming to schools across England, one designed to transform a new generation's prospects in the digital age. Come September, a change to the curriculum means the study of computing - and specifically coding - will be mandatory across all state primary and secondary schools.

That also means that something like 16,000 ICT teachers in secondary schools and more than 160,000 primary school teachers face a huge challenge - getting ready to teach the new discipline in time.

Where better to assess their readiness than BETT, the annual education technology fair. I spent yesterday in the vast halls of the Excel exhibition centre talking to teachers, children and even Education Secretary Michael Gove, about what the arrival of coding in the curriculum might mean.

To see two primary school pupils, Ruby and Sienna, working together to make a Raspberry Pi-controlled vehicle move around the floor with a few lines of code, was to understand what's possible. They admitted that coding could be difficult at first - but both were having a lot of fun.

They were benefitting from the work of one of an army of enthusiasts now descending on schools to help prepare for the coding revolution. Tom Stacey, a PhD student, invented the PiBot, the vehicle the girls were controlling. "It's when you combine hardware - something that they can actually touch - with writing lines of code that it actually comes alive," he told me.

Meanwhile, teachers at BETT seemed determined to be upbeat about the arrival of coding. Jonathan Furness, a primary school head teacher, admitted it was "a big ask - we're very much up against it".

With every teacher at primary level having to teach computing, there would need to be resources for staff development, and consultants would be coming into school to help. But he said, "our children are revved up" about coding and the teachers would come with them.

Gary Spracklen, head of digital at an academy in Dorset, said the key was to deal with the fear of learning a whole new language. "Everyone thinks it's a huge step onto a high level - but the message is we need to break it down and start small."

And that was echoed by Carrie-Ann Philbin, a great evangelist for inventive ways of using technology in the classroom, who's just joined Raspberry Pi: "It sounds like a steep learning curve," she admitted when I asked whether older teachers might be intimidated by coding. "But those big words like algorithm and data, when you actually dig deeper you see they're not scary."

So - what of the man who has ordered this revolution in classrooms? Michael Gove told me he accepted that a lot was being asked of teachers. But he insisted, "We're giving teachers all the support they need". He praised "outstanding teachers who understand and get computer science", and said they would be helping colleagues. "And we're making sure we get more talented people from the computing industry who think about teaching and are attracted into the classroom," he said.

And he said there was no alternative to making this work if we didn't want the Googles and Microsofts of tomorrow to be created elsewhere. "Schools will be better places and children will be better prepared for the future if they understand the language of the future - and that is computer programming."

From cabinet ministers pushing a policy and every kind of business promoting their products, to evangelical computing teachers, BETT attracts those with a determinedly optimistic view of the role technology can play in schools.

But in the real world, cynics will point at initiatives from language laboratories to electronic whiteboards to classrooms packed with obsolete desktop computers that have left many teachers underwhelmed. Will the drive to get children coding be different? And will schools be ready? If you're a teacher with a view on your own or your school's readiness for this revolution, please get in touch.