In 2012, each of us spent £1,175 online, 16% higher than the year before. And since 2007, in spite of the recession, the digital sector clocked up double-digit growth. Technology is now at the centre of all our lives. The global world economy is changing and Britain needs to change with it. We need to give our young people the skills to find jobs – and create their own businesses – in this new world.
But UK employers just can’t find people with the right skills. There are currently 6,000 unfilled jobs in the tech industry; so many vacancies in an age when new tech businesses are being created around the world daily. We need to act now before the next generation are left behind. Students today must learn how to run their own websites, secure computers, and build their own software. These are just the skills the country needs and they’re the skills our children need to shape their own future.
Failure of ICT
But rather than teach children and young people basic programming, at the moment most ICT lessons teach them how to use Word and PowerPoint. While useful in the early 1990s, the vast majority of students today already know how to use word processors and web browsers – as well as mobiles, tablets and even wearable devices. Children and young people are surrounded by IT and they know how to use it.
Thankfully, the Government is rewriting the syllabus. State schools will start teaching Computer Science from September this year. Children between the ages of 5 and 7 will be taught how to create and debug simple programs, and students between 11 and 13 will be taught at least two programming languages. Michael Gove has my full support. Not only does that sound useful, it sounds fun too!
Getting programmers into schools
But teaching this new rigorous syllabus will be challenging. The vast majority of British ICT teachers do not know how to code. It’s a skill they’ve not needed before today. The Department of Education is building ‘teach-yourself’ online courses for students and running classes to bring teachers up to speed. But I this will be trick, and I worry that, for children in lessons, the fun will just get lost.
I want our young people to be exposed to the enthusiasm of our wonderful digital start-up community. I love talking to programmers who build web apps and run their own businesses. As a technology entrepreneur, I worked alongside many of these people every day. Making interesting things is in their blood. They’re curious, intelligent and entertaining. If we’re serious about teaching our young people to program, we need to get these techies into schools. Young tech entrepreneurs are inspirational people and the new syllabus is slated to give schools more freedom, so why not use this time to invite the next generation of tech gurus into our schools?
Supporting new teachers
Teach First is a charity that supports and develops outstanding teachers to inspire children in schools in low-income and challenging areas. It has already paired up with Google to pay 61 Computer Science graduates to teach in underprivileged schools over the next three years. Small fry, but it’s a start. I would like to see at least one top-class Computer Science graduate working in every state school, something that is especially crucial in rural schools where there is less technical expertise.
So I urge the Government to consider sponsoring Teach First to run a comprehensive Computer Science recruitment drive. On top of that the Government must build strategic relationships with tech businesses and university Computer Science departments, encouraging them to bring talented programmers into our schools – maybe as part of a workplace scheme or university course.
There is real appetite among passionate Computer Science professionals and enthusiasts to spread their skills and knowledge. The Government just needs to capture, foster and nurture that enthusiasm. Why not give companies who give their staff the flexibility to volunteer at local schools a financial or reputational incentive?
Computers that let children experiment
But this is only half the battle. It’s no use getting talented people into schools if they only have Windows desktops to work with. Schools and headteachers must stop being afraid of computers, of anything that isn’t Windows XP, Internet Explorer and non-proprietary.
Most school’s computer networks are locked by administrators who are both time poor and afraid of giving students the freedom to experiment. Students can’t download new interesting software, like SSH clients, FTP clients and programming environments; software that is the mainstay of any professional programmer’s life. They can’t get their hands on a Linux box to experiment. But to learn, they need to be exposed to this software, and given the freedom to rip it apart and put it back together again.
These days a great deal of professional software is free and open source, meaning that it is freely maintained by the technology community. Schools could download this software and install it for their students for free. Why pay multiple licences when today so many professionals and businesses already use open source software? When school budgets are tight, this kind of innovation could save schools huge amounts of money.
Computer Science is a great opportunity for the UK and its young people. We just need to make sure our schools and teachers confident and ready. And we absolutely must go out and talk to the technology community too. We can’t do this alone.