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Time to get kids coding again

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This week the cross industry Next Gen Skills campaign launches a ‘call to action’ for local policy makers to support the education of a new generation of computer programmers for our economy.

It might seem counter-intuitive at a time when government reforms are decoupling schools and education authorities that councils should have a role in a new area of study - but we believe that local government, with its renewed focus on growth and economic innovation and its continuing links with educators and local firms, is now in a unique role to help get schools – and children – coding again.

Study after study shows computer programming skills are extremely important to future UK competitiveness.  Being able to programme and understand the principles behind computers are central to all industries which use or develop digital products.

Over the last two decades there has been a severe and growing mismatch in the UK’s education system - from primary to tertiary level – between what schools teach and what UK hi-tech industries need to grow.  The numbers of children taking computing at A-level is woefully low – only around 3,300 a year in England, with the numbers entering university actually in decline over the last decade.  

The UK lost focus at a time when the requirement for computer science as a core skill became more essential than ever before.  In the 1970s and early 1980s there was thirst for creative computing both in the home and in schools, creating a further demand at universities for courses in computer science.  Instead of building on the early successes of the BBC Micro and the ambitious Computer Literacy Project, schools turned away from programming in favour of information and communication technology (ICT), which prepares pupils for the workplace but fails to prepare them as creators in the digital world.

Evidence from world-leading digital creative industries show that the current skills shortage is causing firms to tap international talent pools, rather than home grown talent, in order to maintain competitiveness.

Despite the most digitally innovative industries in the world being British, the education system of 2012 teaches our children how to use software products, but crucially not how to make them.  ICT GCSE was taught via a statutory ‘programme of study’ which left little or no room for computer science or for innovation in how we teach technology.  Indeed, ICT teaching in many secondary schools has been criticised by OfSTED, employers and by pupils voting with their feet.

Today it seems incredible that there is an absence of computer programming in schools and that Britain lacks a strategic plan to address this.  This is where local authorities can step in and drive change. From September 2012 schools will be free to innovate in how they teach ICT – allowing the established curriculum to be refreshed and room for the fundamental principles of computer science to be taught.  This allows a much better conversation with the universities and firms about the skills they need.  

The pace of change is quick, and our fear is that many schools either can’t seize the opportunity for change or it gets lost amid all of the other financial and structural challenges they face.  We want to make sure that the importance of hi-tech skills to the economy is not lost at a local level, either because schools don’t have the resource to train new teachers, or that the links with the local digital economy are not clear. 

With major changes promoting school independence, it is more important than ever that there is a local strategy to respond to new initiatives.  Examination boards are currently developing new GCSEs in computer science, some of which will be ready for use from September 2012.   What we require now is leadership at a national and local level.

Local authorities are in many ways the obvious link between local schools and the business community, our ‘call to action’ asks local authorities to start a discussion locally:

  • Ask schools in your constituency to review what they are doing to promote computer science. You can also help by drawing schools’ attention to the many resources available to help them take advantage of the changes to the ICT curriculum.
  • Ask what steps are schools taking to ensure more girls are taking up computer science and STEM subjects. Computer science skills will be vital for the future economy. We want to make sure everyone is getting the opportunity and encouragement to fulfil their potential.
  • Ask if your local schools need any additional support. This could include funds for additional resource for initial teacher training, continuing professional development or help for after-school clubs.
  • Get local digital and creative firms involved. Engaging with local firms can be an important way to broaden career horizons for school children and support career progression in the hi-tech industries.   

For more information on our call to action see www.nextgenskills.com

Theo Blackwell runs the Next Gen Skills campaign. He is also a cabinet member on Camden LBC

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