Posted on February 4, 2014 by staff

Code X: The Great Programming Conflict


When Education Secretary Michael Gove recently announced that coding is to be introduced to the national curriculum, there was a divide in opinion that wasn’t dissimilar to that of Marmite.

Gove’s plans include teaching computer coding and programming to primary school pupils as young as five from September 2014, in favour of teaching how to use software such as Word and Excel. This, he says, will give those of a young age a core skillset, that will help to shape the rest of their education and – he hopes – careers.

He explained that the current ICT curriculum would be completely withdrawn, to give teachers the freedom to “revolutionise” the subject.

He said in his speech: “Our school system has not prepared children for this new world; the current curriculum cannot prepare British students to work at the very forefront of technological change.”

But while many teachers, parents and politicians champion the move, others have been perturbed, questioning whether the nation’s educators are suitably equipped to deliver effective lessons in something so complex – and those people, are professional coders.

“Over 150 different schools have contacted me since the announcement, because teachers are all saying the same thing – ‘we don’t know how to teach this’,” said Tim Gurney, founder of volunteer initiative Coding in Schools.

“Coding being brought back into the curriculum is a very, very good thing. There’s a 10-year skills gap in the programming environment, and trying to hire a good programmer is nearing on impossible.

“And the move will be great for the industry, and for the country – but the government haven’t thought about the bigger issue, which is ‘how can we teach this, when teachers don’t have the skills?’

“There is so much conflicting information, and so far, very little guidance, so teachers are scrambling around in a panic to put something together.

“Before this is introduced to schools, there needs to be a nationwide initiative that brings together the experts and teachers, to impart the skills, which can then be rolled out across the country’s schools.”

The reservations are certainly shared by industry specialists.

Bob Harrison, education advisor for Toshiba and chair of the UK Department for Education’s expert group on computing, thinks the change will simply create an expensive army of coders with below-par skills, and argues changes to the curriculum could be better utilised.

He recently told The TES: “It’s important for kids to see coding, but that doesn’t mean everybody has to be a coder.

“Toshiba doesn’t employ any coders here because it’s the one thing you can get done far more cheaply outside the UK.

“Rather than creating a massive army of mediocre coders, wouldn’t we be better off creating a much smaller cohort of really, really good coders? The IT industry needs writers, graphic artists – we need technologists.”

Despite this, it remains indisputable that technology is making ground-breaking changes in education. Learning and teaching alike are now driven by interactive apps, touchscreen technology, robotics and online exams.

Creators of the Raspberry Pi – a credit card sized, easily-configurable computer designed to transform computer science in UK schools – are celebrating after making their millionth copy of the product, while more and more extra-curriculum coding clubs are springing up across the country.

But while these modern-age techniques and devices are seen as a great aid to education, this is the first time that exposure to the art behind technology has been given such a presence in schools. Included in the changes are lessons that teach children about internet safety, how to spot danger online and how to keep personal details private in computing lessons.

Prime Minister David Cameron has shown his support for the move, saying coding is exactly what he wants his own children to learn in school, and Bill Mitchell, Director British Computer Society (BCS) Academy of Computing, has welcomed the development, saying: “It is essential we teach our children how to create digital technology and software for themselves. BCS therefore welcomes this proposal as a significant first step towards that goal.”

Though we’ll have to wait another 8 months to see how the new lessons take shape in schools, coder Gurney says the opportunities and potential the changes will offer far outweigh the current pitfalls.

He said: “These digital natives, who have grown up with the internet, tablets and apps, are very familiar and comfortable with technology but have never thought about writing the coding behind it. They’re so responsive to it, and when they are finally exposed to coding they will realise that they, too, can produce incredible things and can make a difference to the world.”