The Kernel’s political columnist, Joshua Lachkovic, shares his view on Michael Gove’s ambitious plans for Computer Science in British schools.
Back in 2002, a geeky friend of mine sent me an HTML file via MSN Messenger. “I’ve learnt HTML,” he said. “Check this out.” The webpage looked awful: it had frames, stretched images and a disgusting colour scheme. Yet, for all its flaws, I was quietly irritated that my friend had learnt HTML before me.
I realise that this is not typical for teenage boys. Nor was it typical to have attempted to teach myself C++ a year later (an unmitigated failure). I was, quite unreservedly, a computer geek.
Fast forward three years, to my GCSEs. At our school, Information Technology and Religious Studies were both half-GCSEs, which was annoying in itself, but then again they were both very easy subjects. I waltzed into the ICT examination, sat down with an hour or an hour-and-a-half on the clock, raced through the mostly multiple-choice questions, and, after probably only fifteen or twenty minutes, put my pen down and finished. “100 per cent,” I was thinking to myself. “Easy peasy.” I checked through the answers a couple of times, saw no mistakes and sat there counting the number of bricks in our sports hall.
Imagine, then, my incredulity when I opened my GCSE results letter and saw a “B” stamped next to Information and Communications Technology. No-one else could believe it either, but, sure enough, there it was. I already thought ICT was a waste of time, but on results day, for the first time, I knew it was.
ICT taught us how to use Excel – very basically, with chart-making and the most trivial of formulae. It taught us mail merge in Word. It taught us a bit of PowerPoint. We were fortunate enough to be taught by the head of Design Technology, who also taught us to use ProDesktop (easily the most fun we had in ICT – but entirely irrelevant).
People were constantly bored. Many saw no practical application in an Excel formula and already knew how to type a document in Word, justify it, whack it into bold and underline it. The most complicated thing people did with Excel was to save a spreadsheet as a webpage to access the car-racing game.
Farewell to ICT
It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I see Michael Gove launching his new campaign today to rid us of the existing ICT curriculum. Even better, he is not replacing it with something else: he’s giving the schools the freedom to teach it how they want.
Michael Gove dreams of people leaving school with the ability to write a program for their smartphone. That is fantastic. We have a million young people unemployed; those coming up through the education system now must learn to create opportunities for themselves.
Last Sunday, David Cameron said in an interview with Andrew Marr that it would be start-ups that would help this economy recover. He is right.
That said, the Government’s current plan, to recreate Silicon Valley in the east end of London, has been met with some justified criticism. As discussed in today’s Kernel Report, Shoreditch is not, by any means, the ideal location for a tech centre — not least because it lacks a research-based university.
The hi-tech industry is this country’s future, so we need to have a workforce equipped for it. But instead of forcing a tech centre out of nowhere, we need one to expand organically on its own.
Education is the way to achieve that goal.
The two worst things about our ICT lessons in school were (a) their pointlessness and (b) how boring they were. The introduction of Computer Science could change all of that.
Teaching something practical, like how to code a basic application for your smart phone, would be fun, exciting and useful. It would allow those who really enjoyed it to explore coding further and give everyone else a solid grounding of skills that will be useful in later life.
The past twenty years has been a strange period for computer users. When I speak to someone twenty years my senior, they talk about coding apps and games for their Commodore 64 – something that my generation of consumer computer users had no need for, or knowledge of.
If the Computer Science GCSE goes to plan, my generation – especially those who don’t know how to code anything – will become a lost tech generation, with those older than us and younger than us knowing how to code something. (Perhaps it’s time we all start looking at computer science, whether we’ve left education or not?)
The Computer Science reform is yet another great plan to come from Michael Gove and the Department of Education. I wish I had been presented with it as an option throughout my schooling, rather than a half-GCSE into basic word-processing.
It will obviously require teachers with new skill sets, but if teaching computer science is actually rewarding, then it will naturally attract a much higher calibre of teacher.
Who knows? Perhaps if I had been learning to code in a Computer Science class at school, I wouldn’t have given up on C++ so easily. Or perhaps I might have thought to open the code in my friend’s HTML page a little sooner, only to read the words ‘created in Microsoft FrontPage’ in the header.
As it was, it took me months to think to do that, but at least in that time I’d taught myself HTML: something I never would have learnt in school.