The school curriculum needs to change radically to equip future British children to cope with the world of work in the 21st century after a generation missed out. So says Saul Klein, a partner at investment company Index Ventures and the former chief executive of movie-streaming site LoveFilm, who feels so strongly that this week he co-hosted a high-powered summit that was split into hour-long sessions on key subjects – just like his dream school day.
Computer coding, design and entrepreneurship - three subjects that are sorely lacking from most schools at present - were among the main “classes” during the day-long event, called Skills 2014, at the Royal Society of Arts in London. Tech entrepreneurs rubbed shoulders with ministers and schoolchildren got to talk to artists and designers.
The big theme was that 2014 should be the Year of Code. The Chancellor, George Osborne, and Education Secretary, Michael Gove, showed up to lend their support to the Government initiative, which will see computer programming taught in all primary schools from September. Martha Lane Fox of lastminute.com fame and ex-BP boss Lord Browne also spoke about coding. There was optimism but also notable was a palpable sense of regret, of past opportunities squandered.
Mr Osborne talked of his own love of computing as a child when he mastered Basic during the days of the ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro (he apparently first got to know the then Ms Lane Fox at the time). But governments failed to keep up that momentum in the Nineties and Noughties, he said, just as a new “industrial revolution” was beginning. “We’re not going to succeed if we’re just users of technology, not creators of technology,” he added.
Mr Gove echoed that, recalling how Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt touched a nerve with his 2011 MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival when he declared Britain had been throwing away its “great computing heritage”, by failing to teach it properly in schools.
Mr Klein and Baroness Lane-Fox are of a similar age as the two ministers and it almost seemed as if this fortysomething generation felt they have an obligation to try to put things right, a quarter of a century after they benefited from school and Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web. “I am absolutely incensed that we have 11 million people that can’t do four things online,” said Lady Lane-Fox.
Or as Lottie Dexter, director of Year of Code, put it: “Our economy has changed but our workforce has not. If we are going to crack sky-high levels of youth unemployment, we must ensure that all young people leave school with the right skills for the jobs market.”
So there is a strong case for today’s kids, who are growing up on smartphones and Instagram, to learn to code. On a practical level, having digital skills is crucial in any new line of work from retailing to engineering. But in more abstract terms, computer programming – the process of trying, failing, iterating and ultimately succeeding – also teaches a more general life skill.
Coding is already a vogue issue. Code clubs such as Code Academy have sprung up around Britain. New ultra-cheap computer kits such as Kano and Raspberry Pi have launched. Supermodels such as Lily Cole have taken an interest. Even Prince Andrew dropped into Silicon Roundabout in east London yesterday to visit Decoded, a company that teaches coding to businesses.
Yet not every child can be a great coder, a point made by Israeli entrepreneur-turned-artist Eyal Gever, who talked at Skills 2014 about his striking art works, which are made by “freezing” computer-generated images and turning them into 3D printed sculptures.
Another speaker, Roland Lamb, founder of ROLI, a London tech start-up that makes innovative musical keyboards that are little more than a strip of digitally enhanced, wave-like plastic, agreed coding is not everything. Instead, he talked about the importance of “interdisciplinary” skills and a wider appreciation of technology and design.
Mr Gever talked about how he tries to “find beauty in crazy things” while Mr Lamb said: “Passion is the number one requirement.”
What is clear, in a digital age, is that coding can help kids achieve their passion. It should be good for the economy too.