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Code Club: After-school group teaches children how to become programming whizz kids

It's something we should all learn, says Rhodri Marsden.
  • @rhodri

It's a sad fact that computers don't speak our language. Gentle persuasion is useless, and phrases they can make sense of – e.g. {return ua.indexOf(t)>-1;} – are like gobbledygook to most of us. As our reliance on computer power increases and applications become more complex, the prospect of learning how to harness that power becomes ever more daunt ing – not least because this stuff isn't taught to us when we're young.

Code Club, an initiative dreamt up by two friends and enthusiasts, Clare Sutcliffe and Linda Sandvik, aims to change this by giving primary school children a grounding in programming. "The UK needs to address the fact our kids aren't taught such a vital skill," says Sutcliffe. "Now we're in a digital age, it's farcical not to teach children how to program computers." Hers is a view that resonates; since they first aired their idea in April, 190 primary schools and 1,750 volunteers have signed up to try and make these after-school clubs a reality.

A pilot scheme is running at Soho Parish School, tucked around the corner from Piccadilly Circus in London's West End. Simon Wharton, a Code Club volunteer and computing graduate, is waiting for his group of 15 children to arrive, who range from eight to 10 years old. "I wish this had been around when I was a kid," he says. "No one did this kind of thing for me. When I did computing at A Level, it was terrible; our teachers had no real training as teachers, they didn't have the right source material and were teaching stuff that was already out of date. I don't know if things have changed since then, but I imagine it's probably for the worse, judging by the fact that it's taken Clare and Linda – two volunteers – to start this thing up."

This is the fourth session here and as teacher Laura Kirsop gets the preliminaries out of the way ("Read your worksheets carefully! Don't shout out loud to Simon!") you sense that the kids are itching to get to it. As Wharton, a man with the cheery demeanour of a Blue Peter presenter, wishes them "good luck and have fun", they rush to log in.

Most of the children are working towards the final stages of Code Club's Level 1, which involves assembling a game called Whack-a-Witch. "There are loads of different witches, and you have to whack them," explains Keval, who's collaborating with his friend Andre. "We've just made a script so when you click on the witch it disappears, and it makes a fairy dust noise." He demonstrates some successful witch-whacking, with accompanying sound effects. "Now we have to get a scoreboard and a timer up there," says Andre, "which might be challenging!"

The Code Club exercises utilise a programming environment called Scratch, developed and made available for free by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which allows beginners to get their heads around the rudiments of coding. The building blocks of the code are represented by graphical elements which you drag onto the screen to create sequences; if such-and-such happens, then such-and-such will occur. Sutcliffe and Sandvik's main task was to expand, rewrite and repurpose these Scratch exercises to create a suitable course.

"It's really difficult to look at things through the eyes of a nine-year-old," says Sutcliffe. "For example, it became clear to us that some kids put Scratch scripts together in a pictorial way – just matching the instructions – rather than understanding why they're doing it. So we've reworked the material for the 70 clubs that we're starting in September."

Some of the children in Soho, however, are naturals. Klareze and Effie have whizzed ahead to Level 2 and are already working on a game called Fish Chomp, which brings in randomisation and design concepts. "She's done Scratch before," says Effie, of her friend, "so she's teaching me." Klareze gives a world-weary look. "Yeah," she says, as she idly draws glasses on an on-screen lobster, "I'm waiting for her to catch up." Effie sees the lobster and giggles. "That looks great! Let's use that." Soon the bespectacled lobster is being pursued by an angry shark, much to the girls' delight.

Wharton's request that the kids "have fun" was pretty superfluous; they're all totally absorbed, and you find yourself puzzling why such a useful skill is absent from the curriculum. "There are some schools who have got kids using Scratch," notes Sutcliffe, "but that's entirely down to frustrated, pro-active teachers who are willing to start a club. Code Club makes it easier for them because the course is structured and ready to use."

Parent power has seen a number of primaries approach Code Club to ask about starting courses in September – partly triggered by the popularity of a YouTube video (bit.ly/codeclubvid) where the likes of Tim Berners-Lee, Prince Andrew, YouTube's Chad Hurley and Tessa Jowell are grilled by a panel of children. "What can you bring to Code Club?" they demand, somewhat aggressively. And while the video is funny, you could equally see it as a serious message from a generation: "Look, we don't know how to program computers, and we want to know who on earth is going to show us."

Sutcliffe and Sandvik have further plans for Code Club, such as exploring real-world applications by hooking up cheap computers such as the Raspberry Pi to Lego Mindstorm kits. "It's difficult, because the hardware can be expensive," says Sandvik, "but programming a robot – that's thrilling. Kids love it. That's the kind of thing we're planning on introducing."

And what happens beyond Code Club? "Hopefully after two years with Code Club," Sandvik continues, "they'd be inspired to strike out on their own and explore languages like JavaScript." Looking around the room at these kids, thrilled at seeing their own creations coming to life, you can certainly imagine that happening.