Our children are surrounded by computers at school and at home. They run their social lives through mobile devices, immerse themselves in video games and get a top-up dose of ICT in the National Curriculum. You would be forgiven for thinking that computers are the one thing that no modern pupil is missing out on.
But you couldn't be more wrong. In fact, the narrowness of how we teach children about computers risks creating a generation of digital illiterates, and starving some of the UK's most successful industries of the talent they need to thrive.
I've been privileged to work in the UK's world-beating video games industry for more than two decades. The games business exemplifies a range of industries where the UK has an advantage: it requires a combination of technical expertise and creative flair, the marriage of art and science. And it makes a real contribution to our troubled economy: with more than £2bn in global sales. The industry relies on a skilled workforce that can adapt to furious rates of technological change. Unfortunately the education system has not kept up with the changing world and is not meeting the needs of creative digital industries.
There are computers in our classrooms but, for the most part, they are not used effectively. The National Curriculum requires schools to teach not computer science but ICT – a strange hybrid of desktop-publishing lessons and Microsoft tutorials. While Word and Excel are useful vocational skills, they are never going to equip anybody for a career in video games or visual effects. Computer science is different. It is a vital, analytical discipline, and a system of logical thinking that is as relevant to the modern world as physics, chemistry or biology. Computer science is to ICT what writing is to reading. It is the difference between making an application and using one. It is the combination of computer programming skills and creativity by which world-changing companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Zynga are built. Indeed, in a world where computers define so much of how society works, I would argue that computer science is "essential knowledge" for the 21st century.
I am neither an educationalist nor a computer scientist but what I do know from my experience in the video games industry is the importance of real computer skills – and how hard it is to recruit them in the UK. Tasked by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey and working with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), I published with Alex Hope this year a review of skills necessary for the video games and visual effects industries. Next Gen details 20 recommendations for Government, educators and industry (see nesta.org.uk), and highlights the poor quality of computer teaching in schools as one of our biggest obstacles to growth. This frustration is common to other sectors not usually associated with computing, from financial services to designing jet engines. Companies like Rolls-Royce and GSK depend on great programmers as much as games companies do.
Teachers I've talked to since Next Gen's publication mostly agree with our findings, saying they too are frustrated by the narrowness of ICT. Recommendation 1 is to bring computer science into the National Curriculum as an essential discipline; Recommendation 5 is to include art and computer science in the English Baccalaureate.
In the 1980s, the BBC Micro was the cornerstone of computing in British schools and the Sinclair Spectrum was the affordable computer for programming at home. So what happened? What was the thinking inside the Department for Education that resulted in the shift to schools teaching children to use proprietary software rather than create their own? Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, said in his recent MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh that the UK was "throwing away your great computer heritage" by failing to teach programming in schools. On art and science, he said, "Over the past century, the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. You need to bring art and science back together." The Prime Minister was obviously listening. Talking this month at east London's Tech City, David Cameron said, "I think Eric Schmidt is right ... we're not doing enough to teach the next generation of programmers."
Today sees the publication of the Government's official response to Next Gen, which I await with great anticipation. Since Eric Schmidt's speech, the review has gathered increasing support from organisations and companies such as Google, Microsoft, Intellect, the IPA, Talk Talk, the British Computing Society, the British Screen Advisory Council, NESTA, UKIE, Skillset, E Skills and others. UKIE, the video-games-industry trade association, has led this cross-sector coalition to take forward the report's recommendations. While I would not expect the Government to go so far as to announce that computer science will be included in the National Curriculum in the near future, I am now hopeful that there has been a realisation that it is essential knowledge for the 21st century. It would be very encouraging if a door at the Department for Education would now open to lead to curriculum reform.
It's no coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was taught computer science at school, a subject which gave him practical skills and provided the intellectual underpinnings of his business. Faced with a world in which they will be surrounded by computers and the opportunities they create, Britain's schoolchildren deserve the same chance to succeed.
Ian Livingstone is life president of the British video-game publisher EidosReuse content