Showing kids how to crack the computer code

Entrepreneurs, business leaders and parents are waking up to fact the UK is making a poor job of teaching children programming skills

Gideon Spanier
Saturday 26 October 2013 00:09 BST
Fire Tech Camp children
Fire Tech Camp children (FireTechCamp)

A group of 40 or so enthusiastic boys and girls aged nine to 14 are sitting in clusters in a couple of classrooms at Imperial College in west London. The kids, mostly boys, are on holiday, but they look pretty studious as they stare eagerly at screens. Some are working at computers. Others are typing on smartphones. Another group are controlling a remote-control car they have built themselves.

Welcome to Fire Tech Camp, a course for youngsters to learn to write computer code, which runs during the school holidays and half-term breaks. Kids get to learn a variety of skills from creating video games and mobile apps to building websites and robotics.

Jill Hodges, an American who has lived in London for 17 years, set up the classes herself.

"I have two kids and they went to a tech camp last summer in America and loved it," she explains. "But when I came back to the UK, I realised there was no-one doing anything like this here."

Ms Hodges is running another week-long camp next week over the October half-term holiday at a school in Battersea and hopes to launch more around the country – with Warwick, Brighton and Nottingham in mind.

Fire Tech Camp is part of a grass-roots trend as entrepreneurs, business leaders and parents have woken up to the fact that we are living through a technology revolution but we are doing a poor job in Britain of teaching our children tech skills.

Part of Ms Hodges's motivation is that learning computer and coding skills can instill other life skills – a work ethic, being a team player, design and planning.

"One of the objectives is to understand computational logic. It's useful for lots of other areas of life where you use analysis," she says.

Genevieve Smith-Nunes, who works as head of curriculum with Ms Hodges on Fire Tech Camp, points out that one of the most valuable skills is to learn that "it's not a bad thing to fail – certainly not in a computational experience or from a tech perspective". Trying again and again – the process of iteration – can lead to success.

"It's been quite a challenge," admitted one cheerful 13-year-old, who showed me the games app he was building. "It's hard when you're doing something and you make one small mistake and it can completely ruin the app."

The cost of Fire Tech Camp is not cheap at £495 for the week, but it does offer some subsidised places.

It is no coincidence that Ms Hodges, who hails from Atlanta, Georgia, and studied in Berkeley, California, feels so passionately about coding and computer skills because outsiders often see things more clearly. Eric Schmidt, chairman of US internet giant Google, memorably used his MacTaggart Lecture to the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2011 to criticise Britain's decision not to teach computer science as standard in schools.

"Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage," said Mr Schmidt, referring to the popularity of home computing in the 1980s and how the BBC once used to run kids' TV shows about coding.

Recent school leavers attest to the fact that it can feel as if computer science is marginalised within the curriculum. Alistair Poat, a 20-year-old studying biomedical engineering who helped teach at Fire Tech Camp over the summer, says of his own school days in Sussex: "The facilities are there if you ask – but it isn't handed to you. It really depends on the teacher. There isn't a systematic basis for kids to learn coding. It varies so much."

But things are changing. Martha Lane Fox, the Government's official digital champion and the chair of Go On UK, which campaigns for basic digital skills for adults and children, believes there is now a groundswell of enthusiasm for coding.

"There's more happening than ever before," she declares, referring to organisations such as Code Club, Young Rewired State, Free Formers and Lady Geeks, "and crucially coding has been mandated as part of the primary syllabus from next September".

However, she warns that despite Whitehall's renewed focus on computer science, much more needs to be done – "especially for girls where numbers are going backwards, which is very, very serious". She cites BBC figures that 18 per cent of all 16- to 24-year-olds cannot do four basic things online.

Interestingly, many of those who are most passionate about encouraging coding are women. Clare Sutcliffe and Linda Sandvik are co-founders of Code Club, a nationwide network of free, volunteer-led, after-school coding clubs for children aged 9-11, which they set up last year, while Belinda Parmar is the founder of social enterprise Little Miss Geek, whose mantra is "making technology more accessible to women".

Ms Parmar says grassroots enthusiasm for coding and the rise of tech camps is still very patchy.

"It's become fashionable to code but the fact is girls are not part of this – girls are being left out of this revolution. People do not realise this is a crisis."

While there is a lot of buzz about the Silicon Roundabout area of east London as a new technology hub, Ms Parmar warns "it's not filtering through" elsewhere, particularly among inner-city girls. "The perception of tech is still they are pizza-guzzling nerds."

A key issue, she believes, is that British businesses are not doing enough to help support computer science and coding. The payday lender Wonga, a smart technology business despite the criticism about its lending practices, sponsored free classes, called Wonga Codemasters, for 40 kids at Newcastle football club over the summer but that is a rare example.

Judging by the happy faces at Fire Tech Camp, there is a big appetite among kids to learn more about coding.

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