Program or be Programmed, it starts at school

It would seem that even the IT industry is fed up with England’s IT education syllabus. A number of IT companies, most of them US subsidiaries have issued a “report” seeking to influence the quality of IT teaching in England. In an article, called “Coding the New Latin”, the BBC report,

Today, the report is dated 28th Nov, the likes of Google, Microsoft and other leading technology names will lend their support to the case made to the government earlier this year in a report called Next Gen. It argued that the UK could be a global hub for the video games and special effects industries – but only if its education system got its act together

The BBC continue

But the problem, according to those campaigning for change, begins at school with ICT – a subject seen by its detractors as teaching clerical skills rather than any real understanding of computing.

It seems that these Hi-Tech companies argue that teaching in schools focuses too much towards using office software, by which we all mean Microsoft Office. Despite suggesting that we aim higher, the first quote points our children at the Entertainment industry and not computer design, manufacturing nor system software engineering.

My experience as an observer, and parent of school students is that the syllabus for our brightest and most committed IT students is exclusively about using Microsoft Office products. Frankly this bores the brighter students. This boredom was compounded at the turn of the century, if not today, by the decision taken by many schools to teach the GNVQ syllabus, and not the GCSE National Curriculum. This decision was taken because good GNVQs scored more highly than the GCSE in the school league tables and it could be taught (sometimes) with the same time commitment.

Let me assure you that the GNVQ IT syllabus is boring as fuck, requiring a very narrow rote based skill set demonstrating the ability to write a letter using Microsoft Word. There is no HTML, no CSS, no SQL, no scripting, no programming and very little hardware. My children didn’t  even open up a computer to examine the parts or to learn about, what are now called, user installations, such as memory DIMM installs. NOr did they even teach anything useful like how to configure an internet gateway or set a password on the router!

This shockingly unambitious syllabus is worsened by teaching staff in many cases with limited real experience of IT or Computing.

Today I go to seminars where senior software development managers are crying out with frustration that Universities aren’t turning out skilled programmers. In Britain we are struggling to write innovative code and code is constrained only by imagination ( and the speed of light).

Europe and the UK’s system software business is tiny, there’s only one European CPU and no European computer manufactures. Even in the mobile business we are in retreat with the demise of Psion and Nokia. We are almost at the point where all Europe’s computer scientists work for US companies.

So at last, even some of the campaigners for the current curriculum recognise that it’s 20 years too old. The reality is it’s designed to prepare us as consumers of foreign software and not to prepare us to be wealth creators in the 21st century. We need change to encourage our best to work in IT and Computer Science, and contribute to the IT platform which will be the base for the next generation’s wealth creation and our, by which I mean those who want them soon’s, pensions.


This is meant to be a rant about the British education system and so I have two postscripts

  1. The UK’s early specialisation makes this an issue of crucial importance. People that fail or give up at GCSE (16) will be most unlikely to study such a subject at either “A” level (18_ or University.
  2. I reckon that the Scottish Assembly has control of the Scottish curriculum. It seems odd to write about an English issue, but that’s how is as far as I know.

However, we can’t look at Education in isolation to certain macro- and industrial economic developments,

  1. ARM is a beacon.
  2. Nokia have given up, and soon most phones will use US authored operating systems; Nokia shit-canned their own phone operating systems.
  3. Siemens is a system software licensee, the big European integrators don’t do system software.
  4. MySQL AB (Sweden) sold itself to Sun Microsystems.
  5. Canonical Ltd. is a UK quoted company, is this the last of the European Linux distros?

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