Computing in schools: abdicating responsibility

Here's a thought: if the state really wanted advanced computer coding skills, it would create an elite cadre of talented students picked at about 13 or 14 years old and "streamed" as they used to say. They would follow an elite maths and...

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Here's a thought: if the state really wanted advanced computer coding skills, it would create an elite cadre of talented students picked at about 13 or 14 years old and "streamed" as they used to say. They would follow an elite maths and computing syllabus and have their university education paid for.

It may sound bonkers but 40 years ago this kind of socio-economic engineering was commonplace. I was one of many who followed such a path.

If business really wanted home-grown computer skills it would pay for them. Before the 1944 education act, it was normal for businesses to set up and fund schools. It was overwhelmingly in their interests to do so. They needed higher levels of numeracy, literacy and technical expertise to drive their business in the new competitive world. Unconstrained by league tables or a national curriculum they designed their own utilitarian programmes and funded them.

Thirty years ago, it was also commonplace for British companies to subsidise university education for students destined to work for them.

Obviously from current behaviour neither group actually cares about the issue of home-grown computer skills, but why should that be?

Firstly, sometime in the 1980s, market forces came to dominate government thinking. They correctly recognised the power of the market to act as arbiter of survival, but completely failed to understand that the market was blind.

They attributed sentience to the serious of decisions that constitute the market, a mistake no evolutionary biologist would make when dealing with its sister force ‘natural selection’.

At the same time business was becoming global, progressively severing the link between the nation state and the organisations that it traded in or owned companies in.

These two cultural shifts had a peculiar disembodying effect. There was a sudden and catastrophic abdication of responsibility by, for lack of a better term, ‘grown-ups’. The market was now the arbiter of all things, including education.

What followed next was a predictable extension of that abdication. Children as young as 12 were required to choose, using their judgement alone, what to study in order to define their futures and that of the country. Parents merely acquiesced.

The market provided a wealth of choice of study, and now for 14-16 year old children there are over 4000 approved GCSE and equivalents, all ‘paid for’ qualifications. Moreover, half of these children will soon be choosing their own degree courses from the new university market, with equally silly expensive consequences.

So now we have barely a handful studying Computer Science and nearly a hundred thousand studying Psychology.

We let the market decide our fate and gave the responsibility for the future to our children.

The Dodo lost its wings as in the island where it lived for so long in the absence of predators they became merely an expensive encumbrance. Dodos with smaller and ultimately no wings did better, and had more offspring than their flighted forebears. This is how natural selection works.

They were not to know they would need them when the sailors came.