Google chairman Eric Schmidt's address to the MacTaggart lecture in August finally brought into public view many of the points myself and others have been making of late.
Schmidt was ‘flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools’. According to the top tech executive, teaching the use of software rather than insight into how it is made is akin to throwing away our great computing heritage.
Though one could dwell on the embarrassing situation that it took the head of a US corporation to finally get the word out that something is badly awry with computing education in the country that produced Alan Turing and the Lyons Electronic Office (the world's first business IT system), I would suggest that our time is better spent on how we improve matters.
One of the barriers to tackling the problem is that it can feel like individuals trying to fight against an entrenched system. Those who think that teaching IT means teaching the use of office tools, and whose careers depend on that approach, appear to hold the influence.
However, there is now a welcome initiative that brings those interested in improving computing teaching in schools together.
The Computing at School Working Group (CAS) aims to promote innovative and exceptional IT teaching. CAS was born out of excitement with the computing discipline, combined with a serious concern that many students are being turned off the subject by a combination of factors that have conspired to make it seem dull and pedestrian. Their goal is to put the excitement back into computing at school, ably supported by the BCS Academy.
I ran a careers workshop at the CAS conference this year, and the energy and commitment of the computing teachers to bringing their pupils the "good stuff" in an inspiring way was clear to see. I left the two days feeling hopeful for the future.
CAS, with their collaborative partner BCS and other industry sponsors including Google and Microsoft, have been active in a number of ways. They have developed a computing curriculum for schools, formed regional hubs, run training workshops and are building resources for teachers. CAS also coordinated a number of regional events for sixth formers during National Science and Engineering Week (of which City University London was one of the hosts). The lobbying work that Simon Peyton-Jones and others are engaged in has shown encouraging signs; those in power are starting to listen.
This has not been achieved with just big steps in the press and corridors of power; the little steps are just as important. This is something that all IT professionals can engage with.
Every school governor who is helped to understand the issues, helps. Every teacher who hears about CAS and joins, helps. Every IT professional who gives up their time for the local school, helps. Every IT industry executive who supports CAS events (whether with money or in kind), helps. There are now even e-petitions to government asking for programming to be taught in schools.
It will be a long journey, but this initiative needs support. As I have said before (in the context of industry offering student placements), the IT profession has the means to secure its own future. Why not look at the Computing at School website and ask - how can I help?
Posted by Andrew Tuson, Department of Computing, City University London