UK Government Backs Year Of Code Campaign, Boosts Funds To Teach Code In Schools

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Modern governments have a problem. The Internet is becoming increasingly important to the future of economies, and yet the skills associated with it remain – for the most part – far down the priority order in terms of education policy. Amongst these governments, only a handful are putting in formal, structural, systems in place to teach coding from the earliest levels – amongst them are New Zealand, South Korea, the US, Israel and the UK.

In the UK the issue has rocketed up the political agenda, in part by the explosion of startups emerging from the country. This year the UK will be the first major G20 economy to place coding at the heart of the school curriculum on a national level. It’s an auspicious time: This year marks the 25th anniversary of the web, given to the world by British scientist, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Today, at the Skills 2014 Summit conference in London the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Education Secretary Michael Gove announced a new initiative to train teachers in software coding to encourage these core skills and by implication, technology entrepreneurship.

The Government will put up £500,000 in matched-funding which will be awarded to ‘expert computing organisations’ willing to provide another 50 per cent of funding for projects to train teachers in delivering the new tech-oriented computing curriculum. UK businesses will be given the opportunity to bid for a portion of the fund later this month.

While £500,000 sounds like a relatively small amount of money given the scale of the problem, a government spokesperson told TechCrunch that the funding ought to be seen in the context of existing commitments in the area.

These include providing the British Computer Society with more than £2million to set up a network of 400 ‘Master Teachers’ to train teachers in other schools and provide resources for use in the classroom. There is also £1.1 million committed to the ‘Computing at School’ project to help train primary teachers already working in the classroom – through online resources and in school workshops. And the government has also increased bursaries for those wanting to become computing teachers. Scholarships of £25,000 – backed by Microsoft, Google, IBM and Facebook – are being offered to computer science teachers.

The overall idea is to equip schools to teach the new computing curriculum to be introduced in September this year. The curriculum was designed with input from the Royal Society of Engineering, and tech industry leaders such as Google and Microsoft.

This new funding is part of the UK government’s backing for the UK’s Year of Code, a campaign modelled loosely on the Hour of Code programme from the US.

The campaign will encourage the adoption of computer programming amongst teachers and children. The campaign has the backing of organisations including BBC, CodeAcademy, CoderDojo, , Decoded, FreeFormers, Founders4schools, and Young Rewired State, amongst many others.

To kick start the campaign there is an introduction to programming in the form of learning to build a Moshi Monsters-themed Pong game, built by Kano, the startup backed by Saul Klein of Index Ventures.

The Year of Code campaign will see a series of events take place over the next 12 months to promote computing. It will include a week-long programme in March encouraging all UK schools to teach every pupil at least one hour of coding in that week.

It replaces the old ICT programme of study, which focused on computer literacy, with more up–to–date content teaching children how to code, create programmes and understand how a computer works. The government has ordered coding become compulsory for every child aged 5-16 years old.

Rohan Silva – a former special adviser to the UK Prime Minister on the tech startup sector – will be chairman the Year of Code. He’l be joined by Lottie Dexter, founder of the Million Jobs Campaign, who’ll be the Director of the campaign.

Saul Klein, partner at Index Ventures, which is supporting the Year of Code – and one of its main drivers – said: “We grew up with the three Rs. But this critical change to our curriculum means our children will now grow up with the three Rs and a C.”

Other institutions are joining in the initiative. Google has put more than £1 million over the last year to support organisations like Code Club and Teach First, while Microsoft has a “Switched On Computing” teacher training roadshow.

According to research commissioned from pollster YouGov, knowledge of technology amongst the UK’s population is now considered as important as reading, writing and basic maths.

In the survey of 4,000 adults, the study found that nearly 60% of those questioned thought computer coding was a vital skill for today’s job market and 94% considered general IT skills to be essential to work-readiness, as important as literacy and numeracy. Some 94 per cent of those with children aged 5-16 consider computer skills to be important for today’s job market, the same number as those who say the same of literacy and 95 per cent who say the same for numeracy. In London, 98 per cent believe computer skills to be important, higher than those who rate both numeracy and literacy to be vital. By contrast, only 62 per cent of parents across the UK believe it is important to know a foreign language.

Parents are also keen to make sure their children leave school with better computer skills. Only 19 per cent of adults say they are ‘very good’ with personal computer skills and 13 per cent admit they are ‘fairly bad’. But most never learned code as youngsters and many have never learned it since.

The poll also discovered that only 10% of adults knew how to code, yet nearly 50% of those polled said that they would like to learn. Some studies suggest that nearly 50% of today’s jobs could be taken over by technology and automation within two years

These latest initiatives come in the wake of a recently launched campaign from Facebook, Barclays and FreeFormers to teach digital skills called ‘Web for Everyone‘, launched by Martha Lane-Fox, former UK Digital Skills Champion and chair of Go On UK.

The Year Of Code is a great initiative to promote technology, entrepreneurship and creative thinking. But it contrasts somewhat markedly with the government’s recent enthusiasm for dated teaching methods such as teaching Classics and punishing students by making them write “Lines”.

Hopefully lines of code won’t be seen as an exercise in punishment…

Meanwhile, the Year of Code programme itself is introduced in its official launch video, below.