'Stop throwing your computing heritage away - ignore Alan Sugar,' Google boss tells UK

Eric Schmidt is "flabbergasted" by IT teaching in UK's schools...

The UK gave the world some of the most important technological innovations of the last two centuries but it's now squandering its computing heritage, according to Google boss Eric Schmidt.

Speaking at the 2011 Edinburgh TV festival, Schmidt - formerly CEO of Google and now its chairman - said the UK is wasting its technological talents.

"The UK is the home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice (it's not widely known but the world's first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyon's chain of tea shops!) Yet today, none of the world's leading exponents in these fields are from the UK," Schmidt said as part of the conference's annual MacTaggart lecture.

Schmidt pointed to the failings of IT teaching in schools as one of the reasons why the UK is falling behind in computing.

"I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software but gives no insight into how it's made. That's just throwing away your great computing heritage," he said.

He contrasted the computing landscape in UK schools today with that of the 1980s – when the BBC broadcast programming aimed at children about coding and got over a million BBC Micro computers into schools.

So how can the UK regain its top spot in computing? First, said Schmidt, the friction between techies and individuals from an arts background must come to an end.

"Over the past century, the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There's been a drift to humanities - engineering and science aren't championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other - to use that I'm told is the local vernacular, you're either a luvvy or a boffin."

The UK must return to a golden age where it was common for...

...individuals to have an interest in both science and arts: in "the glory days of the Victorian era... the same people wrote poetry and built bridges," Schmidt said, citing the example of Lewis Carroll – a maths tutor at Oxford as well as the author of Alice in Wonderland.

Improving the standing of the UK's computing industry begins with education: according to the Google chief, children's passion for science, engineering and maths must be reignited, and more places must be made available for young people to study science engineering subjects at universities.

In highlighting the importance of engineering, Schmidt clashed with the UK's own Lord Alan Sugar who, in a recent series of business talent show The Apprentice, fired one candidate with the words: "I've never yet come across an engineer who can turn his hand to business."

Au contraire, according to Schmidt.

"If the UK's creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future, you need people who understand all facets of its integrated from the very beginning. Take a lead from the Victorians and ignore Lord Sugar - bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top."

Last of Schmidt's suggestions for how to restore the UK's computing fortunes was the need for the nation to be better at growing large companies, rather than letting its businesses languish as innovative but small enterprises – a common complaint among the UK's startup community.

"You need to get better at growing big companies. The UK goes a great job at backing small firms and cottage industries, but there's little point getting a thousand seeds to sprout if they're then left to wither or get transplanted overseas. UK businesses need championing to help them grown into global powerhouses, without having to see out to foreign-owned companies. If you don't address this, then the UK will continue to be where inventions are born, but not bred for long term success."

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