UK government's Year of Code gets off to a bad start

UK government's Year of Code gets off to a bad start

Summary: The Year of Code is supposed to teach all the UK's school children to code, but even if you support this fashionable American idea, this doesn't seem to be a useful way to do it


The UK's £500,000 Year of Code project is an attempt to teach the country's 5- to 16-year-olds to code, with the idea that this will help them in their future lives. They will be able to create their own web pages, and a few may even get jobs coding. This is the sort of "motherhood and apple pie" project that the IT industry can unthinkingly support. However, judging by the YearOfCode website, it looks half-baked.

Almost every company that hires staff -- not just IT specialists -- would like them to be more computerate, but is this the way to get them? Not really.

First, it's not clear there is any educational value in teaching children to code, especially not the average 5 to 11-year-old. You'd think an educational project for use in schools would have educationalists involved, and perhaps the support of companies that specialise is this market. But most of the YearOfCode's advisors appear to be the founders of small start-up companies such as Songkick, and one is "Managing Director, Strategy and M&A, British Gas". I'm sure they are all excellent people, but they're not Seymour Papert, Mitch Resnick or Alan Kay.

UK bloggers Tom Morris and Adrian Short have both pointed out the woeful unsuitability of the YearOfCode's advisors, one of whom has already quit. Emma Mulqueeny of Young Rewired State found "advisors" didn't actually do any advising and concluded: "I want nothing to do with this."

Second, the website doesn't offer even the barest details of a viable strategy. Worse, what the project's executive director Lottie Dexter revealed in a BBC Newsnight interview (starting at 5'32") left me with the feeling that it is non-viable. Teachers can't code, and the idea that they will learn enough in one day to teach children to code beggars belief. It doesn't make sense to implement this approach unless it has been thoroughly tested, and there's no evidence of testing on the YearOfCode website.

Lottie Dexter on BBC Newsnight.
Lottie Dexter on BBC Newsnight. Source: ZDNet screen capture

Lottie Dexter admits she doesn't know how to code, and she has no discernible qualifications -- such as educational or work experience -- for the job. However, her Newsnight interview neglected to mention that YearOfCode is an independent charity, isn't setting the curriculum, and isn't producing material for teachers. Apparently that's been done by the British Computer Society, which also got over £2 million to set up a network of 400 Master Teachers to train classroom teachers. In other words, YearOfCode is little more than a PR exercise, which is why it's being run by someone who is basically a PR.

Still, Dexter claims "you can build a website in an hour, completely from scratch". And she's right. Indeed, you can do it in less than an hour if you use a simple template. Whether this teaches you any computer technology skills is another matter. I don't believe it does. At that sort of level, the best it can do is teach you how to use some parts of a mark-up language, which is (being generous) only just coding. It certainly isn't programming. It's not even remotely close to "computer science", of which coding is but a small part.

Third, there's nothing new here: YearOfCode is just recycling some currently fashionable but equally fatuous American techno-romanticism. In the UK, it's a bit of Tory party flag-waving that is meant to make them look like they are doing something about the "skills crisis" when they are not.

What all this has to do with the new computing curriculum, which will be compulsory in UK schools from September, remains a mystery.

Days of future past

It's not as though the UK education system hadn't already made some serious attempts to teach computer literacy. In the 1980s, for example, the government subsidized the sale of Acorn BBC Micros (and other computers) to schools, and the BBC ran an associated computer literacy project that included well-produced TV programmes.

At the time, the coding was in BBC Basic, and some children did learn something, though this expensive project's long-term impact isn't obvious at the moment.

Many UK schools also introduced children to programming concepts using floor turtles and the Logo language. This is far more likely to help develop real computing insights than learning a few HTML tags, though research has shown that even this approach doesn't ensure children understand what they are doing. See: On the cognitive effects of learning computer programming (PDF).

I'm all in favour of trying to teach children technology skills, including coding, but that should be based on what we -- and educational researchers at MIT etc -- have learned over the past 40 years. Useful tools include things like Logo, Scratch, and Pivot's Stickfigure Animator animation program. This also gets round the problem that a great many UK schoolchildren can barely write correct English, and their maths skills are poor by global standards.

Based on the Khan Academy and similar websites, perhaps the YearOfCode's £500,000 would be better spent on creating some YouTube videos that teach children some computer science in an entertaining way. One series that springs to mind is Unplugged, from New Zealand, which manages to do that without even using computers. The short episode on binary numbers, for example, would probably expand Lottie's understanding, and still leave her 53 minutes to finish her website.

Topics: Education, Government UK

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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  • I can build a website

    In 10 minutes using notepad.

    Building a website doesn't mean much and it certainly doesn't require a template. I'll do even better, a website in 60 seconds

    Hello World

    Hello World
    • Stupid tag filters...

      Just image something like this
    • And...

      if it is just HTML, that is like saying "I can write a letter in Word, so I am equipped to become a solicitor."
    • And the example

      Pong game, you aren't doing any coding there at all... :-S
  • Lottie Dexter doesn't know how to code

    Then what's she doing heading the program? It's hard to teach what you don't know yourself.

    There are plenty of techies who know how to teach and are competent administrators (some of them are even photogenic women like Mrs Dexter). The UK Government should have hired one. And given that the budget for this program was 500 million pounds, if the Leader of the Opposition doesn't complain loudly, he's not doing his job.
    John L. Ries
    • Retraction

      I see that YearOfCode is a private charity, so Her Majesty's Government didn't hire her. But it doesn't make sense to have such a project headed by some who can't program and can't teach.
      John L. Ries
      • Goverment involvement

        From what I have read, the government is not supporting the charity directly but is promoting the organization and it's concepts even while calling on more appropriate organizations for material assistance.
    • It isn't about results, it's about intentions

      With intentions, you get to feel good about yourself without actually having to accomplish anything.
    • That these people aren't necessarily professional "educators" may be a plus

      The existing system is run entirely by "professionals". That clearly has not resulted in universal quality.
      • Yes, but...

        ...are amateurs an improvement?
        John L. Ries
  • My opinion, and I have one!

    It's all good, but is like a neon sign being blown about in a breeze that might easily be found in the current weather. It looks good for a moment, then will crash spectacularly as it has no visible foundation or ongoing. The new Computing curriculum is all well and good too, but it suffers from the same problems; no foundation and worse, no ongoing recognition.

    That is to say, OxBridge et al care less about CS. Well, that's not strictly true, but they are less than committed to bashing a few brain cells together and coming up with what they consider is decent prerequisite material for study in such as CS, Engineering and/or the Natural Sciences in terms of "Computational Thinking." A term that makes me cringe and want to run the the comparative safety of a few lagers. However, the term shall suffice for the moment.
  • Political Grandstanding

    I am reminded of the current controversy over supplying each student with an iPad in the Los Angeles School District, with which kids are supposed to learn from allegedly wonderful commercial software. One “bug” in the plan has been a number of kids who understand the device well enough to defeat the restrictions officials have placed on it. Another is that no one actually knows that this will achieve desirable results. It is however, a way for image-focused politicians to claim to be “with it” and “forward looking”.

    One value of simple coding is understanding how quasi-mathematical patterns can correspond to real-world things and events, but rote learning of a few coding skills probably won’t accomplish much; rather like being taught in school (as I was) to sing “O Christmas Tree” in German without knowing anything else about the language. I do believe that it is important for kids to obtain some basic understanding of what computers do (and what they don’t) and roughly how they work; which is likely to include experimentation with some form of code. As for IT jobs: I wonder how many of those (as in the US) are being outsourced to other nations?
  • UK government's Year of Code gets off to a bad start

    no govt program can force kids to become knowledge workers, but it is worth a try to convert some of them by exposing them to computing. the problem seems to be in executing the marketing of this 'year of code' program. "The short episode on binary numbers
  • the gov wasting money

    just pay programmers better, rather than offshoring and people won't need the gov's 'year of code' BS!
    LlNUX Geek
  • Love this post, but want to clarify one thing...

    I have no issue with Lottie Dexter not being able to code, that is not an issue. I can’t code. Well, not the way people code nowadays – BBC Basic was what I was brought up on, by a Father who was obsessed with computers and educational software in the 80s!! I did not choose to take this as a career path, but I do understand it! The issue is that she has not done enough research, has not been properly briefed, does not have the stories, passion or experience (yet) to be the right person for this. The Sarah Palin of Code. But it is not the coding thing, that is not the issue. Nor am I suggesting that I am right for it! I have a full time job, this is not that. It is the actual harm this confusion is causing, and it really has to end. Re Code and children learning how to do it, I recorded an interview over here
    Emma Mulqueeny