Meet the 16-year-old entrepreneur who's beating the U.K. government at its own game

Western IT education is broken. Meet the 16-year-old British high school student who's taking on the UK government at its own game — one it should be winning.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Image: ThinkSpace

NEW YORK — It's hard to take someone seriously when they're not yet allowed to drive, vote, or secure a mortgage. But that's exactly what makes one 16-year-old uniquely suited to fix Britain's outdated and widely flawed IT education.

Meet James Anderson, a British high-school student, who took it upon himself and his peer-led team to begin filling in the massive gaps left by the British government's aging and decrepit IT education policy.

In the eight years that separate him and I, Britain's IT curriculum has scarcely changed, despite the introduction of smartphones, mobile app culture, social networks, and the modern advancements most take for granted on a daily basis.

James Anderson and his founding team.
Image: ThinkSpace

Bored and frustrated with the day-in and day-out regurgitation of mail merge and spreadsheet equations in his IT class, he pledged to tackle a widespread and global endemic of teenagers leaving school without adequate education, he told CNET in a phone interview.

It's a problem politicians have spent years trying to fix — and not doing a very good job of it. And it's not just the UK, which is ranked sixth in global education behind the likes of Finland and South Korea — the US is ranked 17th. The result: more students coming out of school unprepared or unable to tackle today's jobs. It's a gap Anderson hopes to fill through designated spaces in schools that train them for the jobs that don't yet exist.

Anderson created ThinkSpace in September 2013, a real-world, in-school space in which students learn how to code, develop, and create apps and services that vastly outreaches the bounds of the compulsory IT curriculum — not just in the UK, but also around the world. Constructed to look like Google's offices, with bright colors, comfortable chairs, and top-notch technology, these spaces are designed to inspire and promote creativity. That's a far cry from the dull IT classrooms with outdated furniture and computers that stutter and freeze as soon as you open a Word document.

The non-profit organization's motives and initiatives were enough to entice major tech titan backers, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo, British actor and tech enthusiast Stephen Fry, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley. Virgin chief executive Richard Branson, who also backs the project, has previously said he wants the next major technology company to come from the UK.

Despite Anderson's shared desire to see the UK become the next major tech hotspot, he worries that not enough is being done for today's youth, who could end up founding the companies that puts the UK's Tech City hotspot in the Shoreditch borough of London on the map.

"With our backers and the companies behind us, like Google, Microsoft, and others, I would really hope that the U.K. government would feel the same about it."

Opinion remains split between whether coding and advanced IT classes are as important as the other subjects, like English, math, sciences, the humanities, and languages — not least in the highest ranks of the British government.

At the end of mandatory high-school education in the UK, the GCSE qualifications 16-year-olds walk away with aren't designed to equip students with the skills they need in the real-world, he said. "We're taught how to build very basic websites, and it's all drag-and-drop. You don't learn how to code. You don't learn the deep parts which you would do at [later qualifications, A-Levels] for example."

"Everyone knows how to build a PowerPoint presentation or a spreadsheet, but very few young people know how to build a workable and engaging website from scratch in code," he said. "And it's becoming more and more important that HTML, JavaScript, and Objective-C coding is taught at a younger age."

Anderson said he hoped senior politicians would feel as strongly about it as he and his organization's backers did.

"It's an embarrassment for the UK government that a team of 16-year-olds had to do this for them," Anderson said. Though his current efforts are not to influence policy, he called UK Education Secretary Michael Gove "naive" for focusing on the "wrong policy areas," notably tougher exams for non-compulsory education, teacher pay and pensions, and a new qualification that was ultimately rejected by the UK Parliament less than a year later. At least three national teaching unions in 2013 passed a vote of no confidence in Gove's policies.

Although Anderson agreed with some of the Education Secretary's policies, in practice he said they are were not coming to fruition, which in part led to his initiative.

Anderson's non-profit was born out of being a first-hand casualty of an outdated education system that he found necessary to fill in. He said he could not ignore the fundamental flaws in British education — and further afield.

"This is about making the whole experience to school fun again, and bringing life to coding and computer science," he explained. Describing his own IT lessons as "mundane and pointless," he noted that many of the things taught have very little relevance to the outside world. Students who use the spaces have the utmost level of freedom they can be afforded to build projects and their own products, he said.

"We don't tell them what to build, we're just there to give support — particularly the older students helping the younger ones," he said. "We're just there to be a support net for them."

Anderson's venture was not just spurred on by his love for technology, but also because of the UK's inability to keep ahead of the times.

Starting out by simply searching online "how to build an iPhone app," he was enlisted by his school to build a homework tracker and organizational app for his fellow students. That led him down a path of extra-curricular learning and app development, which helped him reach a level vastly ahead of his peers.

Without a developer license for Apple's App Store, he invested £59 ($99) of his own savings into the project, which he wasn't reimbursed for. "I was just lucky to have that available… you can still go out and create apps for fun if you don't have any money," he explained, noting that it still costs to publish.

"I really wanted to jump onto the bandwagon and be a part of it. If there is something new, I want to be a part of it."

By invested his own Christmas and birthday money to build apps, it would eventually lead to him amassing a small fortune — an amount he did not disclose, but said was enough to put him through university. That wasn't blown on clothes or fast cars — he's not yet allowed to drive. His profit was reinvested back into his own venture in order to speed up his work and develop his ideas to benefit his project faster. That means faster computers and equipment so he can produce the results he wants within a strict timeframe.

The rest is stashed away for university, which he says is a long-term goal but for now merely an option.

"I'm taking a ridiculously large risk," he said, talking about his venture. "But it's always good to have a backup plan, with qualifications and university, as they're still extremely important regardless of what you end up doing."

The very first space, built in Anderson's own school, Devonport High School for Boys based in Plymouth, UK, has become a real-world showcase for other schools around the country and the world to replicate. So far, schools in Northern Ireland, the U.S., Singapore, and Israel have spent between £5,000-£7,000 ($8,340-$11,700) on their own spaces to accommodate their students' extra-curricular coding activities.

Anderson's greatest concern is finding schools able to fund their own in-house spaces. His team doesn't drum up the funding; instead they provide blueprints to spaces and ask schools to dig into their own budgets. "We don't have any money," he said. "We're essentially volunteering our time, helping schools and their students."

He admitted it has been a hurdle asking schools with already stretched coffers to cut a check for their own spaces — particularly in the UK where cuts continue to run deep in educational circles. But, he says, it's a small investment in their schools and their students' educations.

Tens of thousands watched the non-profit's launch video, which reached more than 15 million people thanks to its backers. By the end of the first week, Anderson said more than 400 schools emailed him interested in building their own in-school spaces.

Anderson's vision is simple enough. The schools benefit by keeping ahead of the curve, and students' education is enriched by knowledge they may not get anywhere else.

So long as the offering is there, the potential for students is limitless. The best-case scenario? "You help someone create the new Angry Birds," he said.

This story also appeared on sister-site CNET.

Editorial standards