Teach our kids to code e-petition

So after declaring that this would not become a personal mission for me in my post: year 8 is too late it has become a personal mission.

The petition is appallingly written. In my defence it was a brutal, and random, word count; I had to keep removing chunks of copy and keep trying to submit it, until suddenly it worked (no the word count that it eventually allowed through bore no relation to the word count originally stated… bug?). Anyhow, this terrible prose means that many have tried to explain it through writing their own explanatory blog posts and I thought I had better have a bash at explaining the background better myself.

What do I mean by code?

The word coding is a slang term for computer programming, used because programming basically means writing source code. Source code can be written in any number of languages (such as Ruby, Python and a gazillion others) and is the method used to instruct a computer to execute a series of actions. These actions are understood by the computer in what is known as binary code, that lovely series of ones and zeros loved by Hollywood futuristic films



When I wrote the post about teaching kids to code in Year 5, that this would address the nerdy image and encourage more female coders, I was focusing more on the immediate and tertiary “brand” issue that geekery has in this country. It is not yet awesomely cool to be able to build digital tools that shape the way the rest of us operate in our worlds, both social and work-based. Not in the UK anyway. And I could see this having a profound effect on our worldwide digital economy and reputation in the very near future – this drives me insane and I just could not understand why people were not a bit miffed by this.

Then I read a book called Program or be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff please buy it and read it, even if you just read the Preface and Introduction, it is one of the most important books of our age. Here is a bit:

The real question is, do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it? “Choose the former,” writes Rushkoff, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”

When I read this book – my slight irritation at the fact that programming was not taught as a part of the curriculum, nor indeed seen as important by parents – it became a far greater philosophical concern, and one that I thought I had to really throw myself into doing something about.

I want my children to have choice, to be able to operate the world they grow up into, not just be driven by it. It’s not just being able to code, in any case, it is understanding computational thinking, really being aware of the value of the frontal lobe over the relative intelligence of the computer programme – are we really going to allow our kids to blindly stumble into a future so utterly dependent on digital tools and products, without giving them the chance to be the demi-Gods who sit behind these things, telling them what to to, and thereby us what to think?

Ben Hammersley used to say to me, the Foreign Policy of this country is not what the Foreign Secretary says it is, it’s what Google says it is. You could argue this fact, but it is broadly true, and now you could perhaps replace ‘google’ with ‘twitter’. Ben has transcribed a speech he gave to the IAAC – please go and read it, it is similarly essential reading.

Rushkoff says in his book that the difference between being able to code and not being able to code, is like being the driver or the passenger (not, as some people think, the difference between the driver and the mechanic). Think about that for a minute, and take a look about you, it’s true.


Now I am very definitely not alone here. Many people are making lots of noise about this: writing stuff, lobbying Ministers, pestering the Department of Education, meeting, planning, tweeting – you name it, it’s done. The movement is definitely gathering energy and people are beginning to come together around this topic. All I have done, apart from Young Rewired State of course, is start the e-petition bit of this process; as it is the only way we have a real hope of this being debated in Parliament, even if it is in a year’s time and even if it is not guaranteed to be debated, even with 100,000 signatures.

But what it *does* do, is give everyone who is out there a public place to point, with a decent number of signatories: 1,180 it its first 7 days and growing. (We do need to up its rate of growth if we are to reach 100,000 in a year, but this is why understanding the need for it is so important.)

Please note:

I am NOT saying that teaching programming in schools should replace ICT. ICT teaches you how to operate the digital tools now so paramount to our lives, of course we still need what we can fondly now refer to as traditional ICT. However, it is only half the story – we need to start teaching the other half, and fast.

Please sign the e-petition, and share it, tweet it, blog it, send it to your mate who is in the media and get them to talk about it.


Tim Rogers, a Young Rewired Stater and one of the founders of the fabulous Silicon Britain blog, has written his own piece on this, and it is worth hearing the voice of a young digital star http://www.siliconbritain.com/2011/09/computer-science-in-the-uk-is-year-8-too-late/.

52 responses

  1. Emma

    Great post. Great campaign. Great idea.

    I think what is missing now is the marketing. And the key thing here is the target demographic. At present you are focussed on the politicians. But where do the kids come into it?

    Suppose we are lucky and next year parliament debates this, and then decides to do something, and MichaelG changes his mind, and something-interesting-and-useful-is-done, etc etc, how are we going to convince the kids that it is an interesting and useful thing to study.

    That’s not just going to happen overnight. We need to make coding cool, not geeky. We also need to have a number of quick wins, easy examples of stuff that is cool and interesting and useful. So maybe a simple game, perhaps for phones or online, which is simple to program and cool to play.

    We also need some cool role models. Stephen Fry is funny, but he’s not really a role model. So we need to move some young coders into the c-list celeb arena. Can we get a cool young coder onto Big Brother or similar?

    That’s the sort of thing that will get the kids interested and engaged.

    • I agree Feargal, and this is what I have been trying to do through Young Rewired State, which is getting bigger every year. I did write a bit about this in the post Year 8 is Too Late, about getting it in early, but you are right, it needs some Zuckerburg style British superstars. It is only the beginning.

      • How about trying to use media contacts (I think you know one or 2) and coding contacts to try and raise the profile of coding in the media. Some ‘good-news’ stories or interesting personal profiles.

        How about the TweetDeck guy? Ask him to do some PR for the cause. And try to push the ‘coders are normal people’ side of things. Sometimes we (you? they?) come across as a little nerdy (which we can be!). Are there young coders that are also good at football/skateboard/guitar/etc/etc? A little bit of exposure of their other sides might be interesting.

  2. Great campaign. After seeing Anna Debenham at updateConf with her talk on Digital Natives (http://lanyrd.com/2011/updateconf/sggxw/) I have been inspired to go and do something about this myself. Only a few days later I found your petition. Great to see some momentum forming.

    Being only a few years since I left school I know exactly what ICT in schools is like and it really isn’t up to scratch. Getting coding in schools will be great but the rest of the curriculum needs updating so it is relevant and useful for children stepping into the outside world. Everything I use for my day to day job I have self taught.

    I have registered as a STEM Ambassador to visit schools, colleges to help in lessons, careers etc… Signed up on teaching forums where I have found topics about coding in schools, i’ll drop the petition link on there later today.

    Aral Balkan & Anna are visiting a school today and showing off coding in Carona & Physics engines (http://twitter.com/aral). He overheard “This is so much fun!” which just shows children do enjoy it.

  3. Hi Emma,

    I’m also finding the ‘traditional ICT’ very frustrating, and I’m trying to get my daughters to do more creative stuff with the computers at home. They know mummy builds websites and they naturally want to learn more. Most kids don’t have this opportunity.

    However, I’m trying to get their school interested in getting the kids to experiment more with technology. We have started with small steps but it’s a bit daunting for the teachers!

    Well done for starting the campaing 🙂

  4. Mark Henderson of the Times has just announced on Twitter that David Willetts has announced coding will be part of the curriculum and in a GCSE – so at least some of the message has been getting through (haven’t heard details yet to know whether they will introduce coding as early as Year 5 – but if it’s in the curriculum, that’s a good starting point.
    As for the ‘marketing,’ that’s where a wider range of us can really help, probably. We need to write about and include in videos etc cool geeks and coding more. We know people in art, fashion, and music who use some coding to make/do cool stuff. Some of you know people who work in television, newspapers, magazines, games companies etc that could feature cool coders and coding…
    We may need first to persuade some more adults that it’s a good idea, but we can do that.

    (and, please, not like Zuckerberg – British geeks can be so much cooler!)

  5. I support your effort to have programming introduced to children in school at an early age. I also believe there is some evidence that ‘programming’ is a ‘model of thought’, like mathematics, language, music. There is good evidence that good programmers are more than 10x more effective than poor (but professional) programmers, and it is hard to believe that is purely a result of education and training.

    I am so committed to helping people to learn to program, that I became a a STEM ambassador several years ago (I also taught Computer Science in the 80’s, so I am definitely committed to the subject). I spend some of my time, every week of the school year teaching children to program. I also believe adults, who maybe missed out, or are too old, should have the opportunity to learn to program, so I run public workshops too.

    But I don’t feel that I can sign your petition without understanding it properly. If it were a simply:
    “Start teaching programming as a part of the curriculum in Yr 5.
    We need an increased number of young people with an ability to program and challenge each other to design and build the (world class) digital products that we have not even begun to imagine. ”
    I would sign it.

    An obstacle is I don’t understand that some of the petitions assertions are true . I also think it might be helpful to add some phrase, e.g. “world class”, to establish that this is not an education-centric level of quality that we should aim for. Finally, I think rather than “… and maybe even an increased number of young people”, it would be unambigous to remove the “maybe even”

    What I would like to understand is your sources of evidence that “… by the time those kids are drawn up through the education system, there would be far less of a disparity between the sexes …”.
    I infer this to mean either teaching *anything* at Year 5 reduces gender bias, or is this assertion purely about programming?

    Also, what is the evidence that “… Year 8 is too late, we are losing the female coders …”? Some of the items google turns up suggests that it is the ‘image’ of the activity, and the way it is ‘marketed’ which has a significant impact on uptake, and not the age at which the subject is first taught. If this were incorrect, then many subjects which are never taught at school would have almost no students at university. AFAIK, there is also some anecdotal evidence that ‘image’ and ‘marketing’ matter a lot. For example after CSI (the TV crime scene investigation) or Time Team (archaeology) became popular, student applications increased dramatically. Also, as an example, a Norwegian study suggests even when results from school are comparable, women may choose not to pursue study in an area because of the way the subjects are marketed http://eng.kifinfo.no/nyhet/vis.html?tid=73373

    Maybe we need some great TV about programmers, and programming as a critical and fascinating activity which involves normal people, and not just ‘nerdy boys’? I feel the issue of marketing and uptake of univerity study or jobs is separate, and should either be clarified or removed from the petition.

    Summary: the core intent to teach programming to children at an early age has by total support, but I am confused about other parts, and I am *very* concerned to minimise confusion when asking the politicians to implement something on out behalf.

    • I am sorry that you can’t sign the petition, I do understand your frustrations and of course I would LOVE to edit the petition, but ti is not allowed (I did ask).

      However, fear not – I can guarantee you that Parliament will not be debating this subject purely on the words I wrote in the petition.

      Also, for the background you asked for on Year 8 is Too Late, that is all in a different post of that title, on this blog and linked to at the very first point in this blog post. No science 🙂

      • Emma thank you very much for clarifying “I would LOVE to edit the petition, but ti is not allowed (I did ask)”. That settles that (none) option.

        My fear is caused by my interpretation that there are several different issues raised by your petition. This is likely even more confusing when there are several further voices saying somewhat different things.

        I look at the government record on implementation, and it is not good.
        Who would have claimed that having a national curriculum, and ways to compare schools was inherently “a bad thing”? But I think parents I know feel our children are *not* better off now than before it was introduced.

        I really do believe that government action can make a situation worse.

        A scenario might be the government chooses, say, a “Nanosoft” product (I am using “Nanosoft” as label, could be anyone) for the ‘Year 5 initiative’ …
        Government explains “only Nanosoft were willing to discount 80%, down to only £x million/year for an 8 year contract. Government ministers forced them to agree to change their product to support access to Open Data. They have agreed to address the gender imbalance by involving female role models from East Enders and Big Brother in their marketing campaign.
        To ensure the widest possible uptake, parents of school children in Year 5 will be able to buy copies of the software at that same discounted rate. …”
        A government spokesperson explained “No other company would discount so heavily, and agree to all our demands to address …. “.
        They went on, “some other suppliers tried to downplay the importance of our broad and detailed specification, which was developed over the last two years, in consultation with all of the respected, long-established IT companies in the UK. At least one supplier claimed their product already addressed all the specification, but also claimed they were too small to afford the resources to participate in our rigorous vetting process. Their excuse was their software is not commercial. They offered to hire extra developers on our behalf to ensure the product fitted all our needs during the one year pilot, but we are not in the software development business. We must be cautious with our children’s future. So it is clear that we have made the only reasonable decision.”

        Anyway, kudos for taking the initiative.

  6. Important campaign – I have signed.
    I completely agree with you that kids should have the chance to do some coding in schools, starting at primary level, even (especially?) the ones who will never write code later on. If everyone had an inkling of how the digital tools and products that we depend on came to be so powerful, how might they use those tools differently or make different choices? Thought-provoking stuff – I’d better read that Rushkoff book …
    Thanks for kicking the petition off.

  7. This may be a dumb question, but I’ll write it anyway.
    Is our ability, as a species, or even as a nation, to advance in science and technology limited by our ability to identify celebrities and ‘cool people’ who apply technology or science?

    I genuinely hope not.

    I may be very out of fashion, but to me it is the subject, and what we can do with it, not a ‘cool celebrity’, which is fascinating and important. My suggestion to ‘market’ normal people doing interesting things with technology is *not* to focus on the ‘coolness’ of the people. The people are ‘cool’ because of their ability to apply programming.
    Frankly I feel we underestimate the intelligence of young people, and IMHO miss the amazing ‘landscape’ of programming if we resort to ‘celebrity’ as the primary attraction we can devise to encourage interest.

  8. I am not sure I understood this “… The petition is appallingly written. In my defence it was a brutal, and random, word count; I had to keep removing chunks of copy and keep trying to submit it, until suddenly it worked …”.

    I am certain the irony of that will not be lost, but are you saying that the system which the UK government deploys to encourage people to engage with politics does not allow e-petition authors to correct and improve the words they wrote?

  9. My Son is 10 and he started with a computer at 4. I have been careful to make sure he has never got used to one platform so that he has learned skills rather than menus. (Mac OSX, Ubuntu, PC).

    To get him interested in programming I signed him up to Blogger, so he could play about with creating stuff on-line. When the on-line tools wouldn’t do what he wanted, I moved him onto iWeb. When iWeb didn’t fulfil his needs, I started with html and recently flash…This he is taking onboard happily at Keystage 4.

    I must add that judging from his report card he is a very average learner…even in the ICT Curriculum!

    My friends comment how lucky my son and daughter are to have someone IT literate to get them doing stuff. However, I am aware that my skills are woefully inadequate.

    My son needs to be able to hard code for Android and iOS 4.0 now, to have a hope of keeping up with tomorrows IT developments. iOS and Android have been around for so little time, yet now dominate the development market. The quicker he starts cutting code the sooner he will be able to keep up.

    Whilst Ministers and Educators procrastinate about how best to encourage better IT user skills, I want my son and daughter to be learning about terminal windows, grep, C and K shells. They should be hacking Android 3.0 on to their $40 MID Tablets from Hong Kong, learning how to create app code and compile it for different O/S.

    Why am I pushing my children so?

    Well, you can’t exist in tomorrows world if you maintain yesterdays skills.

    UK Youth unemployment is at 20%.

    Ask yourself this question:

    Are you going to hire the Girl who can write an essay in word, or the one who offers to write you an iPad app that will format her report from her blog page?

    The second Girl is likely to be a Post-Graduate from Peking University, Beijing. China produces more young graduates per year than we have young people!

    Chinese school students are smart, bilingual and agile. They compete in Mathematics competitions for fun and study formally for 29 hours a week (as opposed to our 20 hour curriculum).

    Our defence against China’s mountainous amount of high calibre talent is in specialisation.

    Logistically it is impossible to maintain a dynamic curriculum across a large population like China or India. As such their curriculum programmes are heavily standardised.

    Here in the UK our curriculum can easily (by comparison) become more specialist. Result? Our students could better compete in the world market…Programming skills would be a great start!

    Here is another reason to do something now:

    Across the developing world, programming skills are taught earlier than software skills in ICT. Due to mainly to the cost restrictions of acquiring suites of computers and office software, open source and hard code programming is preferred in low tech. developing nation class rooms.

    Remember Sugar and the XO? You can criticise the combination for “not being a real PC”, but if it is all you have then you will make do. How? By writing your own programmes.

    If we don’t raise our curriculum expectations now, our children are guaranteed to be destined for third place in the line for future technical jobs.

    • Terminal windows and grep will be around when your son leaves school, but I’d hope mobile development will look quite different by then, so iOS (objective C) etc will not be a useful skill. So I suppose it’s most important to pick whichever language make the process of learning more fun. Maybe just as you’re swapping operating system, to avoid him getting used to one, you should also get him swapping programming languages to learn the skill of learning new languages. On a computer science degree course they make you learn bizarre impractical languages such as haskell for this reason.

      • It’s quite simple, really. Children should learn to:

        1) identify the actors in a stated problem;
        2) identify what the actors can do (methods);
        3) identify in what state the actors can be (properties);
        4) apply boolean logic; and
        5) apply algorithms.

        This is universal, language-agnostic, and required to implement a solution in any language.

        It is slightly worrying, though, that the average parent and perhaps teacher will not be able to apply a method of thinking to move from problem to deterministic solution – let alone an implemented solution using technical language for it.

        Frightfully few adults would be able to complete the task if you requested them to create a(ny) website, and deploy it on some host. In that sense, most of them are stuck in the eternal seas of aimless end-users. For them, PowerPoint is king, and that is the highest milestone their children will ever reach, because they dismally fail to recognise that there is an important body of knowledge to acquire to unlock their childrens’ futures.

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  11. I’ve signed the petition, but I share a lot of @ourduino’s concerns. After following YRS for a year and a bit, and being really impressed, this wasn’t what I was expecting.

    I’m sorry that you decided to focus on coding. I have a beef with that, that goes right back to my days as a graduate trainee analyst/programmer when one of the women on my training programme had to complain about her project manager because he was uing her as a coder. He did all the design, all the thinking, all the interesting stuff, and would hand her detailed notes – what they call “pseudocode” that she just had to transcribe and feed into the machine. No fun at all.

    I’d like to echo Milo Mordaunt’s comments on your ‘Year Eight is Too Late’ post and say that really, coding is not the problem. The focus of teaching needs to change, and it needs to reflect a realistic picture of what software development is all about, and how the industry innovates and evolves. You get a much better picture of that at a YRS event. Software development is a team game, and it involves lots of different skills, and it’s passionate and fun. If your petition had said “teach children computer programming, teach it in a hands-on, project-based way, and start them early: we will present you with evidence of why this works” I would have supported that one hundred percent.

    Maybe that is what you said. Or what you wanted to say. Que sera sera. This is important, and we aren’t going to be short of things to improve!

    I know you care very much about gender (im) balance, and it’s worth throwing in my two penn’orth. Computer programming wasn’t always a male-dominated field. I was taught programming by a woman, and my first line manager was a female nuclear physicist. Here’s an excellent article from Stanford on the history of gender bias in IT: Sadly, nowadays programming is seen as a career not just for males, but for sad Billy-No-Mates males (there was one on Doctor Who only last night.) This is bad for everybody, boys and girls, because it doesn’t reflect how real software projects are. I think you said, the low turnout of girls at YRS is largely because they drop out before they get there and experience first hand how social and enjoyable it can be to be part of a team of hackers. The stereotype of the lone male coder was a social invention, and it’s a trend that can be reversed, simply by giving kids experience of computer programming.


  12. I am about to start an after school club (years 4-6) at my daughter’s primary school teaching elementary HTML, CSS and Javascript. Selected because:
    * I am fairly convinced these technologies will all still be around in a decade in some form.
    * You can get some results quickly in each of them, while the more interested people are unlikely to run out of challenges (in one life-time, at least).
    * Even if the students learn nothing else, they will understand separation of concerns, which is something quite a lot of experienced coders have problems with.

    Once I have trawled through all the material pointed to here (and in your previous post) I may have to change my plan. I am glad I am not alone in thinking that starting early is a good thing, and that there are some course materials to steal!

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  14. Some children just aren’t cut out to code. Your brain needs to be wired in a certain way to cope with logic and forward-thinking to follow paths and outcomes in your head. It would be unfair on many children to force them to learn something that just isn’t easy for them. It can make otherwise capable children feel really stupid when they struggle with it.

    We don’t have a shortage of programmers in the jobs market. We can afford to allow natural selection of people who become programmers to continue. I learnt to program when I was 10 because I was hugely curious. I bought a Vic-20 in 1982 – against my parents advice! If children are interested in programming then schools must give them access to a computer and suitable software and support them, but don’t push them into it. You need dedication to learn how to code. Schools should offer lunchtime lessons and afterschool computer clubs for those who are intersted.

    Sadly computers don’t come with an obvious programming capability out of the box as they did in the old days. If the Government need to do anything it’s to encourage computer and OS companies to bundle programming tools for free and to make it obvious that they’re included.
    10 PRINT “My first program”
    20 GOTO 10

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  21. What you’re saying is completely true. I know that everybody must say the same thing, but I just think that you put it in a way that everyone can understand. I also love the images you put in here. They fit so well with what you’re trying to say. I’m sure you’ll reach so many people with what you’ve got to say.


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