As an aside from the usual discussions, there is an interesting article on The Register discussing the trial of teaching programming to GCSE students.

Having worked in a number of schools, I’ve seen a drift away from the early days of teaching computing. When I was at primary school, there were a handful of BBC Micro computers were available – and the Logo ‘turtle’ which we had to take turns in using, often waiting months.

Obviously we’ve moved forward in terms of processing power and availability – it seems almost ridiculous that one computer was often shared between an entire school – and only offered 2MHz CPUs with a maximum of 64KB of RAM. Even though the technology has improved, we have radically drifted away from the understanding of computers.

As an aside – some things don’t change; apparently I was often helping the staff out to use these ‘microcomputers’ even in early school. I’d been lucky enough to be taught by my family to not only use computers, but also the importance of logic from a ridiculously early age, and I’m sure this early start was why I was programming before my teens and have such a keen interest now.

Programming is generally now not taught at GCSE level; but is now “Information Technology”. This is essentially often Microsoft based products, Office Suites, and rarely even involves the worst of the worst – mail merging and databases. The first chance many students will have at programming will be at college – should they opt to choose it.

…and, according to The Register; “take-up of IT qualifications has fallen in the past five years: a staggering 57 per cent decline between 2005 and 2010.”

This leaves a generation who find it more difficult to fully understand how computers function and also why software can be confusing. Naturally all developers vary on their strengths and talents, and this affects the resulting software – but the teaching of logic isn’t just beneficial to programming.

Thankfully, as The Register reports, a new trial of 100 students is being tried over two-terms, that may be rolled out further:

Launching the “Behind the Screen” scheme, science minister David Willetts told the British Science Festival in Bradford yesterday that the idea has been in development since 2010.

Willetts said: “[It] will transform the IT curriculum away from computer literacy, which we believe many young people can do earlier, towards instead how they develop software and computational principles; how they can create their own programs.”

The schools chosen are Manchester Grammar, Bradfield College, Reading, Park House School, Newbury, and Townley Grammar in Bexleyheath, Kent.

Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt has been one of its most notable recent critics, for teaching students how to use software, rather than teaching logic:

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

“Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There’s been a drift to the humanities … engineering and science aren’t championed.”

“In the 1980s the BBC not only broadcast programming for kids about coding, but (in partnership with Acorn) shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into homes and schools. That was a fabulous initiative, but it’s long gone.”

We look forward to these developments and look forward to the results of the trial with nostalgia and interest.