I was awed by last week’s news that Yahoo (NasdaqGS: YHOO - news) ! has agreed to pay £20m to acquire Summly, an app that summarises news articles on the internet, from British teenager Nick d’Aloisio.
The brilliant paradox of one of the world’s most sophisticated and advanced technology businesses paying so much for the brainchild of a mere 17-year-old is inspiring to the extreme, and showcases the boundless possibilities in the tech world of today. However, reading The Daily Telegraph’s interview with Britain’s youngest entrepreneur last Tuesday, I was struck by one thing in particular: at the age of 12, with no prior ability, Nick taught himself how to code.
The sad reality in the UK today is that in our education system there is little provision for the sort of skills and technological expertise that Nick has developed. It is understandable that my generation had next to no curriculum-based IT education, but certainly much less so that children today still only receive the standard, dull and basic training in the simplest IT.
In an August 2011 speech, Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, lambasted the UK system: “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 computing heritage.”
More recently, a 2012 report by the Chartered Institute for IT bluntly summarised the status quo: “Computer science is not just in danger of being neglected: it manifestly has been neglected.” Digital (Milan: DIB.MI - news) literacy is simply not a reality for most students when they finish compulsory education.
The enigma of this situation is that it contrasts so markedly with the direction in which our economy is moving and the hugely successful tech industry that is developing. Silicon Roundabout is fast becoming the genuine centre of the European technology industry.
London dominated multiple categories at the recent Europas, Europe’s tech start-up awards, with UK companies such as GoCardless, TransferWise, Duedil and Wonga sweeping the board. Some 35pc of all commercial real estate demand in central London is from technology companies and Google (NasdaqGS: GOOG - news) has spent £636m on buying a hectare of land to develop a new office near King’s Cross.
This growth is mirrored in the jobs market. According to the 2011 IDC Economic Impact study, the UK had more than 110,000 IT vacancies in 2011 and the demand for tech specialists is growing at four times the rate of the overall UK workforce. Demand is there for all to see; do we have sufficient supply to meet it?
Unfortunately the current statistics make for bleak reading. The Department for Education has reported that only 3,420 A-levels were completed last year in computer science, a 73pc decline since 1998. In Hackney, a stone’s throw from the country’s tech hub, 0.6pc of A-levels taken were in computer science. In other words, an enormous disconnect exists between the needs and requirements of the UK’s emerging new businesses and the local workforce available to them.
I’m currently trying to help the Basildon Academy, a school co-founded by Marty Finegold and just 30 miles from Silicon Roundabout, on this very point. I took Michael Acton-Smith, the founder of Moshi Monsters, to expose the school’s students to the possibilities within their local economy.
It was wonderful to see the inspiration that Michael’s ambition, vision and success impressed upon the children; but from teacher to pupil there was a palpable lack of awareness about the benefits of a computer science education. A dizzying world of opportunity exists only a few miles west, and we need to work harder to bridge that glaring disconnect.
The problem is not just in our country. New research by Code, a US organisation, estimated that by 2020 there will be 1.4m computer jobs in the US versus only 400,000 computer science students. In stark contrast, the same organisation published an article on computer science education in Vietnam, where, despite sparse resources, the curriculum is tailored to teaching programming at an early age. It estimated that more than half of the grade 11 children aged 16 to 17 of one school could even pass a Google interview process, such was their tech sophistication.
Fortunately, something is being done on a number of fronts in the UK. Code Club, founded in 2011, intends to have coding taught in 25pc of all of the UK’s primary schools by 2015. The organisation finds volunteers skilled in coding and sets up mini-clubs at schools for children aged from nine to 11, teaching the basics of coding to try to spark a passion that will last later into pupils’ education.
To date, they have set up Code Clubs in 685 schools around the country. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is another pioneer on this front, developing an affordable £20 single-board computer to promote computer science learning in schools. A million units have been bought to date and earlier this year, Google provided funding for 15,000 Raspberry Pis to be distributed to children for free.
The Government has not been idle on this front, either. At one end of the spectrum, Tech City has been embraced. In the past six months, David Cameron has set aside £50m for the Old Street silicon hub and £110m for a Start-Up Loan scheme in the area to be distributed over the next three years.
However, importantly, the Government is slowly beginning to wake up to the classroom stagnation in computer science. In a process that began with Michael Gove’s speech at the BETT conference in January 2012, computer science has finally been added to the English Baccalaureate. From September 2013, it will be included in the curriculum as a fourth science, making it a recognised discipline in its own right and promoting it to the warranted level of importance in the national curriculum.
This is definite progress, but much more still needs to be done. The Chartered Institute for IT report makes it clear that the malaise is as much rooted in the qualification of our teachers and their willingness and ability to teach computer science as it is in students’ willingness to study it.
To rectify this we need much closer links between the private sector and education.
Microsoft (NasdaqGS: MSFT - news) founder Bill Gates credited much of his early success to the strong relationship between his school and a local computer company (Information Sciences Inc), which provided the programming education his school wasn’t able to.
There are pools of talented hi-tech people working in this country and we need to forge stronger local ties between their expertise and education. Freeformers is an organisation working hard to change this. Its strategy is based around connecting business people with advanced tech skills to young talent and it works closely with large corporations such as Facebook (NasdaqGS: FB - news) and Aviva (LSE: AV.L - news) to achieve it. On a smaller level, Michael’s short visit to Basildon has inspired the school to set up its own Code Club. These are the sorts of local relationships we need to focus on building.
The UK is fortunate that such a strong tech economy is developing. It is the perfect incubator for a new-age network of skilled professionals in code, programming and IT.
At the moment there is a huge disengagement between the industry that has evolved versus the local workforce to supply it, but finally some steps are being taken to bridge that. The next generation of self-made tech millionaires in this country won’t, like Nick d’Aloisio, have been entirely self-taught hopefully they’ll owe much to the educational ecosystem that nurtured them, too.
Jonnie Goodwin is founder of the merchant bank Lepe Partners and co-founder of The Founders Forum and PROfounders Capital