Computing and social mobility

Nov 26, 2014

Miles Berry

My remarks at a Teach First dinner hosted by Google, 25 November 2014

I don’t normally do much by way of autobiography, but being as Google probably knows all this about me anyhow, it seems only fair for the rest of you. My grandfather was a coal miner. Both of my parents left school by sixteen. I went to a comprehensive school in the midlands. I went on to read mathematics at Cambridge, became a head teacher and a university lecturer, sit on the boards of Naace and CAS, and helped draft the new computing curriculum. In part at least these achievements are thanks to Dave Pidcock, the head of maths at my school, who brought in his Sharp MZ-80k (anybody remember?) so a few of us could spend lunchtimes learning to program.

Sharp MZ-80K

These are such exciting times. Thanks to the work of Ian Livingstone, Simon Peyton Jones and others, we’re the first country in the world to have computer science as a curriculum entitlement for all, from age five up. Given the role that software plays in all of our lives, it’s about time that children are now learning to write programs as well as use programs: even better, that they’re learning about the fundamental principles of computation and the processes of computational thinking, as well as the craft skills of coding.

Getting computing onto the national curriculum though isn’t enough. We’ve got to make it happen in schools, and it’s probably too early to tell how good we are at that. There are some great success stories already, and I think we’ve certainly hit the ground running… but I hear stories of primary schools where the focus is excessively on maths and English at the expense of all the other subjects, of secondary schools without a computing specialist attempting to teach our highly ambitious KS3 curriculum in a lesson a week for two or three half term blocks, and of schools not offering any GCSE CS because they don’t have the staff or, and I quote, ‘it’s too hard for our students’. As I used to put on far too many school reports: ‘has made good progress, although room for improvement remains.’.

The picture is a patchy one, but I’m worried about where the patches are: I suspect it’s not the grammar schools, academies in nice middle class areas or primary schools in south Farnham that are effectively opting out of providing proper computing: I think it’s the challenging schools, where an entitlement to computing would make the most difference, where it has the least chance to do so… I’m encouraging my trainees to ask hard questions like ‘where is the evidence for that?’ So where is my evidence for this? Unfortunately, I’ve little evidence there’s less provision for  computing in challenging schools, but my colleague (and Teach First ambassador) Pete Kemp is on the case. We’ll let you know.

Anyone seen The Imitation Game? Who knows who built Colossus, the computer they used to crack the Lorenz cipher at Bletchley?…

Tommy Flowers

Tommy Flowers was a working class lad, the son of a bricklayer, learning engineering through an apprenticeship and evening classes. We rightly celebrate the achievements of Alan Turing, but I hope not at the expense of working class heroes such as Flowers. We have very little knowledge about social mobility within the computing industry. It’s a question that very few businesses ask and report upon? Does yours? We need role models from all backgrounds…

You see, that’s the thing. In computing, your background doesn’t, OK well, shouldn’t,  really matter: what matters is how good you are at coding – it offers an entirely meritocratic pathway into making a difference … and earning a decent salary. What matters now is that young people who could become the software engineers and computer scientists of the future are at least aware of the possibilities, and get the right encouragement along that path if it’s one they choose to pursue.

Getting computing on the curriculum has helped. It really has. Getting computing taught well, by great teachers able to pass on a passion for the subject, in all schools, will help even more. But you don’t get to Carnegie Hall just by going to class recorder lessons; school PE lessons aren’t enough for an Olympic medal. Julian Sefton-Green’s recent report makes it clear that those who go on to pursue careers in software or digital arts have done plenty outside school or university, as I’m sure would be the case for Google’s engineers: as well as computing in school, we need to have some computing after school and in the school holidays too. Code Club, Coder Dojo and Young Rewired State are fab, but lets make sure that uptake fairly reflects the full diversity of students’ backgrounds so that the gaps get narrower and not wider! Schemes like these and less formal mentoring need volunteers, able to share their knowledge and experience, and pass on some of their enthusiasms: industry could contribute much here.