The kids are alright… aren’t they?

Bored child

Given the importance of IT, both now and in the future, surely school kids should be flocking to computing courses.

Instead, the numbers of pupils taking part in computing and IT classes has dropped significantly in the past 10 years.

The problem has become so serious that the Royal Society has ordered a report into what can be done to reverse the falling enrolment numbers, with some heavyweight organisations like Google and Microsoft offering their support.

We spoke to Dr Bill Mitchell, director at the BCS Academy of Computing, about why kids are not signing up for ICT, and what can be done to turn the trend around.

Do you believe the Government is doing enough to support teaching in schools?

The Government has to wake up to the fact that what is going on in schools is a disaster, as far as IT is concerned. There is a certain denial, as far as I can tell, from Government: they don't actually understand what computing is.

They know lots of people seem to be getting training in IT and they think that's the same as understanding computing, which it isn't.

In most schools, you have teachers who are struggling to cope because they are not specialists. That isn't their fault, they are doing the best they can. They deliver teaching which amounts to showing kids how to use Word, use PowerPoint, use Excel, and use office productivity tools. Of course, this is nothing at all to do with computing.

Why has there been such a decline in interest in IT amongst youngsters?

I think one of the issues is that there aren't enough specialist computing teachers. There are a lot of very keen teachers, but they don't have the background. They want to be able to deliver high quality computing in schools, but they don't have the resources or the support network to help them do that.

I think the most important factor in changing what goes on in schools is working with the teachers.

Is there any disparity between types of schools in terms of the quality of computing teaching?

I think it is pot luck. It depends whether you happen to get a specialist computing teacher who is enthusiastic and keen, or not. That isn't necessarily down to it being a private school or a state school, it is just down to whether they were able to find a teacher who knows enough about computing and can actually get that across.

This isn't about teacher bashing the teachers actually want to do a good job. They just don't have the tools available to them to do their job.

What skills should teachers be looking at targeting?

If you look at the way they teach maths in school, they're not trying to generate people who do new mathmatics research. They're talking about the fundamental importance of teaching mathematics and understanding mathematics to all schoolchildren, no matter the job you will end up doing.

The same is true for computing. What are the fundamentals you need to understand with computing? Well, algorithms, data structures, how networks work, the fact that you're trying to automate the creation, the understanding and the exploitation of knowledge that's what computers do. But that does not come across.

What will the Royal Society report address?

The main question is what is the value of teaching computing to schoolchildren as far as the UK is concerned. That is one of the fundamental questions, because if you don't believe there is value then there's no point in worrying about it at all.

The second point, if you've decided there is a value, is what is the best way of actually teaching schoolchildren about computing. What is it you are actually trying to teach them? I think the people in the group felt that computing is as important for schoolchildren as mathematics.

Every human being who walks and talks and thinks has to have an understanding of mathematics to cope in the modern day society the same is true with computing.

We need to go away and gather evidence of the state of schools is at the moment, of how many specialist computing teachers there are, what is it that those teachers need in order to improve what is going on in the classroom, and then figure out what is the best way to do that.

So, do we need to change the curriculum? Do we need to change the way teachers are trained? Do we need more teachers who have studied computing at university? These are questions we will look into.

What do you hope will happen as a result of the report?

The outcomes I would like to see are a lot more specialist computing teachers in schools, and a lot more collaboration between universities, industry and professional bodies and Government in getting the right resources to the teachers. That doesn't necessarily mean money.

We have a marvelous window of opportunity here, if you look at the incredible amount of support the Royal Society has.

We helped them do some fundraising and we received almost immediate support from universities like Cambridge, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow the list just goes on and on. Universities are falling over themselves to offer support for this report.

Similarly if you go and talk to industry, if you talk to IBM, Microsoft, Google, all of those people, they are desperate to help resolve this problem. Practically all of the big organisations that you would want help from at the moment are falling over themselves to try and do something about this problem.

We can actually do something because everyone wants it solved.

Tom Brewster

Tom Brewster is currently an associate editor at Forbes and an award-winning journalist who covers cyber security, surveillance, and privacy. Starting his career at ITPro as a staff writer and working up to a senior staff writer role, Tom has been covering the tech industry for more than ten years and is considered one of the leading journalists in his specialism.

He is a proud alum of the University of Sheffield where he secured an undergraduate degree in English Literature before undertaking a certification from General Assembly in web development.