Ed Vaizey calls for BBC backing on computer sciences

The UK has faced a barrage of criticism recently over its lack of computer science education.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was withering in his summation of a British system which has forgone the teaching computer programming in schools.

“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools,” Schmidt said recently. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”

And Schmidt is not the only one. IEEE president Moshe Kam told TechEye that there were systematic failures in UK education too.  And this has serious knock on effects for the economy as he mentions. 

Many are in fact beginning to highlight the need to move away from the consumption of technology as is common in UK school’s IT lessons, and back to its creation.  As Schmidt pointedly observes it is in the UK where the first computer was both conceived and created.

It was interesting then that Creative Industries Minister Ed Vaizey brought up the prospect of trying to engage a younger generation in the prospect of computer programming.

Responding to a question in the Commons about the runaway success of mop-topped physics expert Brian Cox, Vaizey called for a similar approach to computer sciences.

Lib Dem MP Tom Brake highlighted that the ‘Cox-effect’ had led to a 20 percent rise in the numbers taking physics as an A-level subject. 

And according to Vaizey this is something that could be replicated by BBC in order to promote interest in computer sciences.  Quite who would present such a show is unclear. But following Cox’s success, finding any beardy IT engineer and giving him an armful of albums by the Charlatans and a Britpop circa 1995 makeover should do the trick.

The BBC’s power to make a difference in this area is significant,” Vaizey said, “and I hope now that it will find a charismatic presenter for a history of computer science, so that we can increase interest in computer science education.”

So should the BBC be doing more to promote the computer sciences?  It certainly used to anyway.

Though a bit before this writer’s time, the BBC Micro Live show ran for a number of series, broadcasting information about computer science.  Other programmes such as The Computer Programme followed a similar vein, and the BBC had its name attached to a range of computer products.

Of course a cursory glance at a Youtube clip shows how horrendously dated such programmes are now. 

TechEye approached the BBC to find out if it would listen to the calls of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport minister, and offer an updated version with so many calls for computer sciences to be put back on the agenda.

The BBC however told us that no consideration is given to politicising in its commissioning of programmes, and so would seemingly not be taking up the minister on his recommendation.

“The BBC doesn’t have a policy role,” we were told. “We commission on the basis of quality for our viewers.”

The BBC pointed us to its ‘Virtual Revolution’ series, but while this appears to be inclusive and collaborative with its audience, it again appears to lean more to the consumption of material rather than creation.

An official statement read:

“Virtual Revolutions (the BBC’s first open-source documentary) is a great example of the type of computer science programming that interests our audience, and we’re always looking for opportunities to promote the subject across the channels.”

We were also told that in terms of instructive computer science programming this is more of a “niche” topic. So though we are informed nothing is off the table in terms of programming there was nothing to say that anything would be in the pipeline.

So unless there is a groundswell of opinion it appears that significant broadcasting of computer sciences is off the cards.

But David Braben, known for computer games such as Elite and Rollercoaster Tycoon believes that such programming would be welcomed.  Braben has an interest in the teaching of computer programming and was in the news for his development of the RaspberryPi ‘$25 PC’ educational tool.

 “Anything that motivates people in this area is fantastic,” he told TechEye.  “Learning about computer programming is a fascinating activity and can be very creative.”

“The BBC would certainly be a great way to ignite interest as a public service broadcaster.”

“The BBC once ran the BBC Micro live and got kids engaged through that.  I would certainly like to see this brought up to date with the RaspberryPi, and call it ‘BBC Nano’.  It is important to get in touch with a younger generation.”

Of course there is a wider issue here than the merely commissioning a few TV shows, as Braben points out too. 

“The role of government is to steer and encourage, unfortunately there are relatively few speaking out for the support of tech.  The silence from David Willetts especially is deafening.”

 “We have become a nation of consumers rather than creators in terms of technology in education, and this has implications further down the line.”

TechEye also approached the Department for Education for its chance to explain what is being done to support the education of computer engineers at school level, as recommended by Google’s boss and Vaizey.  At this point we have received no reply.

One point is that prospects must be improved for those leaving with qualifications in subjects computer science.  Employment levels are said to be extremely low.

And despite a tradition of success in game design, such as with Rockstar, there are serious misgivings over how the games industry is treated.

Just yesterday Labour MP Jim McGovern called for a Commons debate on the way in which the industry is being treated. 

So it seems that to ensure that the UK is to recapture the days of innovation that Schmidt discusses, it will take one just organisation or faction to bring about change.