The dismal state of computing education in English schools

English: Snapshot of the Commodore PET-32 micr...
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I didn’t get my enthusiasm for computing from school – it was almost something latent: I remember being very excited to see a “microcomputer” for the first time in Brent Cross shopping centre in 1979.

But the first one I used – hopelessly – was in school, a Commodore Pet, in 1980. It turned up and a group of us – led by Physics teacher legend John Shutler – stabbed wildly at the keyboard in the hope of getting it beyond the “Ready” prompt.

There were no computing lessons in those days but there were plenty of enthusiasts for learning programming in the school. And, yes, we played games too – but games were principally a programming challenge: could we write new ones, change old ones, copy tricks from existing ones. This book – our Bible – had lots of listings but each had to be tailored for the dialect of BASIC being used.

I know this sounds like a plea for a better yesterday, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion things have gone downhill even as schools have filled with ever more powerful machines.

Today all of that energy seems to have been drained from school computing – for my daughters it is the equivalent of a secretarial class of three decades ago – can you type a letter on a wordprocessor (always, always, Microsoft’s proprietary software), can you  type an Excel spreadsheet or create a Powerpoint presentation. I don’t think they have been taught any programming skills and certainly the link between maths and computing seems totally absent.

They are not the only ones. A new report from OFSTED, the school inspectorate, bemoans the dreadful state of computing education in our secondary schools:

  • A fifth are taught nothing, despite the subject being a compulsory part of the national curriculum;
  • Many teachers have “limited” knowledge of programming;
  • High flyers are often neglected and the students do the same tasks over and over again;
  • Qualifications are of limited use.

For what it’s worth I think much of this is because educators have been forced to dance to the tune of business – who demand school leavers can use their proprietary software suites rather than (as was the case when I entered the workplace) they provide training. The result is dismal education and disaffected pupils.

What ever happened to “Comp Shop”?

The Apple II GS setup, with keyboard and mouse...
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My brother and I were lucky in one respect in that, after December 1978 (when we moved) anyway, we were living on the doorstep, more or less, of the UK’s most important computer emporium, Comp Shop Ltd, of Station Road, New Barnet.

Of course we didn’t know this at the time – we didn’t get bitten by the computer bug until we had our own – some time in the autumn of 1980. And then I think I heard about it because my physics teacher Mr (John) Shutler mentioned that Bill, his university friend, worked there.

Mr Shutler was clearly also bitten by the bug – he was one of the small group of us who, one lunchtime in mid-summer 1980 yielded to the “the hands-on imperative” by struggling fruitlessly get Finchley Catholic High School‘s newly delivered Commodore PET to do something more than say “Ready” and “Syntax Error”: none of us had a clue but all of us knew that we had to struggle to find out how it worked – it was truly a formative moment.

But one day in late 1980 I wandered down to the shop and was smitten – they had books (on z80 assembler) I wanted, magazines I wanted (and the news agents next door obviously knew how to pick up on passing trade because they sold a fine selection) and above all computers I longed for (especially the Apple II with its sound and colour graphics – the one pictured here seems to be a late model though). What’s more they did not seem to mind if kids hung about for a bit.

I was reminded of the shop by the wikipedia article on the Compukit UK101 – Comp Shop sold them. And the shop seemed to be doing very well on the back of the rapidly expanding UK business micro-computer market, opening a second branch in the centre of London.

Thirty years later I can find no trace of it in either New Barnet or on the internet – who can tell me what happened to it?

More computing nostalgia

I stumbled across this collection of covers of “Practical Computing” – or as they styled it Practical Comp\mu ting – a really great magazine from the early days of “microcomputers” in the UK.

It used to have articles which were a bit more scientific and investigatory than others – I particularly remember one talking about how to describe n-dimensional space in a program.

I particularly remember these covers/issues – some of which still look great to me today, thirty years on. I desperately wanted to run the US presidential election program here too, but it used elements of the BASIC language that I simply could not work out how to substitute for from the ZX80’s limited vocabulary (back then most things were targeted at the variety of BASIC found on a Commodore PET).

October 1980 Practical Computing(NB as I recall the junior minister was Kenneth Baker).

Practical Computing November 1980

Hmmm… Fast Fourier Transforms….

Practical Computing December 1980

And finally – I remember thinking this was a stunning image:

Practical Computing January 1981