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Three years ago I had great fun teaching some primary school children how to use Scratch and take their first steps towards being computer programmers of the future.

At the time there was a lot of optimism about changes to the English curriculum and a return to a more rigorous teaching of computing in schools.

Today, though, there is a pretty predictable warning that things aren’t going to plan – like so much else in the last seven years good intentions were not backed up by the money needed to make the policy really work.

Back then I decided I was going to write a “book” on how to code – my principal audience being teachers who suddenly found themselves with the requirement to teaching basic coding … but had a change of job, couldn’t continue the teaching and nothing much happened.

But, having had another, err, change of job (to currently no job – have a look here if you want to hire me), I’m now determined to finish it and so I am also looking for anyone willing to read it through.

I don’t intend to charge for it, so it’s not a commercial operation, but I would be interested in hearing from anybody who has an interest in learning to code/learning more about computing but who is not an experienced programmer – crudely put, if you think the “book” stinks then I probably won’t make much more of an effort with it, if you think it is good or getting there then I’ll keep working on it, trying to make it e-reader compatible and so on.

Let me know in the comments or directly: adrianmcmenamin at Google’s email service.

Code Club first session

Code Club logoAt last managed to lead my first “Code Club” session – it had a slightly chaotic start as none of the computers we were using had Scratch installed and nor did we have access to a login that allowed us to install Scratch in the Windows “Programs” directory – but once we worked around that we all had great fun.

From the start it was obvious that Scratch made sense to the kids – they immediately grasped that the endless loop control would set the actions it enclosed to run endlessly. Of course nobody (apart from Visual Basic users?) works with similar simple graphics tools when writing an industrial strength program, but that was not the point: this is about teaching loops, conditionals and branches and so on.

The lost time at the start meant it was all a bit hurried so I do not know how much of the programming the children took in – as opposed to just ensuring that their Scratch scripts matched those in the worksheet. But on the first time out – none of the children had used Scratch before – simply being able to manipulate the programming elements was probably more than enough.

In any case, all of them were hugely enthusiastic when I told them they could install Scratch on any computer they had at home and practise on it there.

Code Club feels like a huge success to me already.

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.