EDUCATION WEEK EDITORIAL: Adding computer science to the national curriculum is a vital step

10 year-old Jordan makes games. We need more like her

Jordan’s best schoolwork isn’t always something her parents can pin to the fridge with magnets.

She, a ten year-old pupil at Girvan Primary School, makes vibrant and colourful creations of the digital kind – things that can’t be held in hands but can nevertheless engage the mind.

Jordan builds video games using Microsoft’s game engine Kodu. Her teacher, Mrs Denton, not only encourages this in class, but in fact came up with the idea in the first place.

“I think it’s motivational,” Mrs Denton says. “We’re teaching these skills – problem solving skills, maths skills, language skills – and Kodu motivates them.”

The clear-cut and cold arithmetic of a game editor is, understandably, an aberration from the old classroom image of crayon-covered sugarpaper and scribble-filled jotter books.

Some will say it’s not normal, especially for someone as young as ten, to be making video games.

And the national press, with its institutional ignorance of these issues, could easily turn on Jordan’s classroom adventures with all the vague attacks it routinely makes on the interactive entertainment business. Games are “unhealthy”. Games are “addictive”. Games are “for loners”.

Jordan, still a little too young to be influenced by the daily bombardment of paper headlines, doesn’t seem to hold any such prejudices. She uses games to exercise her sparkling creativity. To build things instead of shout them down. To make something she can be proud of.

“You feel really… special that this is your game being played by different people,” she says.

Digital Britain

The UK is sleep-walking into a digital world. Our innate creative passion and desire to master skills isn’t going to change, but canvases to build ideas on are continuously shifting.

Creativity is intertwining with technology like never before, and if Britain wants to be a world-leader in this new era, it needs more schools like Girvan Primary, and more people like Jordan.

The Livingstone-Hope Skills Review, a major new paper released this week, praises Girvan Primary as a pocket of excellence – a great British example of games-based learning.

The problem, its authors explain, is that schools like Girvan are too few and far between.

The routine debates on how to revive Britain’s game education system typically end with those from gaming and academia blaming each other. Universities don’t provide the best students, says one side. The industry doesn’t help engage with pupils, says the other.

While this is an issue Develop will cover during its Education Week special focus, the Livingstone-Hope review has for the first time fully highlighted that teaching at Key Stage levels is just as important an issue to address.

A survey conducted as part of the review found that 44 per cent of teachers believed ICT is the best course for students who want a career in games. Industry luminaries are hardly alone is claiming the opposite; that ‘boring’ ICT lessons are killing interest in computer science.

Ian Livingstone explained: “Whilst useful in teaching various proprietary office software packages [Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, et al], ICT fails to inspire children to study computer programming. It is certainly not much help for a career in games.”

He added: “I’ve heard of ‘death by PowerPoint’ but not games built by PowerPoint”.

Numerous development studios make it clear they want to hire people with some practice building games. But crucial too is to have applicants with a robust understanding of science, maths and physics.

Alarmingly, the Skills Review survey reports that just 15 per cent of teachers believed maths was the best subject for game development education. Worse still, only one per cent thought science was the most important. Zero per cent said physics was the most important.

If not the most shocking findings of the Livingstone-Hope Review, these glum statistics could be the most important.

They make the problem abundantly clear: The requirements for work at UK games studios are completely at odds with what teachers believe the industry is looking for.

In a separate survey of university course assessors, an overwhelming 70 per cent reported poor or unrealistic understanding of what working in the video games or visual effects industries actually involves.

Recess is over

The Livingstone-Hope Review concludes that these barriers, lodged between pupils and the games industry, needs critical and immediate action.

Of the twenty recommendations the Review makes, ten of them are targeted to improve early learning. Of those, there is one that stands out.

The Livingstone-Hope review believes computer science should be introduced into the National Curriculum as an essential discipline – a revision that could reshape the UK’s entire academic infrastructure.

“Given that the new online world is being transformed by creative technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and video games companies, it seems incredible that there is an absence of computer programming in schools”, said Livingstone.

It wasn’t always this way, Livingstone explains: “When Sir Clive Sinclair launched the ZX Spectrum in 1982, affordable computers were eagerly purchased for the homes of a creative nation. At the same time, the BBC Micro was adopted as the computer platform of choice for most schools and became the cornerstone of computing in British education in the 1980s.

“There was a thirst for creative computing both in the home and in schools creating a further demand at universities for courses in computer science. This certainly contributed to the rapid growth of the UK computer games industry.

“But instead of building on the BBC’s ComputerLiteracy Project in the 1980s, schools turned away from programming in favour of ICT.”

He concludes that, because of this shift in what pupils are taught, the UK “has gone backwards at a time when the requirement for computer science as a core skill is more essential than ever before”.

How seriously the Department for Education takes the review’s key proposal remains to be seen.

But the Livingstone-Hope paper is at least fighting for people like Jordan, and the thousands that deserve the same forward-thinking school lessons as her.

Today is the industry’s best ever chance that these issues will no longer just circulate game developers, but be echoed in the halls of Parliament.

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