At the start of the fall semester last month, England's state-run schools began introducing its youngest students to a concept that would confuse most of their parents: algorithms.
The U.K. government has overhauled the way it teaches computing to the country's children by adding mandatory programming classes. After taking advice from the likes of Microsoft and Google, officials were convinced that the state-school curriculum was out of step with modern-day technical standards. The old system emphasized word processing and spreadsheets, but not much else. The government now wants the nation's kids to not only consume technology but to build it — instead of just playing computer games, they might create them one day.
To prevent the youngest pupils from turning into zombies in front of screens, much of the initial learning takes place outside of the computer lab. Five-year-olds will play abstract games and complete puzzles to familiarize themselves with the concept of algorithms without the complexity. By the time they hit 14, teachers will guide them on how to use two or more programming languages. All of this is compulsory. That makes the U.K. the first G20 nation to put computer science at the heart of its curriculum.
"These are certainly the biggest changes that have been made to the way the subject has been taught,” says John Partridge, a computing teacher in Nottinghamshire, U.K. “Especially for the younger children."
The U.S. has managed to cultivate a tech mecca in Silicon Valley in spite of its public-school system. Because the country invented many of the technologies that are the foundation for today's hottest industry, it's a magnet for the world's sharpest and most ambitious. But the popularity of computing at U.S. high schools has been on the slide in recent years. In 2009, only 19 percent of students graduated with credits in computer science, down from 25 percent in 1990, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education.
Like many developed nations, the U.K. is facing a tech-talent crunch, and the radical retooling of its educational system is a recognition that the problem is likely to persist for many years. The country is projected to have a shortage of 249,000 workers for technologically skilled jobs by 2020, according to research from Empirica prepared for the European Commission. The effects are being felt within the U.K.’s hottest technology hub. Last year, 45 percent of business leaders at London’s Tech City said a shortage of skilled workers was their biggest challenge, according to study by market researcher GfK.
The proliferation of technology in all sorts of industries is exacerbating this shortage. Custom websites and mobile apps are now a must-have for companies in virtually every sector, while research firm Gartner projects there will be 30 times as many physical devices connected to the Internet by 2020.
"Programming is infiltrating loads of different traditional areas,” says Rachel Swidenbank, Codecademy's head of U.K. operations. "Learning how to code allows kids to do their own thing, be creative and secure a job in an area where there will be a huge shortage."
England will be looking to emulate the feats of Israel, which, following a review of computing in its schools around the turn of the century, developed one of the world’s most rigorous computer-science curricula for high schoolers. The country's tech companies now attract more venture capital and private-equity cash than any European country, according to a report from consulting firm Ernst & Young.
The U.K.’s commitment to teaching the basics of programming from a young age is bold, but it won’t guarantee a solution to the skills shortage. When kids reach 14, it will be up to them to choose whether to continue studying the subject and acquire the skills that are relevant at the time they graduate. Or perhaps the nine years of force-fed algorithms and coding will scare them away forever.
"The real concern is whether the changes to the curriculum will enhance the attractiveness of a career in computing to children," Partridge says. "It may be an uphill struggle to change its image."