School coding: why one teacher training programme failed

British pupils are set to learn programming skills from September with the new computing curriculum, meaning teachers will soon need to be up to speed on the subject.

That’s going to be harder than it looks, according to one software engineer who unsuccessfully tried to teach 40 teachers throughout the UK the basics of programming for free.

Jason Gorman, the founder of training company Codemanship, set up a volunteer network in 2011 to try and teach teachers how to code. Within a couple of weeks, all of them had dropped out.

With the new computing curriculum only six months away, we caught up with Jason to find how easy it will be for teachers to prepare.

Q. Why did you set up the programme?

A.It was an experiment. I’d run a programme in Bletchley Park called Educating Programmers, we had Simon Peyton Jones from Computing at School and Eben Upton from the Raspberry Pi [Foundation] and a bunch of teachers and practitioners. This was August 2011.

We were talking about all of this, and I had already been planning a kind of exchange. I spoke to a friend of mine, a software developer, and [said]: let’s assume there’s never enough money to do this. So if we wanted to get teachers up to speed on programming – which is the bit people really struggle with – was there another way?

And I thought, maybe, if there were enough volunteers willing to spend a couple of hours a week on Skype helping teachers. So I put the feelers out and it was quite easy to get practitioners. There are lots of people in our industry who are willing to help.

Q. And what did you plan to teach?

A. We were an introduction service – if you were a teacher looking for coaching, we’d hook you up and you could do it remotely. Or if they were local, you could meet up. It was entirely up to them. The idea was if they were learning, for example, Visual Basic, then their coach could help them. Someone who has been there, done that to help.

Q. How many teachers did you sign up?

A. 40 practitioners and 40 teachers. We struggled to get enough teachers – partly because of my contacts – to match the 40 volunteers we got. But then we had a programme and went forward. There were many delays getting it started, because teachers kept dropping out before we’d even started.

Once we got it off the ground, all the teachers dropped out within a few weeks. Most of the practitioners never heard again from the teachers.

Q. Why did they drop out?

A. My general sense is that it was really no fault of theirs – that this whole thing is putting ICT teachers under enormous pressure. It’s too much change too soon, with very little support.

The support we were offering would have been useful, but with the dawning realisation this wasn’t going to take a week, actually this was going to be months and months, and they hadn’t got the time, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And in 2011, they had no idea it would be compulsory.

Q. How should teachers get coding skills?

A. Programming isn’t easy – that’s the problem. The government has this weird idea that you can go on a Python course for a day and then on the Monday morning you’ll be in the classroom teaching. That’s not going to happen. That’s what happened with our teachers – they had a dawning realisation this was going to be a lot of work. And they just don’t have the bandwidth. I don’t see anyone giving them the bandwidth – saying we’re going to help you. It’s like saying they have to learn to play the piano before September.

I worry that teachers and schools are being set up to fail. I worry it’ll be kicked around like a political football.

Q. So what’s the alternative?

A. I firmly believe most children, if they want to, are quite capable of learning this stuff by themselves. I don’t think a teacher can help them, frankly. I think turning it into an academic subject, from age five, [is] a terrible miscalculation. I wouldn’t be a software developer today if they’d made me do it at primary school.

Q. Are after-school initiatives like Code Club the better option?

A. They could do with more funding and support, in the tens of millions of pounds. It’s ironic that in an industry as rich as ours, there is so little money. We’re extremely short-sighted.

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