Q&A: How Britain’s throwing away its tech heritage

The UK will stop being a centre of computing within three years if it doesn’t start better supporting tech skills, according to one expert.

Dr Sue Black, a researcher at University College London’s computing department, believes the UK isn’t focusing hard enough on developing technology skills, meaning the next generation of innovators will come from other countries – or British talent will move away.

Speaking at a Westminster eForum on IT skills, Black said the UK needs to start teaching students computer science, rather than ICT – in schools, the latter subject often involves showing children how to use basic productivity suites rather than how to program.

Q. Britain has a great computing tradition, but you noted we’re at risk of losing the competitive advantage that brings. What do you mean by that?

A. Going back to Colossus, the first programmable digital computer – invented in the UK, used to help in the Second World War, through to the Sinclair Spectrum and BBC Micro – we’ve got this amazing computing heritage in this country.

But now jobs are going to people in other countries, because we don’t have people here to keep the industry going in this country.

Q. Why is this happening?

A. I’m sure a lot of it’s down to what kids are taught in schools. Kids are taught ICT, not taught computer science at school. We’ve also got this mentality – you know the Little Britain sketch “computer says no” – it’s like the whole UK’s got that mentality. We should be thinking “computer says yes” because that’s our future.

We should be thinking “computer says yes” because that’s our future

Going into the future, we’re more and more reliant on the tech industry, tech products and software. We need people to produce that stuff; we need tech innovators.

The UK economy is more and more dependant on tech-related products, and if we haven’t got the people here to do it, then we’re lost, we’re completely out of the game.

Q. Do you think programming should be taught in schools?

A. Even from five, you can get kids programming little robots. You could teach programming concepts even if you weren’t teaching programming. Just simple things, so kids understand what an algorithm is, how a computer takes instructions, how a computer works. That sort of thing is completely missing from our computing teaching at the moment.

Q. Why isn’t it being taught now?

A. It’s a good question. I don’t actually know. Is it just down to Government policy? Why are kids taught ICT and not computer science? I really don’t know, but I know I was banging on about it at least ten years ago, saying the same thing.

When my daughter was doing her GCSE, her first coursework was to write a user guide for a seven-year-old to use Microsoft Word. She told me: “I don’t want to do that! That’s not interesting.” She asked me: “Mum, is this what you do at work?”. And no, it’s nothing to do with it.

Q. Your daughters are lucky to have you as role model for getting into IT. Do we need more spokespeople coming out and showing that a job in computing is for everyone?

A. We need more role models, particularly for girls. Women really do seem to need role models more than men do. It may be more because we don’t see as many women up there.

There are various initiatives in other areas, getting more female MPs into parliament, [but] it’s very hard to measure a direct effect from that sort of thing, but I really do think having role models for women and girls is very important.

Of course, we need male role models as well. If you see some doing something, and you think “oh that looks cool”, it makes you think you could do it as well.

Looking for female role models? Look no further than our Top Ten Women in Tech feature, in this month’s issue of PC Pro, now on sale.

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