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'In a couple of years it will become a basic life skill' – SapientNitro's Nigel Vaz and others on the importance of teaching kids to code

Move aside French and German, coding is fast becoming the essential new language for the future, and both the government and industry are making strides to ensure that children are grasping the basics of this new educational currency.

In July last year, the government announced that “revolutionary” changes would be made to the curriculum in state schools across England, with coding to be taught in computer lessons to kids as young as five from October 2014. A few months later the BBC declared it would be launching a new initiative on the same scale as its Computer Literacy Project from the 1980s to help school kids understand the basics of digital technology and computer coding. And in the last couple of years, schemes likes CodeClub have been established in the UK with the similar aim of arming the next generation with the basic skills for an increasingly digital world.

Late to the party

It appears coding is now high on the agenda across the board, but why has it become so important? According to Adam Graham, managing consultant at Cact.us and chair at Bima, the UK is currently playing catch-up to the likes of America and China.“We’re a little bit late to the party,” said Graham. “The government has ambitious growth targets for the digital industry – it wants it to be worth £7bn by 2017. The digital sector is growing at 10 times the rate of the rest of the economy, so we’re facing a serious skills shortage. We need to be investing in the grass roots and getting kids hooked on coding early.” “We are still in an awareness situation,” explained Nigel Vaz, SVP and European managing director of SapientNitro, who is teaching his son to code. “There are kids who have never left the border of council estates, and empowering them to understand that they can create something that the rest of the world can see is a fantastic way to inspire. Coding clubs and other initiatives are all raising awareness of what in a couple of years will become a basic life skill.”

Building blocks

One such initiative, CodeClub, founded in 2012, is an after-school workshop that sees volunteers with knowledge of coding and programming work with primary school kids. One of its founders, Clare Sutcliffe, explains that beyond just arming young kids with the basic building blocks of coding, the skills they take away can impact their more general development. “They learn how to break down problems, analyse them, solve them. They learn to work in pairs, teams and on their own,” she said. “The technical skills will help in many other careers as well. Digital technology will touch every single career very soon and having some sort of agency over that can only be a good thing.” Testament to the enjoyment and reward children gain from coding, CodeClub has gone from working with an initial 120 schools to over 2000 and is now focusing on preparing teachers for the impending changes to the curriculum.Denise Turner, chief insight officer at Havas Media, also told The Drum that her daughter, Lexi, recently started at CodeClub and has been “obsessed with it”. She applauded Scratch, a tool that can be downloaded by parents for free to teach kids coding through games, interactive stories and animations. “There are lots of educational games online these days but it’s rare to see one where a child can say ‘I made it do that’,” she says. “I can see she feels a sense of achievement and it’s confidence building. Kids are so digitally literate these days; they’ve grown up with computers and iPads. It’s natural for them and coding harnesses that natural interest in technology.” Graham’s daughter has also just turned five and he’s keen for her to start learning the basics. Like learning a language, he believes the earlier a child starts the faster they pick it up and the more inclined they’ll be to continue that learning across other areas of digital.

The industry’s duty

Being in the midst of digital has clearly given Vaz, Turner and Graham the advantage of having an insight into how everything from big data to 3D printing is impacting all industries, and why kids must learn the language of these systems. So one of the key issues then is trying to raise the awareness of the importance of coding to parents outside of the digital sector. Vaz urges the digital industry to step up and support children as they acquire these basic coding skills. “The industry can be a lot better with apprenticeships. The UK has a leading apprenticeship culture and the digital industry has to realise this aptitude that kids have. You won’t need a computer degree in 10 years’ time to code – that’s going to be a skill every five and six-year-old has. So why wouldn’t we, as an industry which benefits most from this ability, start to leverage it in the real world?,” he said. Graham agrees, arguing that experience, as opposed to qualifications, is far more valuable in coding. Bima has answered the call for more support, launching its D-Day initiative in 2012 where it partners digital professionals with schools and sets young students challenges across design, mobile, social media and coding. Sutcliffe also asked for more agencies or digital professionals to help at CodeClub, saying that the “onus is absolutely on the industry to make sure that the future work force is there.”This feature was originally published in The Drum's 28 May issue, available to purchase from The Drum Store, where you can also read further about Nigel Vaz's personal efforts to teach his son to code.

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