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From the '80s to Israel: The New Inspiration for Next Gen Skills

Johnny Minkley explains why coding campaigners are focused on the successes of the Middle East

Another lively week of twists and turns in the games industry-led campaign to get the nation coding. The part that grabbed most headlines, inevitably, was senior Googler Eric Schmidt's speech at London's Science Museum, his first in the UK on the subject since Education Secretary Michael Gove bowed to pressure and waved through the return of programming to schools.

Schmidt's MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh last August, which forcefully endorsed the conclusions of Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope's skills review, proved a turning point in the campaign, decisively turning UK Government opinion against ICT.

"The Google chairman is well aware of how much weight his words carry in the corridors of power - but this time he put Google's money where his mouth was"

The Google chairman is well aware of how much weight his words carry in the corridors of power. Last week he returned to familiar themes - the teaching of computer skills in Britain was in "a sorry state"; the UK risked "losing a generation" of scientists - but this time he put Google's money where his mouth was.

In a partnership with the charity Teach First, Google will fund the training of 102 teachers, providing "teaching aids, such as Raspberry Pis or Arduino starter kits", which Schmidt hopes will help as many as 20,000 students in "disadvantaged communities".

While 100 newly-trained teachers won't change the world, the symbolism of Google's move is significant, Schmidt stressing: "We like to show an example - think of this as a first step."

Almost immediately, hints of a backlash emerged. A BBC News blog, provocatively titled "Has Google's boss harmed computer teaching?", quoted a teacher speaking out in defence of ICT, who said: "Not everybody is going to need to learn to code, but everyone does need office skills."

Well, okay, but these "office skills" - code for ICT's mind-numbingly misguided focus on Microsoft Office software - equally have no business being at the heart of computer teaching in schools. As Ian Livingstone put it recently, speaking during a GameCity-sponsored debate at the British Film Institute: "ICT has crushed the desire of children to want to study technology and to create their own technology - particularly girls."

And as Schmidt himself said last week: "While not every child is going to become a programmer, those with aptitude shouldn't be denied the chance". This point, as Livingstone acknowledged, is of particular importance to the games industry, its new intake not only short on skills, but also shamefully short on females.

The transition from ICT to computer science, however, inevitably cannot be good news for all teachers. And the question of who teaches the teachers, notwithstanding Google's charitable gesture, is some way from being answered.

"ICT has crushed the desire of children to want to study technology and to create their own technology "

Ian Livingstone

This was underlined in an intriguing new report released last week, The Legacy of the BBC Micro, produced by NESTA and the Science Museum.

Reflecting on the remarkable success of the BBC Micro-inspired Computer Literacy Project of the 1980s - tie-in broadcasts, it reveals, reached 16 per cent of the adult population, with audience figures of up to a staggering 1.2 million for late night TV shows - the report notes with concern: "There is, as yet, no central body that will play the essential role in assembling, coordinating and supporting a learning network for computer literacy".

Directly prodded on the issue during the BFI debate, Livingstone responded: "We've got to start somewhere. Even if it's just computer clubs at schools, even if it's children teaching the teachers. It has to happen. We can't just stand still until everyone is satisfied - we've got to start somewhere or we'll just fall behind."

True enough. But it seems the Next Gen Skills campaign itself realises this fragmented approach probably isn't good enough in the long term. Which is why it's no longer only looking to the Britain of the past for its inspiration, but now also to the Middle East of the present.

In his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, science author Jonah Lehrer attempts to explain Israel's remarkable transformation into the wildly successful tech hub Eric Schmidt called the second-best place in the world for entrepreneurs after the US.

Israel attracted $2bn in VC funding in 2008, three times the amount per capita as the US; in 2009 it had more companies listed on the NASDAQ than Canada; and in the last decade has, writes Lehrer, "produced more successful high-tech start-ups than Japan, India, Korea and the United Kingdom". It's also home to the company, PrimeSense, which created the 3D tech behind Microsoft's Kinect.

Fitting it into his wider thesis on how urban areas drive innovation, Lehrer argues that "the intimacy of Israel's social networks means that ideas circulate at an incredibly fast pace", with the small nation having "found a way to maximize their human capital".

The analysis is compelling, but excludes one key fact: Israel also made computer science a key focus of its curriculum over a decade ago. And that's why the Next Gen Skills campaign has spent the past week shouting about a dry 1995 Israeli report, A High-School Program in Computer Science", which formed the basis for the country's initiative.

At the core of Israel's own computing revolution is the Machshave Israeli National Computer Science Teaching Centre, effectively an HQ for the subject. It was lauded by Ian Livingstone during the BFI debate, who said: "They've had computer science for 12 years, and guess where some of the best tech IP is coming out of? Israel."

"Israel attracted $2bn in VC funding in 2008, three times the amount per capita as the US; in 2009 it had more companies listed on the NASDAQ than Canada"

The Royal Society's report on computing in UK schools, published in January of this year, stated that Israel "has the most rigorous computer science high school program in the world".

Next Gen Skills, meanwhile, has gone so far as to describe Israel as the "clearest example of leadership" on the teaching of computer skills. The UK games industry has certainly demonstrated thought leadership on the issue, but what the model of Machshave and the conclusions of the BBC Micro Legacy report suggest is the need now for organisational leadership.

The benefits to video games development of a new generation of highly-skilled employees are obvious. We know what happened last time, after all. But this campaign, spearheaded passionately and tirelessly by the games industry, stands to benefit the country at large, too.

In his book Jonah Lehrer cites as one of the primary reasons for the success of the likes of Silicon Valley and Israel in the tech world an open, connected, sharing culture that massively accelerated innovation and the acquisition of knowledge.

The same was true of BBC Micro-era Cambridge, as the Legacy report explains: "The impact of Acorn can be seen directly in high-tech companies such as ARM [whose processors are found in 90 per cent of the world's smartphones], and indirectly in the serial entrepreneurs, strong social networks and inspiration to others that were, in part, created by Acorn".

It's this very culture that turned the UK into a world leader in games development in the '80s and one which persists, with elegant circularity, in the philosophy behind the credit-card sized PC created by those who owe their success to the period.

Which is why the not-for-profit foundation behind Raspberry Pi plans to put blueprints for the device into the public domain, actively encouraging others to manufacture rival devices for the greater goods of innovation and education.

"One of the primary reasons for the success of Israel in the tech world is an open, connected, sharing culture that massively accelerated innovation"

As David Braben, founder of Frontier Developments, spokesperson for Raspberry Pi and game maker inspired by the UK's previous computing revolution, told GamesIndustry International this week: "There was a lot of damage done to the education system by the introduction of ICT.

"What we're trying to do is to provide, almost, the antidote. Now unfortunately that gap of ten years or so will remain, but at least we can start increasing numbers again so that there will be people coming through, in ten years or so, who do have an understanding of technology."

"The Acorn and BBC Micro story has had an enormous influence on the industrial vibrancy of Cambridge and beyond," notes the report on its legacy. It hasn't finished yet. But the influences now come from further afield, too.

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Johnny Minkley: Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.
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