back to article Compulsory coding in schools: The new Nerd Tourism

The writer Toby Young tells a story about how the modern 100m race is run in primary schools. At the starting pistol, everyone runs like mad. At the 50m point, the fastest children stop and wait for the heavier kids to catch up. Then all the youngsters walk across the finishing line together, holding hands. I have no idea if …


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  1. Thomas 18


    We don’t need a lot of people who know a bit about chemistry, but a few people who are extremely good at actually doing chemistry well. The better the elite are, the more productive and innovative our pharmaceutical companies, and therefore the more our economy will benefit.

    So people who will become members of this chemical engineering elite do not require a compulsory Noddy-level introduction to acids vs alkali. Economically, teaching everybody “a bit” of chemistry is a waste of time. We’d be better off stimulating and challenging the young bright chemical engineering aspirants identified as such in schools.

    1. Eugene Crosser

      Re: Maybe?


      Writing HTML as a lesson of "computer science" is like mixing epoxy as a lesson of chemistry. In the school the fundamentals of chemistry are taught, acids vs alkali as you said. For "computer science", the fundamentals would be a bit of semiconductors, a bit of Boolean logic, a bit of information theory. Then, a chance to write a few simple programs in Python for Raspberry Pi, or (better) for Arduino. Not HTML pages.

      1. asdf Silver badge

        Re: Maybe?

        >Writing HTML as a lesson of "computer science"

        What there are a whole lot of design hacks that think using Dreamweaver to create HTML makes them professional developers. Web development to software engineering for the most part is what tabloids are to journalism.

    2. Graham Dawson Silver badge

      Re: Maybe?

      Knowing the difference between acid and alkali is not comparable to knowing how to fiddle with a stylesheet.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Maybe?

        Algorithms&Data Structures would be quite comparable to (say) infinitesimal calculus. The argument is indeed valid.

        Teaching specifics of a certain technology would be different, though.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Maybe?

        "Knowing the difference between acid and alkali is not comparable to knowing how to fiddle with a stylesheet."

        I think the point being made is that knowing how to fiddle with a stylesheet/HTML doesn't mean you know anything about computer science. At a push, you know about HEX for the colour codes, that as close as I can get stylesheets to computer science.

        I know hundreds of programmers who can program in HTML. Well, I knew them to the point they said that, then I ran away.

    3. Giles Jones Gold badge

      Re: Maybe?

      The point is that people who will go on to be a genius in something may not know about their gift or their interest in something until they are told about it.

      Many gifted athletes are discovered at school doing sports. Not all children like sports or are good at them, but by ensuring everyone does it the gifted are found.

      What is lost at the moment is the curiosity to see how things work and then alter things or repair them. Instead we buy a gadget and then throw it away when it doesn't work. We're discouraged from opening them with messages like "No user serviceable parts inside".

      Some kids will self learn, but they can get up to speed faster with pointers. If I had been guided a bit more back in the C64 days I may have gone on to write some assembly language software. But school IT was not at that level, they were teaching LOGO and Pascal.

  2. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Tin foil hat time

    Learning to code has nothing do do with C,C++,C#, PHP, Ruby, Python, VB, et al, and everything to do with developing a logical view of the world, and problem solving. Two activities successive governments have tried to breed out of the population. Keeps them docile, you see. As long as they are fed their diet of "celebrity" gossip, soaps, and "reality" TV, they won't be thinking about revolting too much. I believe the Romans had a name for it.

    Meanwhile, if you actually need people to do the logic and problem solving, then why not bring in non residents (who will be too busy working to revolt) or offshore the work ?

    Given the level of mainstream debate on most issues requiring a bit of scientific knowledge, I'd say it's pretty much mission accomplished.

    1. crowley

      Bread and the circus

      Bring people in? Isn't it about time we taught the people we already have to think?

      France does philosophy and critical thinking in their schools - perhaps we should do the same and let the kids self-select who want to be geeks, chemists, etc.

      We would of course need to insist that children are fed food that allows their brains to develop, mandatory healthy school meals, taxes on fatty/sugary filth to fund subsidies on healthy food.

      Sod your 'right' to eat shit and produce idiots - the rest of us end up paying for that 'lifestyle choice'.

      Decent bread leading to intelligent people who find their work more interesting and more satisfying than any circus.

      1. JimmyPage Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        Isn't it about time we taught the people we already have to think?

        Depends what you think is going on around you. If you believe that the state acts in a rational manner, for the good of all it's citizens, then you'd be right. If, on the other hand, you believe the state acts to maintain a very self-selected elite in the style to which they have become accustomed, then you'd be wrong.

        The powers that be have always been terrified of a populus that has any degree of learning. Because once you realise that most of the world around us can be explained in rational, sensible terms, you start asking why you need politicians (or, in days of yore, priests and shaman) to manage it on our behalf.

        The howling irony is that given the tools of instant communication, and sharing of ideas and beliefs that the internet has given us, instead of becoming MORE enlightened, we are, as a nation, becoming LESS so. Those select few have realised the risk that open debate poses to their standing, and have manipulated the public into rejecting anything remotely approaching rational debate. Look at the ChildPornTerroristCopyrightInfringingAdultcontentPublicdisorder "initiatives" that are being tabled right now.

        So the roadmap is clear. Dumb down the indigenous population, so they are docile and compliant, and come to heel when the dog-whistle words of "terrorism" or "child abuse" are mentioned. Then exploit (as you have done for hundreds of years) people from less-developed countries into being serfs here.

      2. Someone Else Silver badge

        Re: Bread and the circus

        Well, yes, of course it is about time...unless, of course, you're one of the 1%-er landed gentry. Then, the last possible thing you would want is more and more logical thinkers and deductive reasoners, who would have an annoying tendency to see through the bluster and bullshit that you shovel out on a regular basis, and these damn logical types might then just get a bit...uppity.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Bread and the circus

        @crowley : My daughter does Critical Thinking at school and can do philosophy if she wants. She drives a computer pretty well too but doesn't want to learn computer science at all.

        As for your idea that "the rest of us end up paying for that 'lifestyle choice', I'm sorry but SOME of us pay for it. Not all. In this case, I am actually paying for it direct and not you (not one penny). So, she will eat what she likes, when she likes and not what you choose is acceptable.

    2. EvilMole

      Re: Tin foil hat time

      That's actually a great example of teaching the application, rather than the principles.

      Coding is just an example of approaching problem solving in a rational, logical way: it teaches you rational methods of approaching a set of specific logical problems.

      What we should, be doing instead is teaching the basics of reason, rhetoric, and logic. Those are applicable directly to everything, from political discourse through to scientific argument.

      1. Thomas 18

        Re: Tin foil hat time

        Coding is also a great way to visualise logic and learn how it can go wrong by debugging an unexpected outcome. I think you would have more luck teaching them (programming/logic) side by side than independently.

        In fact I'd go farther and say you cant teach someone reasoned thought, rhetoric etc without having a concrete example like a classroom debate or historical film etc.

    3. Iberian

      Re: Tin foil hat time

      I agree.

      Teaching "programming" is failing to understand the issue completely. The skills needed are reasoning; logic; critical analysis; problem solving. Teaching how to use a coding language in isolation is nonsense.

      1. streaky Silver badge

        Re: Tin foil hat time

        I dare say it's about much more than that. Sure critical analysis, logic and maths are part of writing software, but there's a fundamental level of intelligence it takes to write good software that you just can't teach people.

        It should be about nurturing the curious not effectively force feeding it to people that don't give a damn.

        We don't even know as a species how to teach it to people who are interested (see: the number of real-world unemployable java developers our universities are spitting out every year) so I can only guess at the stupidity that will ensue trying to league table academy software secondary school's for kids who's parents think writing software is the easy way to a fast quid or 20 million.

  3. AndrueC Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    I would say that an important part of programming that ought to be taught is how to deal - sorry interact - with people who can't. Most especially those above you in the hierarchy. Thorny topics such as 'I need time to refactor' or 'Just because our competitor does it doesn't make it a good idea'. Possibly even 'Asking me to work longer hours won't magically fix the problem'.

    Programming is as much art as skill. Programmers need to be given enough freedom to enjoy their work and respect shown to them to encourage them. Yes, programming is a job but it is NOT a production line scenario. We need time to think and to explore and the business needs to realise that. We can work to a deadline but only if the schedule includes some 'us' time.

    1. DJV Silver badge
      Thumb Up


      Some very true and wise words there! Programming can also be intuitive (for some) - I have often "fixed" problems by going away and doing completely different until the solution pops into my head (I think some sort of agency sends them telepathically).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @AndrueC

        Oh aye, I can't count how many times the solution to a problem I've been working on has popped into my head on the drive home.

        Couple that with my shit memory and penchant for a couple of pints after work and it's usually disappeared by the morning; should probably keep a notepad in the car.

        1. AndrueC Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: @AndrueC

          Rather disturbingly some of my best ideas have come while I've been in the loo :)

          1. Crisp Silver badge

            Re: @AndrueC

            I suffer from the unfortunate affliction of getting solutions for everyone else's problems, but not my own.

            1. DJV Silver badge


              "I suffer from the unfortunate affliction of getting solutions for everyone else's problems, but not my own."

              You should become a consultant!

          2. David Lucke

            Re: @AndrueC

            I tend to find solutions to problems coming to me in the shower. I ascribe it to the warm water heating up my brain to its ideal operating temperature.

        2. Evan Essence

          Re: @AndrueC

          @AC 09:44

          I keep a cheap voice memo recorder in the car within easy reach while I'm driving.

      2. Stoneshop Silver badge


        >"fixed" problems by going away and doing completely different

        This is similar to "Explain it to the bear first": a stuffed teddy bear sitting on a chair outside some University IT department's helpdesk office. People would have to stop thinking about whatever problem they were having to deal with on their on level (and probably going round in circles on that level), step back and describe the problem into small, easy to understand chunks that a stuffed teddy bear can grok. Cut down significantly the number of helpdesk requests.

        1. Philip Lewis

          Re: @DJV

          The "crash test" dummy is the THE MOST EFFECTIVE thought quality assurance device ever invented. The act of collecting thoughts, ideas and arguments into a logical and reasoned whole in isolation, is something very few people master (Tesla could for example), mere mortals are helped immensely by the mechanics of speech. Simply REQUIRING people to articulate the issues in a logical and reasoned way, eliminates 90% of the issues straight up, as it becomes clear to the speaker what he/she had been "missing", without any return communication from the crash test dummy. What most people realise is that they are only about 10% as smart as they thought they were, and they toddle off back to think some more.

          I introduced the "dummy" concept on a project 25 years ago, and to this day I still sometimes ask my colleagues to "be my dummy" and hear my take on the issues. In 99% of all cases, the issue gets resolved, either by me realising my own logical or other error/oversight, or by the dummy uttering the something that makes it all "gel".

          By the way, programming is the final act. Most of the work is in understanding the problem, understanding the schema, articulating precisely requirements etc. etc. Programming is just the end mechanisim for creating something that reflects what went before. The 80/20 rule applies here more than anywere else.

          1. BorkedAgain
            Thumb Up

            Re: @Philip Lewis

            "...programming is the final act...."

            Spot on. Does my heart good to hear that, although you might want to add a moment or two for testing afterwards. But you're dead right - it's all about the preparation.

            There's a skillset that's worth instilling in the next generation. Those who don't grok it can always be shunted into the mandatory Project Management course down the hall...

            1. Vic

              Re: @Philip Lewis

              > But you're dead right - it's all about the preparation.

              A former colleague of mine had an excellent saying: "a week of keyboard-bashing can sometimes remove the need for an hour's thought".

              Now watch someone who doesn't get it come along and "correct" the above... :-(


          2. Vic

            Re: @DJV

            > The "crash test" dummy is the THE MOST EFFECTIVE thought quality

            > assurance device ever invented

            Yes. But it is improved by a simple procesure: eliminate all pronouns.

            It's amazing how much sloppy thinking is eradicated once you stop calling everything "it". Using nouns instead reveals the mismatch between objects straight away...


            1. Northumbrian

              Re: @DJV

              And requiring all political discourse to be conducted without the use of the word "They", would reveal or remove a great deal of muddled thinking. Precision is the enemy demagoguery.

    2. Naughtyhorse


      so that's a lifetime subscription to Dilbert for every 10 year-old!

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

    A basic insight into a lot of things is useful - that's kind of what the schooling before GCSEs is all about. Kids so learn a little cookery, history, science geography etc... IT classes should teach a bit of programming. If you just rely on people who are already "into" programming, you will just get the geeks whose parents were probably geeks as programmers. If you introduce all children to it, there will be some who like it, are good at it even though it had never occurred to them before. You may find that these people would be more creative than hard core programmers too. Of course, it must be explained that programming, although essential in the industry, is not essential to individuals, otherwise the education would probably scare off 99.9% of potential IT people who found programming tedious.

    It is a meritocracy, and it should be - but if you don't look for talent, you wont find it all.

    1. Ian McNee

      Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

      Quite right. Mr Orlowski seems to be dipping into his pal Toby Young's tabloid journalistic toolbox, in this case making use of the false dichotomy. What most people are arguing for is ICT in schools to be more like computer science and less like ECDL.

      Neither Rory Cellan-Jones nor Michael Gove have raised the paper tiger of compulsory coding lessons in schools but this article has certainly has its intended effect of drawing the fire of the Daily Wail commentards below lining up to shoot down not only compulsory coding but also any whiff of equality in education and possibly the return of free school milk too.

      For the record: I have no remit for Michael Gove or his party - on the scale of over-educated chinless wankers he is right up there with Toby Young.

      1. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

        Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

        @Ian McNee:

        - ICT is a compulsory part of Key Stage 3.

        - The campaign is to include programming as part of ICT.

        - Therefore, programming becomes compulsory.

        It's quite simple. Logic really isn't your strong point, is it?

        1. Ian McNee

          Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

          @Andrew Orlowski: again with the tabloid journalist techniques - you conflate coding and computer science. When I did my computer science degree there was a lot more to it than just coding and though that was way back the 80s it is no different now.

        2. P. Lee
          IT Angle

          Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

          Programming is a side-effect of learning the principles on which computers work, not an end in itself.

          There's no point learning all the Java libraries or VBA. There's plenty of point learning how to do assembly, relational algebra, arrays, pointers, linked-lists, sets, recursion, iteration, vector execution and algorithm design, ASCII codes, AND/OR/NOT operations, arbitrary number bases etc.

          You might use Logo, Ruby, Pascal, 6502 assembly, PERL, C++ or (shiver) BASIC to demonstrate that you know how to do a bubble-sort and its pros/cons vs a quicksort.

          You probably won't need to know sort types if you go on to be a coder, but it will give you an insight into what it is like to do data processing and whether you enjoy algorithm design or systems analysis.

          Stay away from the GUIs, Office suits and web-browsers - isn't that the point of the Raspberry Pi?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

        I attribute my intellectual power to all the school milk I drank as a child. I now see why most of the morons who work for me are so intellectually crippled (despite be MVPs in whatever language is flavour of the month).

        I vote for free school milk (and not that modern homogonised crap either)! Sooner rather than later


    2. Goldmember
      Thumb Up

      Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

      Well said. The article seems to ignore the fact that there is a genuine shortage of programmers in this country. This is great on a personal, short-sighted level (8 months in to a new job and I STILL get almost daily emails with prospective local jobs), but bad for the industry as a whole.

      Fair enough, not all kids will enjoy coding, and will want to drop it as soon as possible. But there is a need to instil that 'bug', a need not being fulfilled by the current curriculum. I tried and hated PE, textiles and art in school, but I could see the need for it. I came through the school system relatively recently (I left high school 12 years ago), and was completely uninspired by the IT (renamed 'ICT' while I was there) curriculum; typing printed pages of text into Word, Google searches, saving files. All stuff I was doing at home anyway. I took it upon myself to learn to code as I had friends who were into it, and then carried it on into A-Level and University. But I am in the minority it woulod seem. And this point:

      "But time is not infinite, and the proposition requires us to make special time for compulsory coding, shoving other subjects out of the way."

      Surely the only 'subjects' it will shove out of the way are the existing parts of the IT curriculum that are a waste of time anyway; typing, Internet browsing, basic computer use. All things that most students can do by the time they start PRIMARY school nowadays anyway. I seem to remember Gove calling for the IT curriculum to be scrapped and re hashed, not extended to overlap other subjects

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        "The article seems to ignore the fact that there is a genuine shortage of programmers in this country"

        Really? The hundreds of coders I know who've been let go over the last 5 years to be replaced by cheap offshore resource, might disagree with that? There is no shortage of coders, just most of them, like myself, have gotten so fed up with dealing with all the crap that they have transferred their skills into other areas that cannot be as easily replaced by unskilled Indians.

        There are various levels to 'coding' and the most basic one is taking a spec and translating it into code, this is mostly noddy work that can be done by anyone with half a brain, and in my experience is! Then it progressively goes on to being able to understand how to build and structure code properly. Do designs etc.

        What needs to be taught are the foundations behind programming, the critical thinking, the solving of problems in a logical and structured way... You could know every detail of every programming language on the planet, but if everything you code has to be structured and laid out for you to the nth degree by someone else, then you are pointless!

        I work with people who have been coding for decades,, but the code they write is, well, shite. They have spent 20 plus years doing the same things in the same way with no real understanding of how and why, throw something unexpected at them and they are completely out of their depth as they have no concept of solving problems, they just know an archaic programming language that is quite a rare skill nowadays (of course a decent developer in another language could probably pick I up and surpass them in a month, but project managers don't want it in a month, they want it now)

      2. streaky Silver badge

        Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

        "The article seems to ignore the fact that there is a genuine shortage of programmers in this country"

        Just isn't true. We got plenty of programmers, just the wrong kind - the result of people who don't know what they're doing forcing policy on people who don't care (lecturers). I also think it is important to differentiate between a code monkey (easily replaceable by somebody in India) and a proper software eng that isn't easy to replace so cheaply.

        As for school ICT looking more like comp sci, the question here is ICT is genuinely useful to everybody, comp sci will aggravate the kind of person who is going to end up studying sports science and cause more problems than it solves.

        I'm not arguing that the current (or past) ICT program is fit for purpose, just that throwing comp sci for everybody all the time might not be a sane idea. Also not for nothing but the people we having teaching ICT in schools mostly aren't qualified for ICT let alone comp sci anyways.

    3. CD001

      Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

      A basic insight into a lot of things is useful - that's kind of what the schooling before GCSEs is all about.

      Really? Name one thing you learnt doing GCSEs that has been of any use to you in life after school?

      Osmosis is the passage of water, through a semi-permeable membrane, from a weaker to a stronger solution ... useful to know.

      The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides .. yup, use that regularly.

      ummm ... hang on ...

      I'm fairly sure that in your adult life you'll rely more on primary or degree level things, secondary schools (and therefore GCSEs) are basically there to keep children out of the way while they grow up.

      1. Goldmember


        You're missing the point; school is mostly not about literal skills (with the exception of maybe English and foreign languages), it's supposed to be about expanding your mind to absorb knowledge in different ways, giving you the mechanism to learn the literal skills later on.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

        Well, I did help somebody work out the foci of an ellipse so they could have a stove in a greenhouse.* Of course, I think that was A level maths for me, but it's generally quite important to learn the GCSE** stuff first.

        Secondary education is, unfortunately, there mostly to reduce the amount universities have to teach you. Of course, I've been out of it for a few years now so for all I know they might have added some more pragmatism and improved the vocational side.***

        As for teaching everybody programming, there is a good reason to do it, but it also need a good approach.

        Programming is a problem-solving exercise requiring the programmer to break a process down into logical chunks. Considered in the abstract the skills are a good thing for people to learn.

        But the other reason to do it is to expose people to it. Children are people too: they have prejudices and social pressures to conform and will often not even consider certain paths without being forced to try something.

      3. Graham Dawson Silver badge

        Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

        "The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides .. yup, use that regularly."

        I do. It's very handy when you're building a house, just as a random example that has nothing at all to do with what I do (which is building, don'tcha know). Or even if you're a software developer who wants to, I don't know, program something to display a triangle on a screen.

        Of course, I learned such things back when the GCSE mathematics papers required long written answers.

        Which is to say nothing about the point of the article anyway. Which point, I should add, makes a great deal of sense to me. Some things should be compulsory, but teaching computer skilzzzzzz isn't one of them as it tends to be either a skive-off class or actively puts people off getting involved in software development. GCSE IT is a complete faff.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

          Things might have changed quite a bit since I went to school.

          However, back then, you got a little of everything for the first three years to see what you liked and what you were good at, then you chose your subjects for the last two for O levels. Back then, everyone took "Computer Studies" for the first three years and I chose to continue. Many others didn't .

          The issue at the heart of this is that schools have now junked Computer Studies for what people used to call "Typing". Now there's nothing wrong with "typing" but it displaced Computer Studies to the point of which it is hardly now taught anywhere at a time where computing as a subject should be hotter than it ever was before.

          In my view, they should kill off ICT as a subject. Most kids know how to use Powerpoint and Word. Re-introduce Computer Studies and make it the compulsory replacement.

          I didn't pursue history in my final two years because it did not interest me, but I don't see anyone calling for that to be scrapped. It is important to get a bit of everything in early secondary education to explore your interests.

      4. davenewman

        Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

        One thing I learned in my GCEs that were useful later? Well,

        1. From RK, how the Bible was written by 4 groups of people, helped me when a Jehovah's Witness came around.

        2. I still use some of the French I learned (although if I had been taught by the techniques now used to teach adults, I would be able to speak it fast enough to keep up with Frenchmen).

        3. I learned enough trigonometry to be able to navigate a yacht.

      5. Vic

        Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

        > Name one thing you learnt doing GCSEs that has been of any use to you in life after school?

        Well, I didn't do GCSEs - but I did learn some rudimentary woodwork and metalwork skills at that age. They've stood me in good stead...


    4. streaky Silver badge

      Re: A little bit of knowledge does no harm - it's essential

      "you will just get the geeks whose parents were probably geeks as programmers"

      My parents are still-computer clueless despite how much I teach them and how many laptops I buy them, so I find this sentiment a little bit offensive.

      People who will be good at computing subjects will naturally gravitate to them, end of story.

  5. jake Silver badge

    This is part of the "no child left behind" mindset.

    In reality, not all children are born to be blacksmiths. Or painters. Or stonemasons. Or writers. Or shepherds. Or brewers. Or cooks. Or ... well, you get the idea.

    Instead of dragging all the kids who are good at thing back in the name of the politically-correct "all kids created equal", how about allowing kids with exceptional ability in (whatever) to advance?

    Honestly, my mind boggles.

    1. Norman Hartnell

      Re: This is part of the "no child left behind" mindset.

      I hate the current railing against "elitism" from the know-nots. They would be the first to complain if their football team didn't field elite players, or their medical treatments weren't by highly-skilled professionals, but they also feel threatened by the intelligentsia, so try to drag everyone down to their level.

      Any child who shows aptitude in any field should be encouraged to become part of the elite in it, without fear of social stigma.


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