Computer science: The lingua franca of innovative business

8th April 2011 at 01:00
Games publisher Ian Livingstone

Our children are surrounded by computers at school, in the playground and at home. They run their social lives through mobile devices, immerse themselves in video games and get a top-up dose of ICT in the national curriculum. You would be forgiven for thinking that computers are the one thing that no modern pupil is missing out on.

But you couldn't be more wrong. In fact, the narrowness of how we teach children about computers risks creating a generation of digital illiterates, and starving some of the UK's most successful industries of the talent they need to thrive.

I have been involved in the UK's world-beating video-games industry for over two decades as an entrepreneur, investor and adviser. The games business exemplifies a range of industries where the UK has an advantage: it requires a combination of technical expertise and creative flair, the marriage of art and science. And it makes a real contribution to our troubled economy: with over pound;2 billion in global sales, it is bigger than our film or music industries.

I know from our industry the importance of real computer skills - and how hard it is to recruit them in the UK. Tasked by Government and working with Nesta, an organisation that supports UK innovation, I recently co-published a review of skills necessary for the video-games and visual-effects industries. Next Gen details a set of 20 recommendations (download at www.nesta.org.uk) and highlights the poor quality of computer teaching in schools as one of our biggest obstacles to growth.

This frustration is common to other sectors not usually associated with computing: in a computerised world, Rolls-Royce and GlaxoSmithKline depend on great programming as much as games developers and visual-effects companies do. Computing is no longer a marginal skill for experts and geeks: it is the lingua franca of competitive, innovative businesses. I hope Michael Gove will forgive me if I say that computer science is the new Latin.

But computer science is precisely where our school system, and the national curriculum in particular, is letting the UK down. The computers in our classrooms and the investment that keeps them running are a great asset. But for the most part, they are not used effectively. The national curriculum enjoins schools to teach not computer science but ICT - a strange hybrid of desktop publishing lessons and Microsoft tutorials. While PowerPoint and Excel are useful vocational skills, they are never going to equip anybody for a career in video games or visual effects.

Computer science is different. It is a vital, analytical discipline, and a system of logical thinking that is as relevant to the modern world as physics, chemistry or biology. Computer science is to ICT what writing is to reading. And it is from the combination of computer programming and creativity that world-changing companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter were built. Indeed, in a world where computers define so much of how society works, from how we do business to how we enjoy ourselves, I would argue that computer science is "essential knowledge" for the 21st century. This requires that computer science is restored to its rightful place among the sciences.

Recent reforms to apprenticeships and further education are welcome, but will not achieve what we need, namely to put into the minds of all pupils an understanding of how computers work and how to manipulate them. Professor Alison Wolf's recent review of vocational education emphasised the importance of academic knowledge in grounding practical learning. Putting computer science in the national curriculum will end the isolation of computers - the defining technological force of the new century - in a strange quasi-vocational educational ghetto, and instead prepare our pupils for some of the UK's most successful growth industries, especially the digital and creative industries.

Mr Gove recently highlighted the importance of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's schooldays, in which he studied Greek and Latin alongside maths and sciences. Yet his school also taught computer science, which not only gave him practical skills but provided the intellectual underpinnings of his blockbuster business.

Faced with a world in which they will be surrounded by computers and the opportunities they create, Britain's schoolchildren deserve the same chance.

Ian Livingstone is life president of Eidos, publisher of games including `Tomb Raider'

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