Get with the program

30th March 2012 at 01:00

I'm delighted that computer programming for children could soon be back in fashion. During the 1980s, early in my headship, home computers were suddenly the big thing. Local education authorities quickly latched on to the possibilities for their schools, although not always wisely.

The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), for whom I worked at the time, opted for providing London schools with a clunky black box excitingly called the 480Z. Built like an early Lada, it weighed a tonne and was extremely inconvenient to trundle around classrooms, and even worse if you had to lug it upstairs. Software programs were loaded via cassette tape, which could take up to 15 minutes and often failed at the last few bytes. Since the software was usually pretty grim, most teachers gave up in frustration at the constant technical hitches.

But computing excited me, and I wanted it in my school. Not just one machine, either. I wanted one in every classroom, and the only way to achieve this was to buy the reasonably priced but tacky Sinclair ZX Spectrum. The ILEA had no time for this machine, insisting we stick to the party line and buy 480Zs. Ignoring this, we went into serious fundraising mode and managed to buy a set-up for each classroom comprising a Spectrum, a tiny thermal printer and a cassette recorder for loading software. Kit like this was highly desirable at the time, and school security was poor, so we virtually had to nail it to the floor to stop it being nicked by the local criminal element.

It was crude but fun, and the children loved it. What we really wanted, though, was the attractive and beautifully engineered BBC Micro, the computer that most sensible authorities were supplying their schools with. The top model had a whopping memory of ... wait for it ... 32kB, an amazing amount at the time, and when more money became available for computing I asked the ILEA if I could spend it on a few BBC Micros. Back came the reply: "No, you can't. But you can buy another 480Z if you want to."

More fundraising, and eventually we became one of the first schools in the country to have a stock of BBC Micros, with local reporters rushing round to take photographs of our nursery children using one. Many of the programs were good, too. I remember a classic called "Podd", a little orange-faced space creature who sat waiting for children to type in words to discover what he could do. He could fly, explode into tiny pieces, chuckle and expand, delighting the children while they learned how to spell.

The BBC Micro was very reliable, but it did have one annoying fault. It would suddenly refuse to load programs from cassette. There were plenty of shops willing to repair them, but they charged #163;25 a time, a fortune in those days (I taught myself how to mend them).

But the most exciting thing of all was programming the machine. I learned BBC Basic and spent eight months writing my first program. With this new-found skill, I set up programming groups at school. It wasn't long before children were writing simple animated games, learning logic, design, art and animation - and enjoying it.

Children were in charge of the technology and making it work for them, not the other way round. And hopefully this is what schools can achieve once more.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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