+Comment The government's "Year Of Code" scheme to bring computer programming into schools for children as young as five has degenerated into a political bunfight.
"The word 'coding' has been hijacked and abused by politicians and media who don't understand stuff,” the Raspberry Pi foundation’s director of educational development and a former teacher, Clive Beale, tweeted at the weekend.
The scheme has also raised the profile of a network of companies and consultants who'll ultimately profit from the "teach kids to code" gravy train.
Additionally, it has left candidates who consider themselves rather better qualified out in the cold - and they're not happy. Emma Mulqueeny of Young Rewired State, who has spent six years organising youth coding events, says she was invited to advise the board only two days before last week's launch - and has now resigned.
What is YoC?
The Year of Code scheme adds £500,000 to the £3m already pledged to dinosaur trade group the British Computer Society to teach 400 teachers coding skills - so they can teach every other teacher in the country.
The initiative's chairman is Rohan Silva, a Philosophy, Politics and Economics graduate and former advisor to the Prime Minister who rebranded "Silicon Roundabout" as "Tech City" and is an enthusiast for all things shiny and Googly. But after an interview on BBC's Newsnight with the YoC's chief on Wednesday – widely described as a "car crash" - potential enthusiasts are backing away.
Code chief can't actually code
On Newsnight, the Year of Code chief executive Lottie Dexter invited comparisons with The IT Crowd's Jen as she breezily admitted she couldn't write any code herself - while insisting being able to program was vital to "to understand how the world works" - a skill as vital as reading writing and maths - and could be learned in a day.
"It doesn’t mean anything to you, or indeed to me yet because I don’t know how to code,” she told a startled Jeremy Paxman. You can see the exchanges here - the segment starts at 17m:55s and is available in the UK for another day.
So what made Silva choose Lottie Dexter to lead the initiative? It's hard to tell. She completed her politics degree in 2010 and formerly worked as the PR chief for the Conservative think-tank founded by Iain Duncan-Smith, the Centre for Social Justice. The only other work experience she cites on her LinkedIn page is as a campaigner: director of the "Million Jobs" campaign, a "charity" that spontaneously emerged to support government-friendly business policies.
How a VC strategy created the 'kids coding' hype
The scheme has already attracted some press attention for its incestuous relationships. Year of Code's aforementioned chairman, Rohan Silva, is "Entrepreneur in Residence" at Index Ventures, a London-based tech VC company. It is a post created for him by the firm's partner and the UK's "tech envoy" to Israel, Saul Klein.
Index Ventures partner Klein is also on the board of Year of Code. The launch event featured a Moshi Monsters-themed "learning game" developed by Kano Computing, an educational hardware startup co-founded by Klein. Other Year of Code supporters include brand management firm Albion, Songkick, and Codecademy - all of which happen to be supported by Index Ventures, with Klein sitting on the board of each one.
The coding hype-gasm
Codecademy, which should benefit from the "teach kids code" hype, is a US training company that teaches web coding. The Wall Street Journal's AllThingsD noted that Index Ventures' investment Codecademy had "helped kick off the 'everyone should learn to code!' meme".
The participation of the VC staffers in the government's Year of Code initiative resembles a classic "pick and shovel" investment strategy. In a "pick-and-shovel play", an investor hopes to profit from increased demand and services for a particular sector. It's all the better for them if they can hype the sector, increasing the demand for those services.
But no pick-and-shovel investor can hype its product on its own. You need the media to help you. And even the BBC is on the act. Rather than examining the relationships of some of those involved in the "Year of Code", or the claims made on behalf of "coding for all" in schools, it's funding its own "Year of Code".
Or at least, a year of spending money on mucking about with iPads - in this writer's view, one of the few "jobs" its middle managers and digital executives actually can do.
It's true that the sums discussed here are trifling compared to the £1bn thrown at ICT in the UK schools over the five years to 2012 - with £487m spent on IT equipment and services in 2009-2010. But it could also be argued that instead of being driven by genuine demand, "coding in schools" is being driven by investors and the consulting class. ®