+Comment A founder of the volunteer technology education group Code Club has resigned, claiming she was warned not to criticise the group’s sponsors – which include Google.
User interface designer Linda Sandvik claims she was told to shut up or quit.
“On Monday the 25th of August the Code Club board gave me an ultimatum: either I have to stop saying negative things about Code Club sponsors, or resign as a director. After careful consideration, I have handed in my resignation,” Sandvik writes on her blog.
Enthusiasts – including many Register readers - have been giving children after-school lessons for years. But recently, with a major media hype, big money has flowed in. The Code Club network was only founded in 2012, with a mission “to change children's attitude to coding, making it cool and fun" but it rapidly won big backing.
Amongst its supporters are Nesta and the Cabinet Office, who funnelled taxpayers money to fund Lily Cole’s whimsical wishing-well site, Impossible.com. Largely unexamined by Parliament, the Cabinet Office has been expanded in recent years and used to fund faddish initiatives favoured by No.10 policy wonks – such as the Nudge Unit (now at Nesta) and GDS, a state IT contractor largely staffed by web designers.
Google is listed as a corporate sponsor.
Sandvik claims she was advised what to say if awkward subjects came up.
“For instance, if someone asks me about x's involvement in corporate mass surveillance where x is a Code Club sponsor (e.g. Google), I should answer: ‘I do not want to get into the specifics of any particular corporation. Nonetheless, it’s worth restating that the Code Club board believe X are a tremendous partner. As a member of the board I am completely aligned with that view'."
Google has attracted criticism by attempting to set the agenda through splurging cash on lobbyists, “grassroots” organisations and sympathetic academics. A Washington Post investigation recently listed over 150 recipients of Google's munificence – there’s a nice interactive graphic here.
Despite studies showing computer use makes no difference to educational outcomes, the top-down coding gravy train rolls on. Programming becomes part of the curriculum from next week. Last year PM David Cameron called for “more emphasis on modern methods of computing like coding”.
The saga illustrates the perils of inviting big corporate and state money into the volunteering sector. Britain once led the world in community-centred civic organisation, with mutual societies, co-operatives and trade unions looking after many of the working and middle classes' health, education and finance needs. The organisations didn’t cover everyone, of course, but they created a civic spine and gave their users strong grassroots accountability. For example, savers could be confident their nest eggs wouldn’t be gambled away. And workers could hire and fire their doctors. Try firing your doctor today.
Volunteers have been teaching kids to code for years, long before the formation of Code Club and the media’s current obsession with teaching computer programming in schools. Coding volunteers have told us of their concerns – and worry about being co-opted or replaced by bureaucratic, centralised schemes. It’s a well-merited concern.
The Wall Street Journal credited VC Saul Klein of Index Ventures with creating the current hype. Klein invested heavily in his education companies (aimed at adult professionals as well as children), and sits on the board of the publicly-funded Year of Code project, along with many of his investments. See our Timeline for a summary. ®
A spokesperson at a public relations agency retained by Google contacted the Register to deny making “any suggestions” to CodeClub or its supporters in government not to criticise sponsors and invited us to read CodeClub’s blog entry. Codeclub has also been in touch with us to ask us to do the latter...