Monday, September 26, 2011

Letter to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education (and response)

Date: September 5, 2011
Subject: The importance of computer programming in education
To: [email protected]


I'm writing to introduce you to an important project that directly affects two areas that the government is keen to be active in: education and the promotion of science and technology.

You will no doubt have read that Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, recently criticized the British educational system for failing to teach computing correctly and "throwing away your great computer heritage" [1] by squandering the lead we had starting with Alan Turing all the way through the wonderful BBC Computer Literacy Project in the 1980s. The BBC project inspired a generation of British computer programmers [2] and in turn generated one of the most successful computer chip companies in the world, ARM, which is based in Cambridge. If you have a smartphone in your pocket then it's likely got an ARM chip inside it running it.

We desperately need to get back to a situation where British children are learning how computers work and not just how to use them. A generation of users will do nothing to help British industry, nor realize the government's dream of East London Tech City. As the writer Douglas Rushkoff puts it: Program or be Programmed [3].

Be it in the City where computer feats from the mundane (in Microsoft Excel) to the magnificent (in custom written programs) are the foundation for modern banking, or be it in any other job where real computer literacy is needed (how many times have you or your family had trouble 'programming'---in the sense of making the most of---one of your devices?) We live in a world where understanding computers means we can maximize their use, not be mere users of someone else's tools.

The future benefits are huge. There's currently a popular e-petition going round asking that programming be taught from Year 5 so that it sits alongside literacy and numeracy [4]. I fully support that idea.

But to program, British kids needs a computer, and there's a wonderful volunteer run project that has modern echoes of the BBC Micro project called Raspberry Pi [5]. Based in Cambridge it is close to completion and will be offering a fully fledged computer with advanced modern capabilities based on a British ARM chip that will sell for something like £20. This machine could be the foundation for another generation of computer geniuses like those that were fostered in the 1980s.

This is an area where government can help. The project does not need money, but it does need the sort of wind in its sails that government can provide. If the current government were to back the idea of real computer literacy (and not messing around in Microsoft Word) we could help Britain back to its rightful place. Be it with Raspberry Pi computers in schools, or with some other hardware, we need to get back on top. If we want a British Apple, Microsoft or Facebook, we need the coders. All three of those companies were started by people who knew how to code, not simply use.

I hope to have convinced you of the importance of the idea of teaching kids to code, and, if you could spare the time, I would be happy to meet with you at your convenience to develop further these ideas.

Best wishes,
And the response:
From: [email protected]
Subject: Case Reference 2011/0063770

Dear Mr Graham

Thank you for your email of 15 September, addressed to the Secretary of State, about the importance of computer programming and education. I hope you are able to appreciate the Secretary of State for Education receives a vast amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each one personally. It is for this reason I have been asked to reply.

The Department is always interested in receiving information aimed at improving the educational experience of children, and I can see how your idea could support schools. However, the role of this Department is limited to setting the policy framework of the National Curriculum of what is taught in terms of content, attainment targets and how performance is assessed and reported. Therefore, we do not endorse, fund or promote specific resources or activities for use in schools.

We leave such decisions for teachers themselves to make, as we believe they are best placed to recognise the needs and abilities of their pupils. With this in mind, you may wish to contact schools directly with your suggestion, or Local Authorities (LAs).

Details of LAs can be found on the following website:

Contact details for all schools can be found at:

Once again, thank you for writing.

Yours sincerely

Sandra Duggan
Public Communications Unit
Firstly, they spell my name incorrectly, then they seem to have totally missed the point and only focus on the Raspberry Pi project that I mentioned. Then they suggest that I might like to contact every single local authority and school in the country.

What a pitiful lack of vision on the part of the government.

Update on September 27, 2011

I replied back to the department saying that they'd misunderstood what I was talking about and they gave a more helpful reply:
From: [email protected]
Subject: Case Reference 2011/0065994

Dear Mr Graham-Cumming

Thank you for your further email dated 26 September about the importance of computer programming in the National Curriculum.
We are currently undertaking a review of the National Curriculum. Full details about the review, including its remit and organisation can be viewed at:

We have set out a phased timetable for the National Curriculum review. In phase one, we will design new Programmes of Study for those subjects – English, mathematics, science and physical education. The new Programmes of Study for these subjects will be made available to schools in autumn 2012 for first teaching in September 2013.

Meanwhile, we will also consider which of the other subjects that currently form the National Curriculum, including ICT, should be part of the National Curriculum in the future and, if so, at which stages in a child’s education.

The second phase of the review, starting in early 2012, will produce Programmes of Study for those other subjects remaining within the National Curriculum. These new Programmes of Study will be made available to schools in autumn 2013 for first teaching in 2014.

Until the new National Curriculum is introduced, maintained schools are legally required to continue to follow the current National Curriculum for primary and secondary schools. It is up to schools and teachers to decide what type of topics and activities they offer their students in lessons and how best to manage their classes as they are best placed to recognise the individual learning needs of their pupils.

Once again, thank you for writing.

Yours sincerely

Val Shiels
Public Communications Unit

As part of our commitment to improving the service we provide to our customers, we are interested in hearing your views and would welcome your comments via our website at

Your correspondence has been allocated the reference number 2011/0065994. To contact the Department for Education, please visit

The original of this email was scanned for viruses by the Government Secure Intranet virus scanning service supplied by Cable&Wireless Worldwide in partnership with MessageLabs. (CCTM Certificate Number 2009/09/0052.) On leaving the GSi this email was certified virus free.
Communications via the GSi may be automatically logged, monitored and/or recorded for legal purposes.


skg83239 said...

With David Willets' announcement around the same time as your letter you would have thought you where pushing against an open door? Maybe Michael and David don't talk to each other?

Geraint said...

What Michael Gove is doing is to contine a policy that has been followed by successive British governments for decades, namely to actively pursue a path that ensures that Britain remains a minor player in the world of technology.

Anonymous said...

I call it "F10" syndrome: Some delegated-person gets a job to deal with a "complaints" and "suggestions" in a semi-autonomous manner by replying in a stialised-templated format, and with as much referral to externalities as possible. Once they type up the basics, they hit the F10-key to send it and automagically log it with it's very own non-crime reference number.

Don't be disheartened: It's just "the way".

Paul Keeble said...

When I went through school I had to make a lot of noise and drum up my own support to run Computer Science A level run, convincing 5 other students to do it. There was never a GCSE available and no option to even get enough students together to have one.

It was difficult enough 15 years ago, it sounds like in my old school they don't run CS at all anymore.

Getting the GCSE and A levels run would be a good first step!

MrTortoise said...

I'm glad you posted this,
I totally agree with you as a child of the 80's I have recently begun to get *very* annoyed with the amount of people using computers now that don't have a clue. I am beginning to realise that I am actually quite privaledged to of benefited from the BBC project you mentioned. I'm glad I had because the degrees I studied haven't helped but an ability to code myself out of most situations DOES - and seems to be recession proof. All I know is that my kids will have computers and will be expected to find all kinds of ways of short-cutting jobs using them (I learnt to program to solve thankyou letters lol).

fusionet24 said...

Currently a computing student. All my skills from programming from age 11 was self taught because I unfornately had no choice, there was no-one with the knowledge or patience around to help. In college people have been taught Visual Basic (as much as I hate it) and they're only just releasing how rewarding and exciting programming is! It's a shame that the government aren't encouraging some form of programming from any age. Even the option in high schools is lacking.

willr said...

The Open Rights Group has an excellent page on writing to your MP, including the responses you're likely to get.

zygote said...

Perhaps if you had spelled 'realise' correctly they might have taken you seriously. Programming skills are no substitute for proper spelling and grammar.

John Graham-Cumming said...

ranmat said...

I'm 12 and I think the lack of programming is just stupid. The teachers seem to think that the most amazing thing that ever happened to the world of the programming was flowcharts. Come on, teach us python, teach us javascript, teach us HTML - it's not that hard. Or at least, it wouldn't be if IT teachers actually know how to program (which a lot of them don't).

ranmat said...

I'm 12 and I think the lack of programming is just stupid. The teachers seem to think that the most amazing thing that ever happened to the world of the programming was flowcharts. Come on, teach us python, teach us javascript, teach us HTML - it's not that hard. Or at least, it wouldn't be if IT teachers actually know how to program (which a lot of them don't).

ranmat said...

I'm 12 and I think the lack of programming is just stupid. The teachers seem to think that the most amazing thing that ever happened to the world of the programming was flowcharts. Come on, teach us python, teach us javascript, teach us HTML - it's not that hard. Or at least, it wouldn't be if IT teachers actually know how to program (which a lot of them don't).