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The kids training teachers to code

I recently spent the afternoon with a small group of coding geeks, hoping to gain some insight into how computing is taught in the UK. The turnout for the Code Club session at Barrow Hill Junior School, in the north London district of St John’s Wood, was about a dozen: mostly boys and a handful of girls, aged between nine and 10. For an hour, the air hummed with chatter and rapid keystrokes. Projects are designed for the kids to complete independently and at their own pace. No teacher stood at the front of the classroom. The club was overseen by two volunteers — a retired professor of computer science and a parent at the school who works in IT.

More than 110,000 kids in the UK participate in Code Clubs weekly, making it one of the biggest after-school computing programmes in the world. Most of the 7,500 clubs are based in schools, while other programmes aimed at young people, such as Coder Dojo, do courses in libraries and museums. Raspberry Pi, the British non-profit that runs these clubs, has expanded across 13 countries, including Brazil, Bangladesh and Spain, among others.

In the digital age, coding is basic literacy, like maths or languages. It teaches children basic logic and reasoning but also forms the bedrock of training computer-literate adults who can fill hundreds of thousands of future jobs.

The Code Club model clearly works for the kids at Barrow Hill. On my visit, they were building a game to navigate a ship through a maze; the following week they would design a virtual dodgeball app. Three boys were arguing over what reward players should get if they make it through the maze. One nine-year-old told me her favourite project so far has been creating a chatbot that could teleport from outer space to a virtual bedroom.

“I don’t like copying from the instructions because I don’t learn anything new, so I came up with that myself,” she shrugged. She has many ideas for apps, including one called “10 Seconds”, where you complete puzzles and tasks within a 10-second countdown.

Another volunteer at the club was schoolteacher Susie Turner. She teaches maths and English but two years ago was asked to add computing to her list of duties, despite having no background in the subject. Tens of thousands of teachers, particularly at primary-school level, have found themselves in a similar position as the UK government overhauls computer-science education. But the ambitious plan has one glaring deficiency: many teachers struggle to actually teach it. Most have never been equipped with the training or skills to do this at scale, leaving a shortfall of competent teachers.

Aimed at educating children, Code Club has ended up having an unforeseen additional benefit: injecting almost 6,000 teachers like Turner with the confidence to teach coding in classrooms. Ostensibly, Turner attends the Code Club to help kids troubleshoot coding exercises, but she says the benefits have been two-way: “When I first started, I didn’t know much at all. [The club] means I can not only practise myself by going through the exercises, but I can see what goes wrong, how to fix it and how the children react to things. That’s been the hardest thing about teaching coding.”

Last November, chancellor Philip Hammond announced £100m for teacher training in computer science. Raspberry Pi was awarded £78m of this to create a nationwide programme for 40,000 computing teachers that would ultimately take computer science into every school. This is an unprecedented level of per capita investment by government. In the US, for example, just over one-third of high schools teach computer science.

It’s a far-reaching and timely effort which, the government hopes, will transform education. Meanwhile, Code Club is not only helping children get to grips with computing — it is also helping to plug the gaps for their teachers.

Madhumita Murgia is the FT’s European tech correspondent

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