UK learning is dislocated from national priorities and it's time for a major rethink, says Adrian Oldknow 
STEM 1STEM learning: the ingenuity required to compete internationallyThe UK has a crisis – what’s new? No, it’s not just the collapse of the financial institutions and the downturn of the economy. It is how to regenerate a moribund system with the ingenuity required to compete internationally with countries which are currently investing in the technological education of their youth.

With economic stagnation endemic and youth unemployment at an all-time high, isn't it time for a radical push to reinvent UK plc along with fresh opportunities for young people and a curriculum that simultaneously taps into the pleasure and relevance of maths, science, engineering and technology as well as providing crucial employment skills? All that's required is the vision and commitment.

It is not (only) rocket science – and we have done it before – in 1940 and 1980. What has changed is the widespread availability of powerful, convenient and low-cost computing devices and software, such as a £15 computer!

Since the change of government in May 2010 things have gone very quiet for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and ICT in schools, colleges and academies – in England, that is. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own curricula – and their own policies on STEM and ICT in schools.

One particular issue about the curriculum which has been stirred up over the past couple of years is the place of computing and ICT as a curriculum subject. Concerns were raised in a report from the Royal Academy of Engineering in its ICT for the UK's Future report in October 2009 which led to an inquiry by the Royal Society chaired by Professor Steve Furber which is due to report in 2012.  

The British Computer Society’s Academy and the Microsoft Research Laboratory in Cambridge have also helped by establishing a Computing At School working group (CAS). The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) commissioned Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope to carry out a review of the particular skills requirements of the lucrative UK video games and visual effects industry. Their Next Gen report was published in February, and two government ministers spoke at the launch – John Hayes MP and Ed Vaizey MP.  

These speakers have roles in two government departments. John Hayes looks after further education, skills and lifelong learning in both DBIS and DfE, while Ed Vaizey looks after culture, communications and creative industries in both DBIS and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Raspberry Pi – low cost and revolutionary

Shortly after the launch of the Next Gen report, on February 1 I attended a board meeting of the CAS group at Microsoft Research Labs in Cambridge where Jack Lang revealed the first prototype of the revolutionary Raspberry Pi educational computer. Jack had written some of the code for one of the UK’s earliest microcomputers, the Acorn Atom – which morphed into the BBC Micro of the 1980s.

David Braben was an undergraduate at Cambridge University at the time the BBC micro was under development and wrote, with Ian Bell, the ground breaking Elite 3D graphics game for the BBC micro. David now runs a very successful video games company in Cambridge called Frontier Developments which produces software for game systems such as Microsoft’s Xbox, Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation as well as computers: and employs many STEM skilled graduates (mainly in maths and physics) as programmers. 

Together Jack and David have established the Raspberry Pi Foundation to produce very low-cost computing devices (£15 and £25) aimed at inspiring young people to engage with programming as well as STEM activities. Raspberry is neither a Blackberry nor an Apple, and Pi is shorthand for the open-source Python programming language. The other RP trustees are: Eben Upton, Pete Lomas, Alan Mycroft and Rob Mullins.

What may be the really significant bombshell was dropped by the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, when he gave the MacTaggart memorial lecture at the Edinburgh Festival on August 26 (full text here and view excerpts from the video below). 

It's worth revisiting the most relevant part: "The UK is the home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by the Lyons chain of tea shops. Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK. So how can you avoid the same fate for your TV innovations?

"Of course there is no simple fix, but I have a few suggestions. First, you need to bring art and science back together. Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges. Lewis Carroll didn’t just write one of the classic fairytales of all time, he was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton – but was also a published poet.

"Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There’s been a drift to the humanities – engineering and science aren’t championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other – to use what I’m told is the local vernacular, you’re either a ‘luvvy’ or a ‘boffin’. To change that you need to start at the beginning with education. We need to reignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths.

STEM 2STEM gets young people under the skin of programming"In the 1980s the BBC not only broadcast programming for kids about coding, but (in partnership with Acorn) shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes. That was a fabulous initiative, but it’s long gone. I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools.

"Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage. At college level too, the UK needs to provide more encouragement and opportunity for people to study science and engineering.

"In June, President Obama announced a programme to train 10,000 more engineers a year. I hope others will follow suit – the world needs more engineers. I saw the other day that on The Apprentice Alan Sugar said engineers are no good at business. Really? I don’t think we’ve done too badly. If the UK’s creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future, you need people who understand all facets of it integrated from the very beginning. Take a lead from the Victorians and ignore Lord Sugar: bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top."

While the emphasis here is on the creative industries, Schmidt’s message applies across the piste of STEM education in the UK. It has already drawn one response from another relevant government minister, David Willetts MP, who is in charge of both universities and science at DBIS and attends cabinet meetings.  

David Willetts MP: 'I want to see the ability to create software, to write programs'

It was in his role as science minister that he addressed the British Science Association Festival in Bradford on September 15n and had this to say in response to Eric Schmidt’s criticism: “I want to see the ability to create software, to write programs. That is one of the key functional skills for the 21st century, and young people going through school, college and university should have the opportunity to generate those skills.”

He also unveiled a new pilot project in computing at GCSE called “Behind the Screen”, supported by many employers, such as Microsoft, Capgemini, Google and IBM, which was warmly welcomed by the British Computer Society. The Joint Mathematical Council of the UK has published its report “Digital Technologies and Mathematics Education” which carries a similar message.

On Monday October 5 BBC NewsNight had about 15 minutes devoted (rather belatedly) to NESTA’s Next Gen report (also known as the Livingstone-Hope review) which featured,among other things, a discussion about the shortage of STEM skills required by the lucrative UK video games, animation and effects industry, an interview with David Braben about the Raspberry Pi £15 computer for kids he has developed to be launched in the New Year, some footage of students learning to program with their teacher, Adam McNicol, at Longsands College in St Neots, Cambridge, and an interview with Ed Vaizey MP (see YouTube extract below).

I recently spent two days at a board meeting of the CAS Group at Microsoft Research Labs in Cambridge where we also learnt that the BBC is considering launching an updated version of the “BBC Micro” project of the early 1980s. We also had a demonstration of both the Raspberry Pi computer (alpha version) running a LOGO-style program written in Scratch BYOB. There was also a demonstration of the new .NET Gadgeteer electronics kit, for rapid prototyping, from Microsoft Research.

We also learned that the Gatsby-funded National STEM Centre in York will be taking over the web-hosting for CAS. That centre is the repository for many important publications supporting STEM subjects, some of which, like the trail-blazing Nuffield Advanced Mathematics of the early 1990s, would otherwise have been lost. A more recent addition is the range of STEM booklets from Texas Instruments.

The pillars of a strategy are already in place

A group of us from within CAS are now involved in writing the equivalent of the “BBC Micro User Guide” which was such an important part of the “Beeb’s” success in getting youngsters (and families) engaged with computing in the 1980s.    

Raspberry Pi prototypeRaspberry Pi prototypeHere is a view of the alpha version of Raspberry Pi (RP). The website gives the standard specification as: 700MHz ARM11processor; 128MB or 256MB of SDRAM; OpenGL ES 2.0; 1080p30 H.264 high-profile decode; composite and HDMI video output; USB 2.0 SD/MMC/SDIO memory card slot; general-purpose I/O; open software (Ubuntu, Iceweasel, KOffice, Python).

The finished article will be about the size of a small stack of credit cards and cost  around £15.  The “Model B” version will also have an integrated 2-port USB hub and 10/100 Ethernet controller, costing  around £25. The Model B version of the device includes 10/100 wired Ethernet. Wi-Fi will be available via any standard external USB radio device. The device is powered by an external AC adapter, and the Model A consumes around 1 W.

The device should run well off 4xAA batteries. Users provide their own storage using, for example, an 8 Gb SD memory card as used in digital cameras. The demonstration also included high-definition video running smoothly. The second USB port enables the connection of data-capture devices such as a webcam or the very low-cost Indian data-logging system called expEYES. Users can also build their own logging and control devices using systems such as Arduino.

While some details are still being finalised it is highly likely that the system will be able to run a version of the original BBC Basic developed by Acorn Computers in Cambridge, as well as open-source, free STEM software such as Tracker and GeoGebra, both of which are described in articles at the Intel skoool Maths and STEM Community site.  

So there is now a realistic, powerful and low-cost framework on which to build the kind of STEM educational response needed to respond to Eric Schmidt’s call to arms. It just needs government leadership to mobilise schools and teachers – who are ready and willing to play their part.  

A group of schools’ and teachers’ subject professional associations have already developed a strategy to enable this. The associations are:

  • The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)
  • The Association for Science Education (ASE)
  • The Computing At Schools Group (CAS)
  • The Design And Technology Association (DATA)
  • The Mathematical Association (MA)
  • The National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD)
  • Primary and Secondary Engineer

The strategy, called SySTEMiC (brief outline here), is designed to engage youngsters with a range of authentic cross-curricular STEM-based enhancement and enrichment activities supported by digital technologies. They work in teams with a teacher, carrying out their own research and development and making their own presentations.

The important aspect is that the student enrichment is carefully linked to the teachers’ professional development so that the teaching of the separate subjects such as maths, science and technology is enlivened and made more relevant to the students. Some examples of cross-curricular STEM activities and IT in classrooms were filmed for Teachers TV, and are still available via the Teachers Media website (links below).

'What better Christmas present for a drab and battered nation?'

So we also have an amazing opportunity to reinvent the 1980s!  In 1978 the government chief scientist’s advisory group ACARD published a report on the future of microelectronics (aka the chip) which challenged every government department to make a response.  In 1979 Shirley Williams announced a Microelectronics Education Programme for schools – which was scrapped when Margaret Thatcher entered No 10 in May. 

But in 1980 Mrs. Thatcher announced a new Microelectronics Programme for schools with double the budget!  In 1981 the contract to build the BBC Micro was won by Acorn of Cambridge (set up by Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry).  This was followed shortly afterwards by a £16 million funding programme from Ken Baker (then Minister for Information Technology in the Department of Industry – now Lord Baker of Dorking) giving schools the choice of an Acorn, RM or Sinclair microcomputer at half-price.  

It was the impact of that home-school revolution which produced the generation of programmers, now in their 40s, who are running the successful UK games companies. In 1982 BBC Television started to broadcast the hugely popular The Computer Programme.

What could be a better response to Eric Schmidt, or a better Christmas present for a drab and battered nation, than to have Messrs Gove (DfE), Cable (DBIS) and Hunt (DCMS) jointly unveil a brave new back-to-the-future in which schools are reinvigorated to respond to the STEM skills crisis by the DfE, all schoolchildren are given their own UK built digital STEM device to use at home and school by DBIS, the BBC broadcasts exciting things to do with it courtesy of DCMS and the whole show is paid for by the Big Lottery Fund? 

More information

TeachersMedia videos on STEM and ICT:,,
See also: "Milesone or millstone? BBC and computer literacy" 
"Bloodhound pioneers scent STEM school success"
Photos courtesy of "Digital technologies and mathematics education"

Adrian OldknowAdrian Oldknow is emeritus professor at University of Chichester: "trained as a mathematican, retrained as a computer scientist and now active in STEM education"

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