Teaching Tech

The Telegraph, 19 March 2019, by Harry de Quetteville

How coding moved from the bedroom to the classroom​

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It’s one reason why, increasingly, those involved in technology are trying to circumvent the traditional education system in this country. For example, Sherry Coutu, she of the trillion-dollar business, now dedicates herself to getting pupils out of schools with her Workfinder app. “If you look at the research,” she says, “90 per cent of teachers say that the best way of boosting student attainment is through work experience. We need a new Dunkirk moment, where small and medium sized business owners open up their doors to work experience, to say to pupils: ‘Hey, this is what it’s like to work because it’s really different to studying.’ Teachers often teach for life and they have hardly any idea about the world of work outside schools.”

That is not the case at Ada sixth form college, in Tottenham, north London. On the wall there are dozens of snapshots of the tech and business executives who have come to speak. And in a nearby classroom, two pupils - Ross Nkama, 18, and Ryan Maugin, 17 - are preparing to join Google as soon as they can. They have apprenticeship interviews with the internet giant the next day, and discuss the best coding language for machine learning with their classmates. The relative merits of C++ and HTML are weighed. The concluding view is that neither is a patch on PyTorch.

Google aren’t concerned with Ryan or Ross’s exam results. Instead they will challenge the boys on their comprehension of computer code; on their own data manipulation coding skills; and give them a logic quiz. Pass this hurdle and a week-long project follows; succeed there and it's a three-year apprenticeship. And this is the decision that many Ada students have to make: university or apprenticeship. The latter, without fees, and with hands-on experience, is increasingly alluring. “I want to focus on computer science now,” says Ross. “And I have a very practical side.”

Nor is Ada concerned with exam results. Instead it recruits students merely with an app-based test, called Lightbot. You can try it yourself. All applicants are interviewed, and 40 per cent have no more than a C-grade average at GCSE.

“We want to attract unusual talent,” says Mark Smith, CEO and founder of the college. “In fact the whole college started a few years ago because I was mentoring a young man called Matthew Banjo, from a humble background, self-taught and brilliant, and he was failing his computer science course because he knew more than his teacher. I tried to get him some proper teaching because I knew that there were tens of thousands of tech vacancies, and that he could go on to an amazing job. Once I saw the mismatch, I realised tech and computing was also a really powerful tool for social mobility.”

Ada, which is routinely cited as a model by tech companies, will move to a new, £31m campus in 2019, with 1,400 students. Smith is then keen to iterate: “We want to grow outside London.” To do so, they need money - its teaching currently costs up to £500,000 per year more than government funds provide. So they raise it themselves from industry. “There’s nothing to stop other schools and academies doing the same,” says Smith, “they just don’t.”

Companies like King, the software firm behind the dizzyingly addictive mobile game, Candy Crush, set up shop on site to offer three-day projects designed to get students working in ways they would if they were actually employees. “Too often, computer science graduates, they can’t present, they can’t work in a team,” says Adam Rogers, Ada’s sixth-form principal. “But they need to, because the stereotypical pale-faced youth sitting alone in a dark room with a keyboard is not the reality in the industry. It’s very collaborative.”

Some universities are trying to change. Abertay, in Dundee, for example, has strong links with Rockstar Games, whose offshoot in Edinburgh, Rockstar North, is famous - or perhaps notorious - for the Grand Theft Auto series. But that is the exception. “A lot of computer science degrees are outdated,” says Rogers. “Students can even avoid programming after one basic module.” No wonder half of Ada’s students now prefer to go straight onto company apprenticeships and skip university altogether.

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