The Women Ensuring Future Generations Can Code

By Stuart Houghton on at

The state of Information and Communications Technology in UK schools is at a low. The ICT curriculum's been criticised by Education minister Michael Gove; Google's Eric Schmidt, and the Royal Society's collective mega-brain. Pupils still view ICT as buttoned-up nerdery rather than the exciting subject that it ought to be, in a world that's now utterly reliant on the things it covers. Last year, two people sat down in a Shoreditch pub and came up with an idea that could turn that around.

Code Club is an after-school club with the simple aim of making it fun and cool to learn about computing. More than 600 Code Clubs have sprung up in schools across the country in less than a year, and that pub conversation could turn out to have a profound impact on the future of tech in the UK.

Linda Sandvik is a user interface designer and coder for the likes of Last.fm, who was born in Norway but moved to the UK in 2004 to study philosophy. "After a year I was told by a professor that I really belonged in the computer science department," she explained to us.

That second person who was sat in the Shoreditch pub on that fateful day? Clare Sutcliffe, a web designer from West Yorkshire who initially met Linda at a party during the New Adventures conference in Nottingham. The pair kept in touch via Twitter and talked about attending a hack day at London's South Bank, which they both felt was too commercially-focused and unlikely to produce anything useful. "I used to run an event called Brainy Hacks when I was at a company called Pixel Group," says Clare. "I tweeted to her about that so we decided to go to the pub and think of how to do a useful Hack Day."

"We decided that education should be our theme and we accidentally came up with the idea of Code Club. We thought it was pretty crazy that schools don't teach kids to code at school. I was never taught to code at school either. I wish I had been," Clare added.

Neither Clare or Linda have any formal background in education, with Clare telling us "my mother is a primary school teacher and I spent time doing placements with her when I was in university. We just talked to a bunch of teachers and found out what they think and we continue to do that."

Linda is more candid. "I didn't even go to school in this country. Everything I have learned about the educational system in this country I have learned from Yes Minister,"
she laughs.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the pair seems to have hit on just the right combination of education and fun to inspire over 600 Code Clubs with hundreds of volunteers and thousands of eager children. The children use the visual programming language Scratch to create games and animations under the supervision of volunteers, some of whom are teachers and others who are professional coders.

"We are just trying to show them that they can have fun and enjoy computer science, whereas a lot of children find what's currently taught a bit of a turnoff," says Clare. "We are just trying to show them how much fun it can be before they form any drastic opinions to the contrary."

"Typically what will happen is a volunteer will go into an assembly and do a short presentation, saying, 'This is Code Club, did you know a ten year old made this game? Would you like to be able to do that as well?' and that gets them interested," explains Linda.

"They can do whatever they want. I hope that they will realise that computers are there for them and they tell computers what to do and not the other way around."

One of the most remarkable things about Code Club is how quickly it has grown. From a handful of pilot schools, the scheme has grown by roughly 25 new Clubs a week to reach 620 at the time of this interview.

"It did take us by surprise," says Clare. "The initial reaction was quite overwhelming and we had to learn to deal with it. Now it is pretty normal for us and we can understand where it is going."

Linda is enthusiastic about what this will mean for the country's ICT-impoverished kids: "Clare was saying the other day that our overall long-term aim is that someday someone is going to make something awesome and someone will ask them how they started coding and they will say 'I had a Code Club at my school'."

"Personally I would love to help everyone. I remember this really awkward video of a woman who was really upset because there were so many cats in the world and she wanted to hug all of them but she couldn't. Sometimes I feel like that's not a good place to be!"

"For a while, mine and Linda's favourite thing to do was check the number of clubs on the homepage and we could say, ‘Yay! It's working!’" says Clare.

"When we got to 500 clubs we were all high fives and beers and we could really feel proud of ourselves. People say this all the time but all we can see is the exhaustion and the crazy amounts of work -- but we got to celebrate that one!"

In the short-to-medium term, Code Club has a target of 1,000 clubs by the end of May, and 5,000 by the end of 2015. Longer term, things are a little hazier.

"Linda and I always thought that our eventual aim was to make ourselves redundant. But actually I think that Code Club in its current form may be redundant but technology moves so quickly that there will always be Code Club in some form -- but it might not look exactly like it looks today."

Image Credit: The Independent

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