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Eric Schmidt criticises education in the UK (bbc.co.uk)
77 points by pmjoyce on Aug 26, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments

He said he had been flabbergasted to learn that computer science was not taught as standard in UK schools, despite what he called the "fabulous initiative" in the 1980s when the BBC not only broadcast programmes for children about coding, but shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes.

It really was a fabulous initiative. I'm not exaggerating when I say pretty much everyone in my classes when I was around the age of 11 or 12 knew at least some BASIC or LOGO programming (though nobody really thought of LOGO as a programming language - it was sneaky that way!).

I am sad to see nothing like that initiative in place today.

Here is an exam paper from a Scottish Advaned Higher school exam:


I had a quick flick through it and for a school level course I actually thought the content looked pretty good!

A couple of quotes from comments on the Guardian's version of the story:

"There is no need to teach people in the UK how to be a computer programmer because the work can either be shipped out to India or companies can employ people from India to work in their IT companies in the UK."

Which is bad enough, but this one really takes the biscuit for me:

"How can this be true when our exam pass-[rate has been climbing for yonks? The guy's obviously talking crap. What would hr know about education? We should listen to our teachers and ignore capitalists like this."


I think you might need to put your sarcasm detectors into British mode.

Questions around outsourcing, the standard of secondary education, and how education meets the needs of industry all loom fairly large in the British political landscape.

Except I honestly don't think these answers weren't meant to be sarcastic. I sometimes skim through Guardian comments and these seem par for the course.

I've lived in the UK for way too long now, so my sarcasm detector is finely tuned... and I do think those are satyrical comments. It'd be hard for a clueless idiot to hit these buttons quite so precisely. Must be some smart commenters on the Guardian website!

*satirical ...

now now swombat. i can't tell at all whether you are being sarcastic here. (newcomer to HN, won't be surprised to fail the tuning test)

> How can this be true when our exam pass rate has been climbing for yonks?

If anyone wants to see grade inflation UK-style in black and white, take a look at these two pages:

http://www.bstubbs.co.uk/gcse.htm http://www.bstubbs.co.uk/a-lev.htm

The bottom table on each page gives the overview across all subjects.

For those not familiar with the British system, GCSEs are taken at age 16, A-levels at 18.

So, for example, in 1989 when I did GCSEs 45% of grades were in the range A-C. This year it's 69.8%.

When I did A-levels in 1991, 78% of grades were in the range A-E. This year it's 97.8%.


Actually, I am British. I did consider the possibility that those comments were an attempt at humour but sadly I think it's unlikely based on my previous experience of Comment Is Free. (For those not familiar, that's how The Guardian refers to its comments section).

Unfortunately most people who frequent that section tend to forget the second half of the quote.

For those of us not familiar, what is the full quote?

"Comment is free, but facts are sacred"

C. P. Scott http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._P._Scott

For a trawl of some of the worst (presumed British) comments from BBC comments threads, see http://ifyoulikeitsomuchwhydontyougolivethere.com/

I haven't had an average education, but even other, much lower, poorer schools in my area still did IT early. Microsoft Research is in Cambridge, I'd say more but I'm annoyed at Schmidt for clearly not looking at it. I've never seen a BBC Micro, but I've seen all sorts of people, even ones who are sure their success is somewhere else, be engaged by IT (if only to get round the filters, which still counts).

It really is true. From my time in the British education system, I can honestly say there have only been very few instances where a teacher inspired me and ignited my interest. This shouldn't be the case. Every teacher should do that.

Most teachers, however, are only interested in one thing: passing tests. The goal of what they teach is not to build a foundation for future education, that's only really secondary. The primary goal is to pass what ever test it is that you must take at the end of the year. After all, the test tests the foundation right? sigh

The reason why teachers do this is simple really. If kids don't pass tests, they get fired. It's a constant fear. So teachers in the UK have been boiled down to "These kids must pass the test or I will get fired".

I.T was especially bad. I don't even think the teachers were THAT competent on a computer. In one class, I remember suggesting encryption as a way to secure your computer and the teacher told the class the rest of the class encryption was password masking (where your characters are hidden by asterisks). The only programming I ever did was in my own time or maybe some horrendous chain of conditionals in Excel in said IT class. Computing only becomes available when you reach college and even then it's an option which most people don't take.

To be fairly honest with you, I only knew about programming because of my mother, who took a course on BASIC in the 80s. In my 13 years of compulsory British education I never really heard about computer programming.

The problem is that it'd be quite difficult and wrong to expose children to programming in education with the current mentality. Can you really imagine what it'd be like if children were taught how to code just to pass a test? No I think that wouldn't do any good. The deeper issues in education would do well to be fixed first, namely igniting interest and not hammering a bunch of facts into memory.

Actually, NO - it's not at all like that.

Teachers are the 'instruments' of government education policy. Sure, there's an inevitable variation in teaching quality between individuals, but the way the system works is that a set curriculum is delivered, and assessed, by teachers. 'Creativity' and 'innovation' has to be quashed to fit within these constraints. This is the cause of much frustration amongst teachers who entered the profession to 'make a difference'. (And this last sentence is very understated.)

Education is a factory: it processes young people through an assembly-line of set ideas and knowledge, much 'political correctness', and 'dynamic range compression' (an analogy to audio processing) of the highest and lowest intellects - culminating in an individual suitable to place in a working society.

Please don't blame teachers.

Teachers are in a bit of a weird position. On the one hand, they want to be considered as professionals, as a lawyer or a doctor might be, empowered and trusted to make decisions in the best interests of their "clients" (e.g. parents and children). But they organize themselves as labour, with rigid unions and collective bargaining. Do you know many teachers a year are dismissed for just not being very good at the job? None, yet as a society we have no problem dismissing doctors, airline pilots, whoever, if they can't do the job, despite passing the qualifications.

Given this, all policymakers can do is try to limit the damage that can be done by e.g. the worst 10% of teachers, by imposing strict syllabuses. The other 90% suffer for it - but hey, they are the ones who place protecting their union brothers ahead of the best interests of the students.

Other professions have professional organizations which try to look out for the interests of their members.

The AMA (American Medical Association) is a very powerful lobby in Washington, and has a lot of influence on the profession.

People in IT often belong to organizations like the IEEE, which (though not a fraction as powerful as the AMA) also try to look out for the interests of their members.

In America, most lawyers belong to the American Bar Association, which serves a similar function to the AMA and IEEE.

As for airline pilots, you might have heard of the Virgin Atlantic strike that was in the news lately. It was initiated by the Balpa pilot union.

Many other professions, from electricians, to engineers, to construction workers, to architects, to nurses, firefighters, police, etc have unions and professional organizations which strive to look out for their members interests.

This is a good thing.. as is collective bargaining. They are a valuable check on the ridiculous amount of power employers in the US have over their employees, and a way to attempt to prevent a race to the bottom in terms of employee wages, benefits, job safety, quality, and satisfaction.

To say that teachers belonging to unions somehow makes them "unprofessional" is disingenuous. If anything, it's the other way around.

Furthermore, it's ridiculous to claim that teachers unions want to keep bad teachers at work. They don't. And there are procedures in place for firing them.

Finally, as to "the best interests of the students", what are those exactly? And who gets to decide what they are? The parents? The teachers? School administrators? Congress? The students themselves? Do any of them really know what is in "the best interests of the students"? This is a complicated issue, and the "one size fits all" approach of standardized syllabuses, standardized tests, and bumper sticker rhetoric does very little to address it.

I was 16 when they stopped Computing at A-Level. This was in 1998. Students before complained A Level material was duplicated in their first year at Uni, apparently.

Now I.T. is basically vaguely proficient use of MS Office. That, and a vague understanding of TCP/IP, or was when I was 17 at least.

I can understand I.T. will be more useful to 14-16 year olds. But at A-Level--where they choose what to learn--to only have proficient use of MS Office, a small bit of theory, and an optional bit of Visual Basic, is ridiculous.

In India C++ is mandatory to all at a certain age. I even know an accountant who was forced to learn it. I would rather be in that situation than "Oh, you've done an A-Level in IT? Great. Then you can make me an Excel spreadsheet."

(As an aside, to assess my A-Level I.T. teacher: he told me C was the first version, C++ was the next version, and by now there'd be a C+++.)

Someone said somewhere that most people are over-educated. How much education do you need to work checkout in Tesco? To listen to some, British education has been a mess since the 60's (apostrophe?) Despite that, Britain still muddles along nearish to the top of the wealth league. The kids are spending all their time on playboy (as my dad refers to games consoles) but maybe that will yet somehow be a blessing cos they'll all have exactly the skills needed in the future when human and computer work as one! Till the day I die, I expect education and the NHS to be in a 'state of crisis'

In a democracy you supposedly need enough of an education to work checkout in Tesco, to also be able to take informed decisions about who should lead your country and to vote in referendums on important issues.

It's "'60s", since you asked (and only because you asked). (Apostrophe before the decade to indicate that you're leaving out the century, just an ess after.)

And? Perhaps it is not the life goal of the majority of people to push advertisements to their fellow human beings.

If the criticism came from Knuth - fine - but Eric Schmidt? Who is he to make such a remark?

The 15-year-old fanboys are downvoting in realtime again. Who else has time to guard threads so closely?

I find it funny that you are seriously lacking in CS knowledge but blame your downvotes on 15 year olds. In addition to being on the boards of two of the most successful technology companies in history he also has a PhD from Berkeley in EECS and co-wrote lex. God I hope you've heard of lex.

My sincere apologies to Eric Schmidt, and thank you for the information.

People waiting on long compiles.

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