Arrival of a New Technology

commodore petsm

Computing in UK schools began as early as the late 1970s when a few pioneering teachers started experimenting with early computers like this - the Commodore PET.

The technology had been evolving for some decades (see the timeline on the right) and it was as long ago as 1963 when Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave his famous “White Heat of Technological Change” speech.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that computers suddenly exploded into public and educational awareness. That was the year when IBM produced its first computer small enough to fit on a desk and called it a “Personal Computer” (PC).

1980 was also the year in which Christopher Riche Evans published a book called “The Mighty Micro”. It foretold an information revolution. (Find out more in the 21st Century section of this website).

bbc micro

In 1982, the BBC broadcast a series of ten programmes called the BBC Computer Literacy Project with a specially commissioned home computer to support it - the BBC Microcomputer, or “Beeb” (Right: the BBC Model B Microcomputer)

£300 million invested
Between 1982 and 1985, The Department for Transport and Industry (DTI)
part-funded the purchase of computers in schools. The DTI paid half and schools could choose a BBC Model B, an RM 480Z or a Sinclair Spectrum - all British-made computers. Primary schools had to raise 50% of the price of one machine and they received a computer, a tape recorder and two boxes of cassette tapes containing ‘educational’ programs. Secondary schools had to raise the full price of a computer in order to receive two computers with 5.25-inch floppy disc drives and software on discs.

It was clear even then that computers were going to be a very important technology and by the late 1980s, the UK government had poured over 300 million pounds into initiatives designed to develop computer use in schools. It was an amazing decade and it culminated in the creation of the National Curriculum in 1989.

Children found themselves coding
There is one very signifant factor about this time. All of these computers started up at the command line interface. You had two options:

  • you could type the commands needed to run a program from tape or disc . . .
  • you could program the computer yourself using the built-in programming language, BASIC.

This meant that many children found themselves learning to code using BASIC simply by experimenting (or as they saw it, playing). Many of these children, now in their thirties, are working as programmers and they are creating the coding programs being used in schools today to meet the Computing curriculum.

Today’s computers and tablets, with their icons, mice and touchscreens, mean that children no longer get that coding experience simply by experimenting.

ICT or Computing?
Coding was actually included in the ICT National Curriculum from Day 1 but it was generally very poorly taught and Britain slipped in its skills base. So from September 2014 the subject was changed to Computing and all children must now learn coding as a school subject.

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