Nesta: Next Gen – Helping to create the next generation of digital makers

Feb 4, 2016

Five years ago leading figures in the creative industries highlighted a severe skills gap that – if left unchecked – would damage the UK’s position as a world leader in games and visual effects.

The skills gap was a lack of digital creativity brought about by a school curriculum that taught children how to use software but not how to write it. While older generations of creatives had learnt how to programme on computers like the BBC Micro, this generation was poised to fall behind.

In July 2010 Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, asked Nesta to work with Ian Livingstone, founder of Eidos, and Alex Hope from the VFX house Double Negative, to produce an independent report which considered how to meet the skills needs of the UK’s world-class video games and visual effects industries.

Making the case for change

Nesta’s Hasan Bakhshi and Juan Mateos-Garcia led the research, developed the policy recommendations and drafted the 2011 Next Gen. report, which made the case for the reform of the ICT curriculum across UK schools. The recommendations in the report included adding computer science to the national curriculum alongside maths and physics, and introducing a GCSE in computer science in all schools.

Welcoming the findings of the independent review in February 2011, Ed Vaizey said: “This evidence can help government, higher education providers and the games industry to create the right conditions to nurture and develop the skills and talent that the UK needs.”

Building on the evidence

A Next Gen Skills lobbying campaign was launched – an alliance led by Ukie, a trade body for the UK’s games and wider interactive entertainment industries, and driven by the tireless campaigning of Ian Livingstone – and things began to gather momentum. A letter of support for Next Gen’s proposals – put together by the British Computer Society, which had also campaigned for reform of the ICT curriculum, and signed by the likes of Google’s Matt Brittin and entrepreneur Hermann Hauser – was sent to the then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.

The issue was also taken up by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in his MacTaggart lecture in August 2011, having been briefed by Google officials close to Next Gen:

“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,” he said.

Schmidt argued that the UK needed to bring art and science back together, as it had in the “glory days of the Victorian era”. His speech was just the backing that Nesta’s Next Gen. report needed to make the government sit up and take notice of the issues it raised.

In November 2011, speaking to the BBC in London’s Tech City, David Cameron admitted that the government was “not doing enough to actually teach the next generation of programmers.”

Then in January 2012, The Royal Society produced a report calling for ICT in schools to be replaced by three distinct new subjects: digital literacy, computer science and information technology.

In the same month, in a speech to the BETT edtech trade fair, Michael Gove announced that the school ICT curriculum needed a radical shake-up.

He said that the curriculum had left children, “bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers.” The Department for Education proposed a “dramatic change” which would see “11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations,” and that “by 16 they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for smartphones.”

Changing the curriculum

Working with major examination bodies and organisations such as the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, as well as high–tech companies like Google and Microsoft, a new programme of study was in the pipeline: bringing a revised curriculum to ensure computer science was at the heart of computing in schools at every level.

In 2013, the curriculum finally changed. And in 2014, the UK’s leading visual effects, animation and games employers joined forces to create the Next Gen Skills Academy to help young people to become the digital workforce of the future.

Since its report launched five years ago, Next Gen has influenced policy, rallied industry and galvanised educators to improve computer science teaching.

The story is proof of the importance of building a rigorous evidence base on which to formulate policy, and the power of partnerships in affecting policy change. It has paved the way for a new generation of coders to reclaim our great computing heritage.

But it doesn’t stop there.

In 20 years’ time many IT-related jobs will be automated, whereas the majority of creative IT-related jobs will not be. Digital creativity is one of the key skills we need to teach our children now so they can have good jobs in the future.

Nesta has been working on a number of projects to widen the scope of our Next Gen work to focus on these broader skills. Initiatives such as our Digital Makers Fund and our online platform Make Things Do Stuff, which let young digital makers upload and share their digital creations, have all opened up a space for thinking about broader digital creativity.

Understanding and manipulating digital technology is one of the keys to creative expression, social inclusion and a strong economy. Young people want these skills, parents are overwhelmingly supportive and we want making with technology to become as accessible an activity as making music or making food.

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