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Page last updated at 00:43 GMT, Saturday, 4 June 2011 01:43 UK

Are children becoming 'digitally illiterate'?

By Alex Hudson
BBC Click


Peter Price tries a 15 computer that could get children into programming

As computers become ever more complicated, there are concerns that schools and universities are not teaching the basic programming skills that underpin some of Britain's most successful industries.

The UK's video games sector is bigger than either its film or music industries with over £2bn in global sales.

Just one best-selling game series, Tomb Raider made by British company Eidos has had sales of over 35 million.

Peter Molyneux
Peter Molyneux, creative director of Microsoft Game Studios, Europe

It actually started back in 1989 when me and a friend sat down and we had this crazy idea for a game. It took about nine months to develop, mainly because we were lazy.

This game came out and was fantastically successful and we could eventually afford to eat.

The UK has been amazingly influential in the history of computer games, no doubt about it. We've had a rocky ride of being the most influential on Earth to dipping down when things got a bit tough, but guess what's happening now?

Just around where I live in Guildford, there are around four or five small developers just set up in the last 12 months so I suspect there's some great talent just waiting to sprout up there.

There are so many more independent gamers like I was 22 years ago who are in the same situation. I can already see some games coming up you can point to and say 'those are going to be super successful'.

I am absolutely convinced that the huge creative talent that is going to help this industry move forward is in the independent gaming community at the moment.

But with games becoming increasingly complicated to make, the programmers used to make the games are in high demand.

And there are concerns about where the talent of the future is going to come from.

From primary school to university, the skill of writing even basic programs has been largely displaced by lessons in how to use a computer.

"[Children] learn about Word and Powerpoint and Excel. They learn how to use the applications but don't have the skills to make them," says Ian Livingstone, life president of Eidos and government skills champion.

"It's the difference between reading and writing. We're teaching them how to read, we're not teaching them how to write.

"The narrowness of how we teach children about computers risks creating a generation of digital illiterates."

Livingstone is campaigning for computer science to become a separate subject on the school national curriculum. And its current omission is something that the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie) believes is having a drastic impact on the digital industries.

"This skills gap is a threat not just to the future of the video games industry but also to any business that has computer technology at its core," says Daniel Wood, of Ukie.

"Some companies [in the UK] are actually turning away work because they don't have the staff with the skills and it's only going to get worse."

There is no shortage of university courses related to computer games - 84 institutions are offering 228 courses between them in 2011. But few match up to what the industry needs.

Skillset, the Sector Skills Council for the creative industry currently only gives accreditation to 10 of these courses.

'Bums on seats'

While keen to point out that not being accredited is not an absolute indication of whether a course is good or bad, Skillset says that a number of university courses are not up to scratch.

Between two thirds and three quarters of courses that apply to the council get refused.

Tomb Raider - a Survivor is Born screenshot
Tomb Raider is one of the world's most successful games franchises

"The accreditation process is really rigorous and robust," says Saint John Walker, Skillset's computer games manager.

"It means those who get through really have been through the mill in terms of being inspected.

Walker fears universities are too focussed on attracting students to fill their courses, not on giving them skills for the workplace.

"Some of our industry's council call it the 'bums on seats' mentality. In other words, a course has to be popular to make economic sense."

"You'd imagine that the university detects a demand and would speak to the industry and ensure that the course had the industry at the centre of it, but unfortunately that's not the way it happens.

A £15 solution

Many think that a return to the days where simpler computers filled the classroom could change things. When all computers were basic, children could understand them more easily and mess around with them from a very early age.

"Even 20 years ago, the BBC Micro was in schools and was the cornerstone of computing in the classroom and when people went home from school or work, they also had their Spectrum so could also do programming," says Livingstone.

One foundation in particular is looking to bring on that change. A tiny device called the Raspberry Pi is a whole computer squeezed onto a single circuit board, about the same size as a USB disc.

Space Invaders displayed at The Game On exhibition at the Science Museum
Computer games in the past required a lot less code that modern games

It costs around £15 and can be plugged into a TV with the aim of making a computer cheap and simple enough to allow anyone to write programmes.

"Hopefully it will bring a solution to a generation of kids who can have the advantages that I had as a kid so they can learn to program and do great things," says David Braben of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Although computer programming is not on the national curriculum, many schools have taken the decision themselves to bring it back into the classroom.

"A lot of the children don't sort of understand the world of Commodores and Ataris back in the 80s," says Ian Addison, of St John the Baptist Primary School in Hampshire.

"What we're trying to do with our game design is show them that you can teach them games, you can make some games and you can create them and share them with other people.

"Some of the children get into computers and they're getting interested in how games work. They're only young - our eldest are 11 - but if we can inspire a few of them, then we've done a good job."

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