March 31, 2012

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Programming For Kids & Social Mobility

On the subject of getting more kids programming, there's a very important aspect to all of this that doesn't get much mention, which is the potential for programming skills to lift children out of poverty.

Social mobility in the UK, and much of the developed world, is on the decline. After WWII, we had a brief golden age of social justice and mobility, when the UK government felt that our war heros returning from 6 years of hell deserved to come back to a county fit for such heros.

Inequality in Britain before the war was a major problem. Being poor could be fatal, literally. Men and women not born into money were expected to know their place, and if you were born into service, you died in service. If you were lucky.

Post-war Britian opened up further and higher education, paying fees and subsidising living costs for students and making it possible for the sons and daughters of coal miners to study and become doctors, lawyers, scientists and even Prime Ministers.

With the withdrawal of state-subsidies in education, including living allowances designed to bridge the gap between school-leaving age (16) and higher education - a lifeline to kids from families who could not keep supporting their children once they were old enough to leave home - this process is in reverse.

We have a million unemployed between the age of 18 and 24, and I genuinely fear for a future blighted by a disenfranchised generation and by a resurgent elite voting themselves an even bigger slice of the pie, with the majority of our current government drawn exclusively from top private schools and Oxford or Cambridge, and most of them being millionaires (born into wealthy families, not self-made.)

I do not believe in a Just World. I do not believe that the unemployed and the poor are unemployed and poor because they're not as clever as I am, or not as hard-working. I believe that I am lucky, they are less lucky, and people like David Cameron are incredibly lucky. Brains and brawn have nothing to do with it.

Which means that among the households on the lowest 10% of incomes there's every bit as much potential as there is among the top 10%. Kids may aspire to be politicians or lawyers or bankers, but the fact is that we still - to our shame - have many high-paying professions that are snobs when it comes to who they let in.

But there's one high-paying profession that doesn't seem to care all that much whether you have "good breeding". And that's ours. We may even be the most meritocratic profession of them all. I don't have figures for that, but I've seen so many examples of people from lower-middle class and working class backgrounds earning six-figure salaries working for some fairly prestigious organisations.

There's an opportunity to join the dots into a perfect circle here. Software development is meritocratic and open to pretty much anyone who can prove they can do it. The cost of entry is comparitively very low. All you need is a half-decent computer and access to tools and learning resources, many of which are free. After that, you're just investing your time.

Increasingly, more and more of us agree that the best way to become a great developer is to learn from real experience, and the necessary educational/theoretical material is also becoming freely available thanks to MIT and other great Open Learning pioneers.

Talk of apprenticeships for software developers - real long-term ones, and not these bizarre commercial arrangements that have been popping up of late where apprentices are expected to pay, for some reason - continues to gather momentum. The principle that someone who geninely wants to be a professional software developer should be able to learn without incurring any debt is both realistic and desirable.

There are hundreds of thousands of kids in school now for whom the prospects look grim. Their chances of lifting themselves out of poverty are lower than they've been for three generations. And at the same time, the UK software machine needs feeding faster and faster. There's an opportunity here for a portion of these children to fill that hole and enter a profession that could completely transform their prospects.

Posted 5 years, 11 months ago on March 31, 2012