UK’s first coding college to set pace for digital skills education

Mark Smith2

Mark Smith, founder of Code College

The importance of teaching coding and other high-level digital skills is becoming increasingly recognised. But despite the workforce demand for young professionals with these capabilities, education is struggling to keep up.


Aspiring to fill this knowledge gap and raise the teaching standards for digital skills education, Mark Smith is setting up Code College – the UK’s first newly incorporated further education college in 23 years.


Already gaining significant government and industry support from organisations such as Oracle, Deloitte, King Games and Credit Suisse, Smith hopes to first implement the system in the UK then replicate the model in other countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, where he has established successful education programmes in the past.


Smith caught up with ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN News Editor Annika Burgess to discuss how Code College aims to equip its students “with the skills, experience and qualifications to rival that of a university graduate”.


What inspired you to start Code College?


The initial spark for the idea came from a conversation I had with a good friend, an IT consultant and SQL database programmer, while trekking in Ethiopia and seeing the over-crowded classrooms there delivering poor quality provision. This prompted my friend to say, ‘If all those students were learning to code they would at least have a useful skill set for the modern economy’.


Once back in London, I went to Google for a day in conjunction with Teach First, a pioneering teacher training programme of which there is now a sister programme called Teach First Deutschland and many others across Europe. There I learned about the crisis in the quality of teaching computing and digital skills at all levels in the UK over the past 10 years, despite the large and increasing demand from employers for young professionals with these skills sets.


I had thought for a while that what universities in the UK and elsewhere were offering students was not particularly good value for money unless they were very well known and very academic. Paying £9,000 in tuition fees is a lot every year for an undergraduate, especially if their course of study is not directly related to a specific job or career.


So I put all of these insights together and came up with the idea for Code College, a new technical college focused on being a centre of excellence for higher level digital skills; offering students, particularly those from tougher backgrounds, a stretching and aspirational pathway to highly skilled jobs without having to go to university or take on substantial debt. In this way coding can be used as an effective tool for social mobility in our increasingly unequal societies.


What do you hope the project will be able to achieve?


The primary focus of the College is about becoming a centre of excellence for the teaching and learning of higher level digital skills. Somewhere that supports its students, many of whom will be women and/or come from tougher backgrounds, helps them get into highly skilled entry-level jobs, while meeting industry’s need for well-trained digital professionals.


Longer-term we hope to work with partners in industry and education to raise the standard of teaching of higher level digital skills across the country. This will be achieved by opening a second campus in the north of England, developing new qualifications and creating an online and blended learning curriculum. We also aspire to work with international partners to replicate the model in other countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa where there is a dearth of high-quality, effective college provision.


Only launching in January this year, what impact has it had so far?


In January 2014, we received an initial donation of £100,000 that allowed my colleague Tom and I to quit our jobs and make a full-time commitment to take the College forward. We have been working hard since then to build the necessary coalition of industry and education supporters needed to make the College a reality.


The College will only commence offering courses and training to part-time students in summer 2015 and to full-time students in summer 2016. So as yet our impact on students is minimal.


We have however hosted a number of teacher training sessions to prepare talented teachers for a new way of teaching digital skills in the UK.


In addition, the setting up of the College marks a significant education reform milestone in the UK. It will be the first newly incorporated further education college in 23 years. The College represents a renewed focus by the government on technical education and the need to evolve this for the needs of the rapidly emerging digital economy. The College will seek to have a much more direct relationship with industry than previous colleges. At a system level therefore the College has already had significant impact. Now the challenge is to replicate this significant impact for our many students in the years to come!


Can you tell me a bit about the accreditation system – how can these types of courses be recognised?


The accreditation system is becoming more complicated in the UK. We place a lot of emphasis on designing courses that blend academic learning with practical skills. We will work with a number of universities and with Pearson to ensure the qualifications are accredited at all levels. Our flagship courses will enable students to obtain full bachelor’s degrees over time if they are persistent. Our over-arching objective is that students can leave the College equipped with the skills, experience and qualifications to rival that of a university graduate.


Starting out as a history teacher, how did you shift into digital education?


I taught as a history teacher in Bethnal Green in central London for two years. I subsequently worked in finance and industry for a number of years in London and Johannesburg. I then went back to education to set up a widening participation scheme for bright students from tougher backgrounds. This experience in particular made me realise the immense talent of young people across the country that I felt was not being fully realised by the current education system. My subsequent studies at Harvard and then experience as a director of an education leadership charity gave me the skills, networks and sense of possibility to put together the College proposition and then make it a reality.


Apart from coding, where do you see other gaps in the education system?


In England, a big gap we have at present is in the quality of careers advice and guidance that is given to young people. Students are not well supported at any age to see the opportunities that might be open to them across all industry sectors. Industry is now changing faster than ever before but our education system is still doing largely the same things it was 20, 40 and even 60 years ago. Students are becoming switched off because they are learning in new and different ways and schools and colleges are not evolving to meet their changing needs. I see particular gaps in creative provision – digital making is something I think that schools should definitely embrace be it websites, 3D printing or robotics.


Mark Smith will be joined by a group of entrepreneurs, who are using technology to provide new opportunities for the next generation, on the ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN Spotlight Stage on Friday, December 5, from 14:30 – 15:15. Find out more here.

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