I’m fond of loudly arguing that, “Coding is cool and practical!” So far, that message hasn’t got through to passers-by in the street, but it certainly has to the children we work with at Fire Tech.

Whether they’re creating apps to help coordinate their school clubs, or designing amazing games in Roblox – when students can see their hard work turned into solutions that serve them and their friends, it’s a game changer for their levels of motivation.

Harnessing this process, and applying it more broadly to students’ experiences within the education system is a trickier proposition – but let’s look at how that might be possible.

Uphill battles

The UK is currently grappling with a digital skills gap that’s been exacerbated – note, not caused –by the pandemic. The past year has served to highlight issues that were already there. Schools in the UK are facing a constant struggle to educate children and equip them with the skills they’ll need to be successful in almost any career requiring a modicum of digital nous.

During the pandemic, parents faced uphill battles of their own in coming up with creative ways to teach their children while home-schooling. With teachers at near breaking point after a relentlessly stressful year, coupled with an increasingly outdated school curriculum, these factors have all combined to result in students falling behind the curve.

This is where tech-focused learning companies like Fire Tech can help to bridge the skills gap, by supporting children from a young age through a series of fun, interactive courses. Fire Tech is able to offer additional support to students outside of school, easing the pressures on already overloaded education system, but more funding is needed to allow companies like Fire Tech to support a greater number of students nationwide.

Schools need ready access to teaching resources that will enable them to effectively teach computer science and coding. Those two topics go hand in hand, with the best courses focusing on creativity and problem solving. There are, however, challenges for schools in recruiting staff that possess sufficient coding language skills and the technical confidence to make that approach viable.

Project-based learning is widely recognised as one of the best ways to absorb and retain learning, but it’s labour-intensive and complicated to assess. And that’s before we even contemplate how the pace of technological change is at odds with the time it takes to develop and update the National Curriculum.

‘Build back better’

Children today spend significant amounts of time immersed in technology, browsing the internet for hours via mobile devices and spending their weekends gaming online, yet the typical school curriculum often fails to engage with this in meaningful ways.

The blame partly lies with the UK government, which hasn’t provided schools with the funding and support they need to offer extracurricular activities for students that want to learn more about the tech industry. Activities of this sort need to be sufficiently appealing and engaging if they’re to succeed in equipping students with the skills they’ll require to become confident learners and successful digital leaders later on in life.

The government should therefore be championing this kind of learning, facilitating additional support and courses where there’s a demand for them. Of course, we recognise that schools and teachers have their plates full at the moment, dealing with the aftermath of COVID – but we also feel that this is an ideal opportunity to, as the government puts it, ‘Build back better.’

As economic activity increasingly migrates online, accompanied by data-driven value creation, and as physical workplaces come to be supplanted by online meeting tools, what skills will our children need to thrive in their chosen careers?

We believe that there are opportunities here for the government to focus on funding extracurricular activities – both to relieve existing pressures on schools, and to bring learning more in alignment with national priorities around digital skills.

The middle ground

One way of doing that is to locate the middle ground between the serious business of learning, and the kind of creative projects which can put students’ recently acquired tech skills to the test. There are many platforms and solutions out there that can make learning to code fun – by which I mean actual fun, rather than some patronising, eye roll-inducing notion of ‘fun’.

Fire Tech’s courses are presented in a ‘gamified’ format familiar to most students, and taught by inspiring tutors able to provide first-hand support. Fire Tech’s approach gives teens aged 15 to 19 a glimpse of working life within a tech company, alongside interactive activities that seek to provide students with the tools they’ll need to potentially become the tech creators, makers and leaders of the future.

We want to unlock students’ potential, and for them to have a taste of what it’s like to work across a range of tech-based sectors, tackling various realistic, industry- specific projects as they go.

Students get to ‘be their own boss’, deciding when they want to complete their learning, while also being supported with regular check-ins from online tutors. By the end of a Fire Tech course, students will have produced a portfolio of work and projects they can then use to showcase their skills.

The next step

Outside of specific learning platforms, the key thing is to show young people why they should be interested in coding, and what’s interesting about it for them.

The purpose of programming is to solve problems by creating solutions, and ultimately change the world for the better. Once students grasp the scope of what they’re able to do with coding skills, their motivation will change from being driven to attain certain grades, to wanting to create something meaningful.

We’ve seen kids create apps to assist their school clubs and fashion engineering marvels within Minecraft. We need to give young people the skills and confidence to take the next step – to go from being consumers of technology to creators. In doing so, they’ll unlock opportunities available only to those with sufficient tech skills in an economy that’s becoming ever more digital.

Children’s education has suffered enough setbacks over the past year or so. For the government to refuse additional funding and support to help children catch up on their learning sends entirely the wrong message to our younger generation.

Jill Hodges is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of Fire Tech; for more information, visit firetechcamp.com or follow @firetechcamp