Creating coalitions: Lessons from Next Gen
This time last year, we were putting the finishing touches to the Next Gen report, the main output from the Review of Skills for the Video Games and Visual Effects industry led by Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope.
The Review's objectives were ambitious, no less than to show how the UK could become the best global source of talent for these two fast-growing, high-tech creative industries.
It has been a rollercoaster ride since the report's publication in February.
First came the enthusiastic response from industry, educators and government: an education week in the leading games trade journal Develop, the myriad emails of support from ICT teachers, a commitment from government in its Plan for Growth to publish a response to Next Gen and, last but not least, a letter of support for our call for more computer science in schools sent to Michael Gove and signed by the likes of Matt Brittin and Hermann Hauser.
Then came the long radio silence from the Department for Education (DfE) as we struggled to get even an audience with Michael Gove.
Last month, the government finally published its response to the Review, with what was seemingly a volte-face from DfE. Now Next Gen's recommendations on computing in schools were flavour of the month.
In our report, we reported that only one-in-five ICT teachers described themselves as being able to write or modify even basic computer programmes. The government's acknowledgement, that it had a responsibility to work with industry to ensure computer science was taught adequately in schools, was a significant result.
What led to this change of heart?
It is time to take stock of what the creative industries can learn from this experience - in particular, on the importance of building effective coalitions.
Three things became clear soon after we began the Review.
First, that if we were going to address the deep-seated skills challenges faced by video games and visual effects companies, we would have to go beyond higher education and look at what was going on in schools.
Second, this meant we needed a way to connect with huge numbers of educators and learners to understand their needs: what subjects to teach and how to teach them; what industries to recommend and consider for a future career; what were the training priorities for teachers?
There were 25,000 or so schools in England alone, and over 300 institutions offering HE courses.
Third, we realised that in order to make a credible case for change, we had to produce as rigorous an array of evidence as possible within our ambitious time-frames, spanning the whole talent pipeline.
To achieve this, we undertook seven discrete pieces of work, four of which looked at schools - three surveys (of young people, parents and carers, and teachers), and a series of interviews with assessors on HE and FE courses about their experience with school-leavers applying for their courses.
A Troubling Picture
The picture painted by this research was troubling.
We found that, in the same way that video games and visual effects companies complained about the poor quality of university graduates, the assessors on the best courses complained about the quality of applicants from schools.
As many as two-thirds reported that, overall, applicants were poorly prepared for their courses and that this was having knock-on effects on the quality of their teaching.
It also became apparent that this was not a problem that was unique to video games and visual effects but for courses supplying talent to the digital industries more generally.
That is, the way young people were taught about computers at school – focussing on office applications rather than computer programming - was discouraging them from pursuing careers in those high-tech areas which the UK would increasingly rely on for its future growth.
This last point was important.
No government would - quite rightly - countenance a change in curriculum policy to meet the needs of just two industries employing 15-16,000 between them.
However, our research on the shortcomings of ICT teaching and its detrimental effect on the talent pipeline for two creative industries, had brought us into contact with other industries and bodies that were also concerned with the state of computing in schools including:
• Venerable institutions such as the British Computing Society, the Royal Society (which was itself undertaking a review on computing in schools) and the Institute of Physics.
• Grassroots organisations like Computing at School, STEMNet and Teach First, which were addressing some of these issues on the ground.
• Corporate interests like Google.
Creating a Partnership
During our conversations with these organisations it became clear that there was potential for a mutually advantageous partnership going beyond simply adding our voices and evidence to theirs.
Video games and visual effects, attractive industries that spoke to the interests and passions of young people, could inspire them into studying computer science and the wide range of careers that opened up.
Academic research increasingly suggested that the use of games in the classroom could also improve learning outcomes in STEM subjects.
At the same time, more established institutions could add credibility, visibility and sway to the policy ask of the relatively young and small video games and visual effects sectors, amplifying their reach in an increasingly decentralised education system.
The Institute of Physics boasts 75% of physics teachers among its affiliates and around 3,000 young people participate in its Youth Membership Scheme; STEMNET co-ordinates 45 organisations across the country to offer impartial advice and guidance to schools through the Schools STEM Advisory Network.
What better way for the video games and visual effects industries to engage with the thousands of schools in England than to partner with these bodies?
And Partner They Did
The importance of such partnerships was self-evident in Next Gen's recommendations, many of which were developed and explicitly endorsed by these other bodies.
The majority of our recommendations were not in fact targeted at government, but at industry itself (something that was recognised by the government in its response), and did not consist of self-standing actions.
Instead, they were the first steps in a process of sustained engagement with educators and other interests.
In this sense, Next Gen was not the end product but the beginning of a process.
The Next Gen Skills lobbying campaign, led by UKIE, embodies this principle in many ways and incorporates a wide array of stakeholders from within and outside the video games and visual effects industries.
The campaign is pushing Next Gen's agenda for computer programming in schools, for more crossover between art and technology in the classroom, and more industry-relevant teaching in British universities.
Perhaps the clearest example of the dividends to be had from building broad-based coalitions is in the McTaggart lecture given by Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in Edinburgh in August of this year.
Briefed by Google officials close to Next Gen, Schmidt spoke of his shock on learning that the nation which had produced the world's first office computer did not include computer science in the school curriculum.
A Turning Point
The speech was a turning point for Next Gen.
It made the government sit up and take notice, where our report on its own had not. Just three months later, the government had published its response to Next Gen which, contrary to earlier drafts, now fully endorsed the need to improve computer science teaching in schools.
Next Gen has for, the first time, showed the video games and visual effects industries the value in building partnerships with a wide range of bodies.
In fact, there is a lesson here for all of the creative industries.
Such coalitions will help them effect the policy changes they want. It will give them access to the expertise and resources they will need to address new policy challenges which, given the rapid technological that characterise them, we know will emerge.