Among the students was Toni Murphy, 21, a young black psychology student puzzling through Git with her two table-mates, Katerina, 22, and Muhiba, 22. Encouragingly for a discipline which struggles almost as much with ethnic diversity as it does with gender, half the faces were not white. “I had to explain to my mother what I was doing,” said Toni. “But the fact is, I want to understand this stuff. Tech start-up is the smartest thing to do now.”
Code First: Girls has proved increasingly popular. So far, more than 5,000 women have passed through its doors, and it hopes to have trained 20,000 by 2020. In some ways, its success points up the disastrous gender balance of traditional university computer science courses. “By the end of this year, as a small social enterprise, we will be teaching more women to code than go through the entire British higher education system,” says de Alwis. “It’s bonkers.”
Of course, the blame for this malaise cannot be laid exclusively at the door of the higher education system. The problem starts further down the chain, with primary and secondary schools, with parents who do not encourage daughters to consider STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). It is a failure that riles David Perks, headmaster of the East London Science School (ELSS), a free school set up in 2013.
“It’s not hard,” he insists, in his cramped, cluttered office in The Clock Mill – one of three beautiful Georgian mills on the River Lea – where the school is housed before it moves into new premises, and doubles in size, five years from now. “There’s all the stuff about promoting science to girls. I say just do it. It should be compulsory up to the age of 16.”
At the moment, in STEM subjects, children are only required to take maths and a combined science GCSE. “That’s how little you can get away with. But the chances of you going anywhere with that are nil,” says Perks with derision, pushing a box out of the way to clear some space (it turns out to contain a Celestron Astromaster 130EQ Telescope, kit for the new astronomy GCSE – “Not even Westminster [the public school] offers that,” he laughs.
When Perks began setting up the ELSS in 2012, not a single student from the boroughs of Tower Hamlets or Newham went on to study medicine at university. That’s not because they wouldn’t, it’s because they couldn’t: not one pupil across the two boroughs was pursuing the science A-levels required. Not one.
Today, all children in years 7 and 8 at ELSS study computer science, which has elements of robotics, graphics, coding, and electronics. Some 50 per cent then go on to do it at GCSE. All pupils must do the sciences – physics, chemistry and biology – as separate subjects at GCSE. Craft, design and technology – known as CDT – has been scrapped (Perks: “It’s all making cardboard boxes – a total joke.”) All the girls do physics. “And they are very confident doing it,” says Perks. “They don’t have to be super bright but they must work hard. If they do they will succeed.”
This, it seems, is the crucial point. Science and maths are perceived as being hard subjects. And the educational establishment in the last decade stands accused of diverting students from hard subjects. David Perks himself, as long ago as 2006, set out this charge in a book called: What is Science Education for?
There had been, he wrote, an “underestimation of the capabilities of students, and a desire to protect them from failure, leading to the breaking down of subjects into bite-sized chunks of digestible information at the expense of a deeper appreciation of the whole”.
The result has been catastrophic, according to Stefan Allesch-Taylor, who in 2016 was appointed the first professor of the practice of entrepreneurship at King’s College London, and now mentors students with business ideas. “For the last generation you get a medal for coming last. That is a cancer that will ultimately kill us,” he says.