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Tuesday 26 March 2024

Computers, Education and the Conservatives

Conservative governments are non-interventionist. They do not like the state to run anything. They spent the 1980s and 1990s selling off the country’s assets and giving away the proceeds. It continues today in their unwillingness to pay for public services or regulate things properly. Some of them would privatise health and education if they could get away with it. That is why, if my health holds out, I will not be voting Conservative at the next election. I will see the bastards* go to hell before I do. 

And yet, in the 1980s, they did intervene. A 1978 television documentary, ‘Now the Chips are Down’, made clear how woefully unprepared Britain was for the silvery white heat of the computer revolution. It scared the Thatcher government so much that they funded a number of costly initiatives. Two in particular stood out for me.  

A few of the many programmes in the BBC Computer Literacy Archive

In one, the BBC was recruited to raise awareness of the skills needed. It led to the ‘Computer Literacy Project’, which ran from 1982 to 1989. It was linked to the specially commissioned ‘BBC Micro’, which was taken up by many homes and most schools, with over a million sold.

In the other, the ‘Microelectronics Education Programme’, massive amounts of money were spent putting computers in schools, setting up and funding resource centres, and training teachers. Politicians boasted that Britain led the world in “equipping the children of today with the skills of tomorrow.”    

Did it actually achieve anything, or was it bluster and spin?

At least it got my new career off the ground. After escaping from accountancy into a dream job as a university researcher, I knew as much about these new concepts and technologies as anyone. It would be hard to overstate how immersed, obsessed even, I was in this bright new world of colour and light.

I recently discovered that the television programmes, and more, are freely online in the ‘BBC Computer Literacy Archive’. It has the 1978 documentary which set things off (still informative 45 years later), and Dominic Sandbrook’s wonderfully evocative reflection on the social changes of the nineteen-eighties (not only computers). Incredibly, one programme even shows my own small part in this.  

Watching again now, I am struck by how aware we were of the social questions posed by what was about to come. How would people spend their time in a world with less work? How should wealth be shared across society? It is not turning out as well as it might.

Most fascinating for me is the series ‘The Learning Machine’ (1985), about computers in education, the area in which I worked. Here, once again, are the names and faces I knew and discussed things with at workshops and conferences, such as the main writer and presenter, Tim O’Shea.

He was scathing of the Microelectronics Education Programme, which, he said, had foisted cheap, underpowered computers and poor software upon parents and schools. The attractive message about improving the quality of education, disguised what was really on politicians’ minds: the job market, supporting British industry, and making education cheaper. Eventually, we might even do away with schools and teachers completely.

The then ubiquitous programming language, Basic, comes in for particular criticism. It encouraged tangled, undecipherable code, leading self-taught home and school users to think they knew how to write software, when, really, their knowledge was badly lacking.

I think Tim was broadly correct, but we were all still trying to understand how to use computers in education, and few teachers had the skills to teach programming. I was taught structured methods and had no difficulty creating reliable, intelligible Basic programs several hundred lines long.

It can also be argued that the initiatives did have benefits, but they were two decades in the making. A generation of youngsters became fascinated by computers, seeding Britain’s successful computer games industry. So, perhaps it did work out well in the end. Tim did well too. He became Principal of the University of Edinburgh.

One other series caught my eye: ‘With a Little Help from the Chip’ (1985), about helping those with special needs. I was astonished, in programme 3, to see a one-minute clip of software I designed and coded, being used in a school for deaf children. I have written about the programs before, but never seen the TV programme. It brought back all the satisfactions of going into schools to observe and collect data. 

Do you ever wonder, were it possible, whether you would happily go back to an earlier point in your life? I would, to this time for certain. And I would jump at the chance of another forty years. Most of all, it was an innocent, optimistic time, focused on what we were doing rather than the unrest and disruption taking place. We were trying to make the world a better place. We could do with more of that now. 

* A name used by Margaret Thatcher for Eurosceptic right-wing Conservatives. 


  1. I don't know that I would want to go back in my life, but I sure do miss innocence and optimism. Those lovely words seem to belong to another time.

    1. We seem to be focused more on negative matters these days, of which there are many.

  2. So you will be voting Reform like me then Tasker?🙂 I call them the Tory SDP. They will help Labour get into power. Thatcher gave 3 million poor souls national long term unemployment holidays in the eighties.

    1. "Bastards" was a technical term used by Margaret Thatcher for the kind of Conservative MPs most likely to join Reform.
      Some tech millionaires in America believe AI will create so much wealth inequality they are buying private island and fortifying them, bearing in mind that there is a lot of gun ownership there. The Apple HQ also looks like a fortress.

  3. Hmm.... My computing experience started with Fortran on an Elliot 903 in our physical chemistry lab, needing programmes for analysing data from dipole moment studies as part of my degree Part Ii thesis. That was followed by more Fortran on an ICL 1906A, conformational analysis as part of my PHd project. Fast forward a few years and I was back to Fortran on HP 1000 minis doing statistical analysis for analytical control in a pharmaceutical manufacturer. After that, programming took a back seat to using command languages to automate many processes on IBM AS400 systems, and ending with managing a Windows 2008 server farm and storage area network. Now, I just play with tablets....

    1. Now we're talking! The Elliott 903 was the first real computer I ever used, although not for anything serious. The very same machine is in a collection in North Yorkshire. I wrote about it here:

  4. My first computer experience came about in 1986, when I started at Librarian School. Less than five years later, we were manually typing in ALL data about ALL media at Ludwigsburg's City Library into the new computer system, and half a year after we began that immense task (we are talking more than 200,000 media units here; not just books, but also magazines, cassettes and others), we were up and running with it, switching from our old card-and-stamp based system to what felt like an ultra-modern way of handing out and taking back of media at the counter.
    I enjoyed those times, and although I never learnt any programming language, I always had a basic understanding of how it all worked.

    Apart from that, I would like to go back to a time when we really were optimistic about the world in general, and Germany in particular. Yes, there was unemployment, and AIDS was spreading. But there was also a genuine feeling about Europe being on a good way, about tolerance and respect in society generally.
    As one of my colleagues once put it when he told us of his son doing a project about the Oeresund Bridge at school, there was a time when we built to connect, not to separate.

    1. That says it well: to connect not to separate. Things were never perfect, but I fear that the best of times may have gone, although I hope not.
      Millions of people must each have spent thousands of hours digitising data and information, either by typing or scanning it in.

  5. The past often seems a more attractive prospect than the present and, certainly, the future. I wouldn't go back and I would love to be able to forecast the technological future.

    1. Some predictions among the programmes in the archive are frightening.
      I think I would go back just to have those years again, back even to the time of my profile picture, especially if I could take back the ability to make my own choices and resist peer and social pressures.

  6. Well my entry into computers was through my son in the 1990's, who fell for them hook, line and sinker and has made a living from them through his adult life. I remember him at school after a diagnose of diabetes creating a programme for reading his blood sugar levels. So yes I think the early training of our children in computer science is vitally important.
    I do so remember those early computers with their funny games and the day when the boys connected two computers, only for one to be attacked by a virus and the letters started to tumble off the screen, sliding down, so primitive to today's attacks.
    I think we have lost hope in the present day, battered on all sides by negative news. But I think it is our job as seniors to be hopeful and optimistic and allow our children to fight for what is right.

    1. I have always said that the best way to learn about computers and computer programming is to want to do something with them, such as the blood sugar program, rather than trying to learn through artificial exercises that set problems you are not interested in.
      We seem to be in danger of forgetting what makes life civilised, such as being creative, interested in things and setting goals for ourselves.

  7. You are so right Tasker. I was Senior Mistress in an inner-city Comp for the last few years of my teaching life. Ill-prepared for this moder life indeed. I retired at 50. I am sure if I went into school now I would hardly recogise it - but I would hazard a guess that I would still be sad to see so much there is still lacking. Why have things got so far behind? Would I like my life again in school? No. I am on end of life care and happy to watch my life fade away. But I watch young folk pass my window, heads glued to their phones, not observing life around them. Is that the way the world is going? If so then I shall not be sorry to leave it.

    1. As you know, I'm staring at the inevitable too. They are parts of my life I would not want to go through again, but if that was a condition of having the others again then I would.
      The obsession with mobile phones takes people over. It prevents reflection. It makes people follow others' agendas. It makes people dissatisfied.

  8. Demonising the state was a clever Conservative strategy.
    Remember all those op-ed pieces in the Daily Mail, warning
    us about the 'dead hand' of the state ?
    I once left a mild comment on a blog (Catholic Conservative)
    following the death of Fidel Castro.
    I reminded the blogger that welfare was not a Communist
    A right-wing American commenter described welfare as a sinister
    system, like Caesar giving bread to the poor.
    I said that a bishop in the Church of England coined the term.
    Generational poverty could not be solved by the market alone.
    This was why Clement Attlee walked away from the Tories and
    joined the Labour Party.
    Keir Starmer has to convince working-class English Tories
    to do the same.

    1. You can't say it better than Marie Tidball. Born without hands. Candidate for Penistone and Stocksbridge. Local girl. See My Story on

  9. Thanks. I shall follow up your lead on Marie Tidball.
    David Skelton's polemic on post-tribal politics is in paperback :
    *The New Snobbery - Taking on Modern Elitism and Empowering
    the Working Class*.
    Mr Skelton argues for a kind of reborn Conservatism
    (I won't hold my breath) and skewers the supercilious types
    who called Brexit voters stupid.
    I would try to persuade him of the importance of unions and
    free collective bargaining.
    Yet I was reminded of that remark of Hitchens :
    *The Tories don't love the country and Labour don't love
    the working class.*

    1. I bet you can reel off the Dewey Decimal catalogue numbers, too.

  10. My own education was devoid of computer technology and so were the first few years of my teaching career. I have never received any training whatsoever in relation to computer use and yet as my career drew to a close I was using computer technology all the time in my classroom. Interactive whiteboards meant that sunlight had to be kept out of classrooms which, you might say, is a rather poetic notion.

    1. Poetic or symbolic? In going late to university, I would have gone after you finished, when computers were just beginning to be noticed, although I had come across them at work and a close friend was a systems analyst. So I became interested and they underpinned the rest of my working like. But many teachers who got involved, mainly maths and science, were self-taught enthusiasts. I'm referring mainly to development rather than use. Some teachers became knowledgeable, but others caused a lot of problems. Same for the kids, although many knew more than the teachers. It could have been handled better.

    2. Both poetic and symbolic - the two will often interweave.

      I look back and think - What kind of system was that? Where schools began to bring in computers and then networks and removed blackboards in favour of interactive whiteboards without training up the majority of teachers. Whatever I know, I taught myself and it really should not have been that way.


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