We should be teaching our kids to code

IMAGINE teaching every child in this country how to program a computer - from age 5. When you think about it, it is odd that we don't.

Don't get me wrong. I know we have computers in the classroom. The kids all get a go and some of them get the bug.

But shouldn't we be teaching them to speak the language? If we're looking for ways to really transform our economy and create well-paid jobs then equipping the entire population with the basic skills to participate in the technological revolution doesn't seem like a bad idea.

It probably sounds overly ambitious, but for many undeveloped countries so does teaching every child to read. In fact the concept of universal literacy is not much more than 100 years old. New Zealand led the way.

We churn out highly literate citizens, now it is time to churn out computer-literate ones.I can't understand any of it. JavaScript, HTML - it's all Greek to me. No matter how techy I feel playing around on a computer or downloading an app, I'm just a user - not a creator.

The ability to write a computer program is one of the few skills that will guarantee you employment anywhere in the world. I hope my kids will learn how to do it. Whatever direction they head - business, arts science - it is hard to imagine a vocation where the ability to code wouldn't be a serious asset.

Certainly, when young people ask me how to make it in the media I tell them: learn to code - the media companies will snap you up.

The tools are there already. There are all manner of cutesy coding apps that are designed as games to get even the youngest children thinking in the right ways to develop computer literacy. Of course we'd need to give every kid access to a computer. That's really not such a stretch nowadays. And we'd need to equip teachers to teach this stuff. But in the first instance, for the beginners, the teaching apps are pretty simple, the teachers can learn them with the kids.

Our tech sector is already pretty solid for a country our size. We punch well above our weight. The Economist last week published a list of nations, ranked by the size of their three largest internet companies (by market cap). With Xero, Diligent and Trade Me, New Zealand came in 15th, ahead of France, Ireland, India and Brazil and only just behind Australia, Finland and Canada. The US remains the world's superpower.

We might find that if we create a domestic market we could produce some pretty amazing educational software that would enable our children to learn to code in the classroom. We could sell that to the world and create an export industry while we're at it.

What's needed of course is the will and the vision to implement this kind of educational policy.

Sceptical readers will find holes to poke in this plan. I'm no tech genius and I'm certainly not an educational expert. But that's why getting tech geniuses into positions to influence policy is so important. And that's where a chief technology officer for New Zealand comes in.

We need someone who has the technological vision to test ideas like the one I've pitched here and look at all the options for transforming this country's economy for the 21st century.

Frankly, there isn't anyone in Parliament now with the technological nous. But there might be a few politicians with the vision - if we give them a nudge.

The economy has been well managed and we are now in good shape to try a few things. We need to. Export revenue from one or two big primary industries can maintain a good standard of living but it won't be enough to create the urban jobs our children will want to do in the coming decades.

We need to accelerate the growth of our tech sector. There are plenty of arguments for keeping the government bureaucracy away from the business sector. But there are few who'd argue the Government shouldn't play a key role in setting education policy.

The great thing about New Zealand is that it is really small. This country is capable of achieving great positive change.

Let's be the country that sets the global standard for computer literacy. And then see what happens. Why not? The risks seem low and the benefits enormous.