Digital skills are as important as learning to read and write.

A leading digital technology teacher says the education system has been slow to recognise the importance of computer coding and warns it will be "disastrous" if New Zealand were to fall behind in the skill.

Andrew Reid, an information and communications technology (ICT) and computer science teacher at ACG Strathallan in Auckland, says coding - the way computers and robots are told what to do - is becoming more important as a subject in schools.

He believes those proficient in the skill - also known as computer programming - will have a competitive edge in getting jobs in an increasingly automated future.

Reid, who has been programming computers for over 30 years here and in Britain, says we have no idea what new jobs will be created in the next 50 years. "But," he says, "coding is a generic skill that can help make any worker more effective; it is the new language of the global economy and is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.


"Although coding has been around for years," he says, "it has taken a while for the education system to recognise its importance. It would be disastrous if New Zealand were to fall behind in this skill because we are trying to offer services across the world, not just locally."

ACG Education, which operates five independent schools in New Zealand, is believed to be the only school group in the country currently teaching the subject to all students, including those from year one to year 10.

Although it is due to be introduced into the general New Zealand curriculum from next year, we lag behind other countries like Britain, where coding has been compulsory for all students aged five to 16 since 2014.

New Zealand technology industry body, NZTech, believes the education system is not evolving fast enough and needs to have a greater focus on enabling all students to acquire digital skills to help them succeed in the modern workplace.

Year 13 student at ACG Parnell College, Zach Preston, demonstrates the power of coding with his innovative device to measure the height of water in water tanks.

Zach Preston | 2015 Codeworx Winner | Water Worx from Orion Health on Vimeo.

This is seen as even more important because, as many experts agree, the age of robots is coming. A recent World Economic Forum report predicts up to five million jobs could be lost to robots by 2020.

A lot already exist like Hadrian X, the brick laying robot. In one hour Hadrian can lay 1000 bricks, a task two people could expect to take a day or longer to do.

Or Tally, the robot roaming supermarket aisles ensuring goods are properly stacked, placed in shelves and priced; or the robot carrying out discovery, a pre-trial gathering of evidence lawyers do to prepare cases.

In the US, a 2011 discussion by a National Science Foundation panel of 'thought leaders', published by the International Society for Technology in Education, says although the human mind is a powerful problem-solver, computers and other digital tools have the ability to extend the power of human thought.

"We all need to understand how, when and where computers can help us solve problems...this is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just computer scientists," it says.

Reid agrees. "When you code," he says, "you are writing a set of instructions to tell a computer how to solve a problem. A computer can perform two billion calculations per second, so if you understand how to give it the right instructions it can do lots for us and we become more efficient and productive."

Margot Phillipps, a teacher at ACG Sunderland and chair of the Computer Science Teachers Association's international committee, refers to coding as part of computational thinking, or the understanding of how a computer does what it is intended to do.

She believes many people miss out on the benefits of technology because they don't understand it: "We don't know where technology is going, but if you don't stay current you potentially lose access to a whole range of services in the future."

Phillipps agrees it is similar to learning English where not everybody who does ends up writing novels. Likewise not everyone who learns coding will go on to make a career, but they will have an understanding and be less hesitant and fearful of using technology.

She says it is a misconception all young people are technological whizz-kids. "In my experience when you start teaching them you realise they know nothing; they can use it, but they don't understand how it works.

"Some kids love it, they absolutely eat it up while others find it challenging. But in the future if you don't know what goes on in the back of a computer you will not be a well-educated person."