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Professor Simon Peyton Jones: oration

Read Professor Chris Budd's oration on Professor Simon Peyton Jones for the honorary degree of Doctor of Education in July 2017.


Profile photograph of Professor Simon Peyton Jones
Professor Simon Peyton Jones

Vice-Chancellor, it is my pleasure to propose Simon Peyton Jones for an honorary doctorate of education, as he has led major developments in computer science and computer science education in the UK.

In the 1970s, Simon was part of a growing group of school children and students, including myself, who were taught programming. These were exciting times! However, in the 1980s, the teaching of computer programming in schools went into decline. This was largely due to the increasing sophistication of computers which relegated programming to the background and instead school children were taught IT skills, such as how to use a word processor and a spreadsheet. This was a sad story for two reasons. Firstly, students were denied the intellectual challenge and pleasure of creating their own computer programs. Secondly, by denying students the opportunity to learn how to program, we were potentially robbing the UK of a vital skills base. This was a gloomy story, or it would have been, were it not for the extraordinary work of Simon Peyton Jones, who has completely transformed the way that computing is taught in schools and, by doing this, is transforming the lives of a whole generation of school students.

Simon graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1980 and spent much of his time in the Computing Lab. He then spent two years in industry before returning to academia, first at UCL and then at Glasgow, where he spent nine years as Professor of Computer Science. In 1998, seeking both a change and new challenges, he moved to Microsoft in Cambridge and has been there ever since. He keeps close links with Glasgow, where he is a visiting professor. In 2016, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and he is a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. He has also taken on the challenge of being married to a priest in the Church of England. As the son of a priest myself, I can confirm that this is a hugely demanding job in itself.

Simon has made his reputation in the use of deep (mathematical) theory in the design and implementation of practical computer languages. This is exemplified in perhaps his greatest contribution to computer science, the development of the functional programming language Haskell. Functional programming is a style of building the structure of programs that treats computation as the evaluation of mathematical functions. Functional programs tend to be much shorter than their counterparts, leading to enhanced productivity of programmers. Haskell is a special example of a lazy functional language. Lazy doesn't refer to the author of the language, rather than to the way that it evaluates its expressions, which opens up new opportunities for modular programming. These and other features have led to Haskell being widely adopted and has led to a change in the way that people think about programming computers.

However, it is in the field of computer science education that Simon has made a possibly even greater contribution. He is chair of the Computing at School (CAS) initiative, which he founded, together with a few colleagues, in 2007. CAS was at the centre of the 2014 reform of the English computing curriculum. Simon played a leading role in the influential CAS Curriculum for Computer Science, and was invited to chair the working group that wrote the new national curriculum for computing. As a direct result of Simon’s work, computer science is now a foundational subject that every child learns from primary school onwards. Not content to have started this initiative, Simon is playing a leading role in supporting and encouraging it, including talking to sister organisations abroad and working hard on the Royal Society’s education project. The latest project that he is leading is Project Quantum, which will help computing teachers to check their students’ progress, by providing free access to online assessment.

Above all, he encourages and inspires teachers to think creatively about the way that they teach computer science at their schools. I can testify directly what a profound difference he has made to their teaching and thus to their students. Simon’s energy, foresight and expertise has placed the UK at the forefront of computer science education.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor Simon Peyton Jones who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Education, honoris causa.

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