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The number of girls taking GCSE level computer science has fallen since the computing curriculum’s introduction in 2014, according to research.
A study by the University of Roehampton found the number of girls taking key stage four level computing subjects was 30,000 less in 2017 than when the computing curriculum was first introduced to increase digital skills in the UK in 2014.
Peter Kemp, senior lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton, said: “Our report shows we’re still a long way short of addressing the UK’s digital skills gap. All schools ought to be doing much more to encourage (or perhaps just allow) all their students to have a go at GCSE computer science.”
In many cases, the number of girls taking computing subjects depends on the region the school is in, but according to research found across the UK, there are 382 mixed-gender schools where all of the students taking computer science at GCSE level are male.
London was more likely to have more girls taking GCSE computer science, with over a quarter of students taking computer science and 13% of A-Level students in this region being female.
The number of people choosing computer science at GCSE and A-Level are growing, but very slowly, with only 11.9% of students choosing the subject at GCSE and 2.7% taking the subject at A-Level.
Of girls who are attending secondary school, only 34.2% are taking a computing related key stage four qualification, compared to 51.2% male students.
The research found those who are most likely to take computer science at GCSE level are “academically strong,” from an affluent background, and male.
Roehampton’s research suggested one of the reasons uptake of these subjects may be low is because whether or not schools offer these subjects is “patchy” with computer science more likely to be on offer in grammar schools than in comprehensive and independent schools.
For example, for computer science at A-Level, fewer than 15% of schools and colleges meet the Department for Education’s viable A-Level class size, and many schools and colleges are concerned that they do not have the funds to continue to offer computer science at A-Level.
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Previous research by the university found computer science qualification often rest upon prior achievements which “disproportionally impact poorer students”.
“Additionally, grammar schools, which typically have very low intakes of poorer students, are more likely to offer computer science than comprehensive schools,” said Kemp. “If we are serious about computing for all, and the meritocratic nature of the computing industry, we need to give students from all backgrounds the opportunity to study a range of IT qualifications, including computer science.”
But Roehampton’s research also pointed the finger at the discontinuation of the ICT qualification as a reason fewer girls or students from poorer backgrounds or ethnic minorities are taking computing subjects.
For example the research found for Chinese students, who are more likely to take computing subjects than students of other minority ethnicities, 12% of Chinese students take ICT GCSEs, whereas 26% of Chinese students take computer science at GCSE level.
Issues for diversity
But for black students, who are proportionally underrepresented in computer science at GCSE and A-Level, the percentage of students who choose to take computer science or ICT GCSEs is the same at around 10% each.
The report states that because “computer science and ICT are quite different qualifications, and thus are taken by quite different students”, diversity of those taking computing subjects once ICT is completely removed from the curriculum with drop because ICT tends to attract more students who are less academically strong, from less affluent backgrounds and appeals more to females because it’s not seen to be as “difficult” as computer science.
Many younger girls have stated in the past that they are deterred from taking science, technology, engineering and maths subjects because they are too hard.
In 2017, boys outperformed girls in A-Level computer science, despite girls performing better at A-Level ICT, but at A-Level, students who take computer science do not perform as well as in other subjects.
Students who choose the subjects will typically be good at maths, but not particularly strong academically and many who choose to take the subject are male and on their school’s special education need (SEN) register.
In some cases whether or not students choose to take computing subjects later in education is down to the stereotypes surrounding the types of roles available in the technology industry, with girls often preferring more creative roles.
Computer science being overlooked
There are more female students choosing to take more creative digital subjects such as iMedia than they are computer science, according to Roehampton’s research.
“IT and creative computing courses remain much more popular than computer science amongst girls at secondary school,” said Kemp. “Even though the number of girls taking GCSE computer science has been increasing since 2014, this looks highly unlikely to compensate for the large reduction in female students that will result in the withdrawal of the ICT qualification next year.”
To address some of these issues, Roehampton suggested initiatives such as a review of the long-term impact of completely scrapping ICT from the curriculum, investigating how to promote inclusion in computing to increase participation from people from minority ethnic backgrounds, and research into how introducing subjects such as “creative computing” could increase the number of women who choose computing subjects.
Kemp suggested that “in the longer term” a curriculum needs to be developed that caters to learning a broad range of computing skills as opposed to “just the computer science bits”, and claimed there is no real replacement for the ICT qualification which is being phased out.