Time spent teaching computing subjects drops 36% over past six years

The amount of time spent teaching computing and ICT in secondary schools has dropped since 2012, and the number of GCSE students choosing to take computing qualifications is in decline

The number of hours spent teaching computing and ICT in secondary schools in England has been falling over the past six years, according to research.

A study by the University of Roehampton found the number of hours spent teaching computing and ICT subjects in secondary schools dropped 36% between 2012 and 2017.

At GCSE level, the number of hours spent teaching computing and ICT dropped 47% over the same period.

Peter Kemp, senior lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton, said the number of hours spent teaching computing-based subjects will continue to drop as ICT is phased out. Many believe the focus on computer science as opposed to other digital subjects will cause girls and other underrepresented groups to steer clear of taking computing at a higher level.

“Overall, with GCSE computer science student numbers levelling out and the removal of GCSE ICT in 2018, a further decline in the total numbers of hours of computing taught and qualifications taken seems highly likely for 2019 and beyond,” said Kemp.

While the number of students taking computer science at GCSE level rose slightly from 12.1% in 2017 to 12.4% in 2018, the overall number of students taking computing and ICT GCSEs overall fell by 45% between 2017 and 2018 – a drop of 144,000.

The computing curriculum was introduced in 2014 to teach students in the UK between the ages of five and 14 about computing concepts such as coding and computational thinking.

Once the computing curriculum was introduced, schools began phasing out the older ICT qualifications which are more based on teaching students how to use software such as spreadsheets.

Because of this, students who choose not to take computer science at GCSE level are likely not be taught any computing subject past the age of 14.

“The overall picture is that young people are now less likely to access any computing education than they were before computer science was introduced,” said Kemp.

“If computing increasingly means computer science, it looks likely that hundreds of thousands of students, particularly girls and poorer students, will be disenfranchised from a digital education over the next few years.”

Some schools that previously offered GCSE computer science chose not to continue to offer it in 2018 – 8.2% of schools that offered GCSE computer science in 2017 stopped offering it in 2018.

Almost 20% of the schools that stopped offering GCSE computer science in 2018 were girls’ comprehensive schools.

As pointed out by Kemp, the government is trying to invest in computing education in England and the UK more widely. It recently announced it would be launching a Centre for Computing Education focused on training teachers to better deliver science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, as well as encourage more students to take computer science at GCSE and A-Level.

But many believe the curriculum is too focused on coding, is not fit for purpose, and is too inflexible to adapt at the same pace of technology adoption.

Helena Schwenk, global analyst relations and market insights manager at data analytics firm Exasol, said there has been an increase in people choosing STEM degrees, but the future of STEM skills are “dependent on the right educational approach”.

“Following 2018’s A-Level results, we analysed UCAS data and found that in the past 10 years those applying for STEM degrees has increased by 36.8%. This was encouraging,” she said.

“There have been various government-industry initiatives, and these have clearly been paying off, but it is sobering reading this morning and more needs to be done to prevent a divide between the digital dos and the digital don’ts.”

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