Computing A-level rises in popularity, despite drop in overall A-level candidates

While the number of people choosing to participate in A-levels has fallen, computing candidates are on the rise

The number of students taking science and technology A-levels has risen year-on-year, despite A-levels dropping in popularity overall.

The number of people choosing to take computing at A-level has risen for the second year in a row, and the three science subjects – biology, chemistry and physics – have also grown in popularity.

But maths suffered a drop in the number of candidates, and A-level exams overall had fewer participants in 2019 compared to last year.

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates (TLA) & Global Tech Advocates, said the school curriculum needs to evolve to cope with shifting industry expectations and the impact Brexit may have on the availability of tech talent.

“The increase in students taking computing is a positive step, but the ever-wide gender gap in enrolment remains a concern,” he said. “A tech industry that is overwhelmingly dominated by white males is not sustainable, and with the threat of a no-deal Brexit creating more pressure to nurture home-grown tech talent, diversity is crucial to its future.

Computing A-levels in the UK saw a year-on-year increase in both male and female students, from 10,286 in 2018 to 11,124 in 2019.

The number of female computing students increased to 1,475 in 2019, up from 1,211 in 2018, continuing the upwards trend in the number of girls taking computing over the past five years.

But despite the number of girls choosing to take computing A-levels doubling since 2013, the male-to-female ratio is still heavily weighted towards male students, with only 1,475 girls choosing the subject this year, compared with 9,649 boys.

“It’s especially encouraging to see the proportion of women taking [computing] has doubled since 2013,” said Oliver Presland, vice-president of global product management at hybrid IT managed services provider Ensono.

“However, it’s worth pointing out that in computing, the gender balance is still highly skewed towards men, with 9,649 and 1,475 [A-level] entries for males and females, respectively. More will still need to be done in this regard to encourage women into the space,” he said.

The number of people achieving an A* in the subject rose slightly from last year – 3.4% of candidates who sat the exam got an A*, and 40.3% of candidates who sat the exam achieved an A* to B grade – a figure that has increased over the past few years from 37.6% in 2017, to 39.3% in 2018.

Girls achieved better results than boys for the second year in a row, although the percentage achieving the highest marks dropped slightly from last year.

In 2019, 3.7% of girls achieved an A*, compared with only 3.4% of boys, and 41.6% of girls achieved at least a B or higher as opposed to 40.1% of boys.

As for ICT, the number of students taking the subject is finally petering off as the subject comes to an end, with only 1,572 students taking it this year. Of those who did, girls outperformed boys in higher grades, with 45% girls achieving a B or higher, compared with 34.6% boys.

ICT as a school subject has been dying a slow death since the introduction of the new computing curriculum in 2014.

This shift towards a focus on more relevant skills needed for an evolving technology sector is a step in the right direction, according to TLA’s Shaw, who claimed the drop and eventual demise of ICT as a subject is a good time to “align education more closely with the needs of industry”.

Ajay Vij, senior vice-president and financial services industry head at Infosys, pointed out the future of the industry is not all about technology subjects, and while digital literacy is important, creative subjects are needed too.

“We see critical value in the arts, creativity and digital humanities – even for technology-led businesses,” he said. “The unique intersection between technology and creativity is quickly becoming a highly desirable area of focus amongst our clients. As such, the UK education sector needs to demonstrate commitment towards developing curricula that cultivates both digital and creative skills alike.”

“We see critical value in the arts, creativity and digital humanities – even for technology-led businesses. The UK education sector needs to demonstrate commitment towards developing curricula that cultivates both digital and creative skills alike”
Ajay Vij, Infosys

As for other science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, biology, chemistry and physics all saw an increase not only in the number of overall candidates, but also in the number of girls taking these subjects – for the first time, 2019 saw more girls than boys choosing these qualifications.

“For the first time, the number of girls taking STEM subjects outnumbered boys,” said Nimmi Patel, programme manager for skills, talent and diversity at TechUK. “This is a real testament to all the work being done to encourage female students to participate in STEM from an early age. It’s good to see we are moving in the right direction, but with boys still significantly outnumbering girls in computing, there is more that can be done.”

Maths, however, suffered a blow, with fewer girls and boys choosing to take maths or further maths year-on-year.

Overall, some 10,775 fewer people chose to take A-levels this year than last year, with numbers dropping from 811,777 in 2018 to 801,002 in 2019.

There are other routes into careers that do not involve taking A-levels – for example many believe apprenticeships are a good route in technical careers as they allow candidates to work and learn at the same time.

The new apprenticeship levy is one of the ways the government has been working on developing the education system to plug skills gaps across the UK that are likely to be exacerbated by Brexit.

In July 2019, the government announced it would be making changes to level 4 and 5 qualifications, typically taken between A-levels and university degrees, in a bid to offer young people technically focused education as an alternative to more traditional routes into careers.

Around £10m has been invested in an education technology strategy aimed at making teachers’ workloads easier, and a focus has been put on helping train computing teachers, as well as developing more technically focused T-Levels as alternative education routes.

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