Number of students taking A-level computing rose in 2021

Numbers of both male and female students sitting A-Level computing exams rose in 2021, although there is still a long way to go to encourage more girls into tech

This year saw the number of both male and female students taking A-level computing in the UK increase when compared to 2020.

In 2021, 13,829 students in the UK in total took computing at A-level, an increase from 12,428 entrants the previous year.

But the subject is still more popular with boys than with girls – only 2,031 females took the computing A-level in the summer of 2021, compared with 11,798 boys.

This has been an ongoing trend over the past few years. The number of female computing students increased to 1,797 in 2020, up from 1,475 in 2019, and 1,211 in 2018.

While there have been year-on-year (YoY) increases in the number of girls (and boys) choosing to take the subject, the number of girls taking computing in 2021 – as well as other science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)-based subjects such as maths, further maths and physics – is noticeably lower than the number of boys.

Nathaniel Okenwa, developer evangelist at Twilio, said: “Although there’s been an increase in women taking computing A-level and achieving top grades this year compared with 2020, there’s still some way to go to get to a more even footing.

“The provisional AS-level results suggest that there’s actually been a drop in female entrants for this year, which is a setback. Schools and businesses should be thinking about ways to get girls excited about STEM subjects, because it’s in everyone’s interest to have a more balanced and diverse workforce.”

When it comes to other STEM subjects, mathematics saw more boys than girls take the subject this year, and the same goes for exams in further maths sat in the UK in 2021.

Science subjects tell a slightly different story, with boys significantly outnumbering girls in physics A-level, but more girls than boys opting to take chemistry and biology.

There has been an ongoing battle to encourage more young women to take STEM subjects and to consider computing careers.

While BCS analysis of A-level computing over the past five years has found a 350% increase in the number of girls taking the subject since 2015, the figures clearly still show a significant gap between the number of boys and girls taking the subject.

There are several reasons young women steer away from STEM subjects, including stereotypes surrounding the types of people who go into STEM or the skills needed for STEM roles, and a lack of role models in STEM positions.

Julia Adamson, director of education at BCS, hopes the gradual increase in girls taking computing A-level and enrolling in computer science degrees may signal an increase in diverse workforces in the future.

“We’re particularly pleased to see rising numbers of female students choosing to study computing at A-level and as a degree, and hope this will lead to an increasingly diverse workforce in tech industries,” she said.

Despite lower numbers, girls once again outperformed boys in computing, with a higher percentage of girls receiving higher grades than boys.

For girls, 25.7% of those who entered the computing exam achieved an A* result, an increase from 17.8% last year; whereas only 18.9% of boys achieved an A* level grade, an increase from 13.1% last year.

More girls than boys also achieved A and B grades in the subject – 52.6% of female candidates achieved at least an A grade, as opposed to 43.1% of boys; and 76.1% of girls achieved at least a B grade compared with 67.3% of boys.

Overall, 44.5% of computing students achieved at least an A grade, 68.6% achieved at least a B grade, and 87.2% achieved at least a C grade – all increases on the previous year’s results.

For the second year in a row, exams in England were cancelled and grades were decided using a range of other assessment criteria, leaving many wondering if this has skewed results upwards.

But the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which publishes the results each year, claimed that students have had to show “remarkable resilience” throughout the Covid-19 pandemic in order to achieve their results, and it would be “difficult to draw comparisons” to previous year’s results as it is the first time grades have been determined this way.

Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Skillsoft, said: “With exams cancelled for a second year running, 18 months of lockdowns and homeschooling, and the day itself having been brought forward to allow time for students to contest grades – A-level results day undoubtedly looks a little different this year.

“However, behind the usual backdrop of celebrations and commiserations, echoes the shared sentiment: ‘we made it through’.”

Read more about STEM skills

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