Fourth year rise in students sitting A-level computing

This year marks the fourth year there has been an increase in the number of students choosing to take A-level computing, but grade attainments have dropped year-on-year

The number of students choosing to sit A-level computing has been increasing over the past four years, according to statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications.

In 2022, 15,693 students chose to sit the A-level computing exam, an 11.27% increase from 13,829 the previous year.

Though students were unable to sit physical exams in 2020 due to pandemic shutdowns, there were still more computing A-level candidates than in 2019, increasing from 11,124 in 2019 to 12,426 the following year.

Gareth Stockdale, CEO of Micro:bit Educational Foundation, said: “Computing has established itself as a core subject at A-level, with more students choosing to study it than French and English Language. It’s continuing to grow too, with a 17.6% increase in student numbers this year. 

“This is fantastic progress for a subject that was only introduced to the curriculum in 2014, opening up rewarding careers to more people and giving a much-needed boost to the country’s digital skills.”

Not only is the technology sector lacking in skilled workers, but there is also a lack of women, with the number of women making up technical roles in the UK only increasing by 1% in the past five years.

When it comes to the gender split of pupils choosing to sit A-level computing exams, female students now account for almost 15% of candidates, an increase of 15.8% year-on-year, from 2,031 in 2021 to 2,352 this year.

Which path to tech?

Figures from BCS suggest “record numbers” of students will be starting computer science degrees this year, increasing by 7% when compared to 2021.

The number of women joining these courses, however, is still too low – BCS stated 4,830 of the 24,900 people starting these courses in September are women, a similar story as with A-Levels.

Charlene Hunter MBE, CEO of Coding Black Females and a member of BCS’ Influence Board, said: “It’s great to see young women choosing to take computer science in record numbers, but we can’t be complacent at all.

“In a world where big challenges like climate change and cyber security require highly skilled technologists, we need ever-greater numbers of people from a diverse range of backgrounds to see computer science as an ethical, aspirational career choice.”

It’s not all about moving on to degree level – Nathaniel Okenwa, developer evangelist at Twilio, said that although A-Level results might feel “make or break”, there are many different paths into technology careers, so those who were affected by the shift back towards exam-based testing have other options.

Okenwa said: “There will always be those left disappointed by their results. However, it’s important for them to remember that there are many routes into careers in tech, other than university.

“The self-taught movement is one such way to get into tech, with options ranging from bootcamps to hackathons to networking and employer-led initiatives, there are many different avenues to explore, regardless of your grades.”

He also pointed out the importance of soft skills, stating that many of his colleagues come from non-traditional backgrounds. “I think that some of the most important skills you have are the ones that people bring from their unique paths into tech. It’s what sets you apart,” he added.

But girls are still significantly outnumbered by the 13,341 male candidates who chose to take the subject this year – and in many other science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, the number of female candidates decreased this year.

Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Skillsoft, described it as a “disappointing” trend which may indicate the growth of women in tech over the next five years may be equally as slow.

“While the technology industry continues to grow rapidly, a diversity gap remains. Currently, women make up just 17% of the UK tech sector, signalling little growth over the last decade,” she said. “It’s disappointing to see that this trend is set to continue, with this year’s A-level results showing the percentage of girls taking maths, further maths and physics has decreased this year.”

The Covid-19 pandemic meant that 2020 and 2021 grades were calculated without students taking paper-based exams using a mixture of data including mock exam results, coursework grades, teacher predictions and centre assessment grades submitted by schools and colleges.

This year, students found themselves back in the exam room, with many speculating this is what has led to a year-on-year drop in grade attainment.

There was a year-on-year drop in every level of grade attainment this year. For example, only 14.5% of students achieved an A* grade this year, whereas 19.9% achieved the same result in 2021, and 76.5% of students achieved at least a C grade in 2022, as opposed to 87.2% the previous year.

But many are claiming the real comparison should be between this year’s grades and those achieved in 2019, before the pandemic, when students were sitting traditional exams.

When comparing 2022 and 2019, those achieving higher grades has grown significantly, from 3.4% in 2019 to 14.5% in 2022 for A* grades, and from 63.3% in 2019 to 76.5% in 2022 for those achieving at least a C or above.

Some tech industry professionals are encouraging pupils to look beyond their A-level grades and, if necessary, pursue other routes into tech than university.

Kelly Nicholls, CEO of TechSkills, a TechUK company, said: “Whilst a degree route is great if you achieve the entry requirements, there are many other ways into a tech career. For example, a degree apprenticeship is an exciting, highly motivational earn-as-you-learn alternative with no university fees.

“The tech industry wants new talent across all sectors to fill a broad range of job roles. You don’t need to be an experienced or talented tech person to access tech courses. If you have the passion and drive to learn new skills, you can thrive in the subject. We look forward to a more diverse cohort of students choosing a career in tech in the future.”

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